What is this game about?
Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr has an intense theme. You (along with your fellow players, should you choose to accept them) are a hospital nurse who is tasked with caring for Billy Kerr, a cantankerous man who is living out his last days, but who isn't quite ready to leave this earth without facing his life's biggest regrets. It's up to you and your medical team to provide him with the care he needs to keep him alive, as well as to gain his trust. As you gain Billy's trust, he will tell you more about his life, allowing you to reconstruct key memories and help him make contact with the people he needs to make his peace with. Eventually, his memories create five timelines comprised of images from Billy's life. The first memory cards you get are hazy, but you are able to tease out clear memories over time.
Mechanically, Holding On focuses on balance. As a nursing staff, will you provide Billy with the medical treatment he needs to keep his condition from deteriorating, or will you provide palliative care in an attempt to get him to confide in you? Providing too little medical care can cause you to lose the game by losing Billy, but you will also need to get the memories required by your scenario before the patient deck runs out. Your main currency in the game is care tokens, which are spent on both medical and memory-gathering tasks. Your other main resource is your staff, but be careful—if you overstress yourself, you end up losing memories, care tokens, and, in some scenarios, the game itself.
How does it play solo?
Holding On is a cooperative game, but it is not truly meant to be played solo. In fact, the "sweet spot" for it is three players, and there are special rules in the rulebook for groups playing with two or four people. However, it is entirely possible to control multiple nurse pawns and play the game on your own. There are some memories that are kept "secret" by the players who acquire them—at least until you all "talk about Billy" at the end of each day—but honestly none of the information is that big of a secret. If you feel a need to discuss Billy's life with someone as you uncover it, you might want to play with others. But I enjoy uncovering stories for myself, and I think it works just fine solo.
There is a lot to admire about Holding On. We all talk a lot about "board games that tell stories," and I am always waiting for a game that offers a new way of doing just that. Holding On has a compelling story, and all of the flavor text about Billy is great. I found myself pushing through the scenarios to get to that next bit of flavor, and I definitely felt a little bereft at the end of the game. (It's not a spoiler to tell you that Billy is going to die.)
However, I was able to enjoy Billy's story in spite of—not because of—the gameplay. The theme is great, the concept is really cool, and theoretically this should have been a home run for me. But honestly, the "game" part of Holding On is a chore. Trying to assign nurses to cover every hospital shift and manage stress makes thematic sense, but it isn't exactly thrilling, at least not for me. Recovering Billy's memories during gameplay was often infuriating. It's not enough to provide palliative care and get partial memories—you also have to take an "inquire" action that allows you to go hunting for clear memories. But your search can be interrupted by event cards, or, worse, you can draw memory cards that don't match the partial memories you've gained. And if they don't match, the clear memory cards get shuffled back into the deck to be discovered another day. This can get very frustrating when you are on the hunt for specific memories.
Holding On is a huge creative effort. I am glad I tried it and I want to see more games that get ambitious and take risks. In the end, though, Billy's story might have been better as a graphic novel. The art that depicts his memories is great. But the game part of Holding On, while it technically works, is not actually enjoyable.
Do I recommend it?
It really depends. If you like experimenting with in-game narratives and this theme is very compelling for you, you might want to give it a shot. The story itself is good. But Holding On is not, in my opinion, entirely successful in its mission to marry a strong story arc with engaging gameplay.
Overall Rating: 2.5
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.