Interview with Michael Fox, Co-Designer of Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr

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Mike and Rory at Gencon in Hall C

Late last year (2017),  I was picking up cold medicine for my sick little guy at Walgreens (drug store) and decided to make an impulse buy, which turned out to be Rory’s Story Cubes.  After returning home and playing five consecutive games that night, I felt like we created a father/son bonding moment I will never forget. I found out just how creative, ambitious, and ridiculous my son can be, just like his dad. Rory’s isn’t the only game that The Creative Hub (now Hub Games) that has gained my attention. Games like Rory’s Story Cubes, Blank!, and Untold: Adventures Await, encourage players of all ages to create their own gaming experience and unlock the sort of juvenile imagination we once had before imagining how to pay off student loan debt. A couple months back, I heard about their upcoming release Holding On: The Troubled life of Billy Kerr. Holding On, seems like a big time departure from their current roster of titles. After a quick chat with the co-designer Michael Fox at Origins Game Fair about the game, I had to follow up and make sure I get the word out. I was lucky enough to track down Michael Fox to share more details about this ambitious game. I want to thank Michael and all of the staff at Hub Games for allowing me to cover Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr.

Jeremy: Tell us a little bit about yourself. We all have an origin story, but I like to know about the experiences that lead to you to being a part of Hub Games.

Michael: I’m Michael Fox, and I’m the in-house designer and community person at Hub Games. I’ve been working in (or at least adjacent to) games for around ten years, having produced the reasonable successful Little Metal Dog Show podcast and reviews site for a long time. I’ve worked for a handful of companies across different sections of the industry, ran my own tiny little games company for a while, and officially joined Hub Games in January 2018. I’ll play pretty much anything that’s put on a table in front of me, but I have to admit that my favourite games are Agricola, Orleans, and the legend that is Sid Sackson’s Acquire. You’ll prise my 1999 Avalon Hill edition from my cold, dead hands.

Jeremy: Can you share a little bit about the Hub Games? I noticed the name change or rebranding and want to find out more details.

Michael: We’re a small team based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, focused on making games that have a little more heart to them. We were originally known as The Creativity Hub, but we changed our name to Hub Games in early 2018. The reason for that was pretty much to close the chapter on our (then) biggest success, Rory’s Story Cubes, after we sold the rights to Asmodee in later 2017. The company originally came about thanks to co-founders Anita Murphy and Rory O’Connor (who’s also my co-designer on Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr), and for years they’ve been promoting and selling Story Cubes and The Extraordinaires around the world with a great deal of success. However, I think they felt the time was right to hand Story Cubes off to a company that could take the product line to another level, and around the same time, I was brought on board to help them switch focus towards tabletop games. The first projects I worked on were Untold: Adventures Await (which is our love letter to Story Cubes in the form of a really accessible RPG) and Blank (our customisable card game). Now, with the release of Holding On, it’s the beginning of a new chapter!

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Jeremy: I love that your games have range and a great example of this is Rory’s Story Cubes. The only limit on fun is the player’s imagination. Are their more titles like this for kids and adults to explore?

Michael: Untold is kind of the bridge from just making up quick tales with Story Cubes to something a little more in-depth. Rather than a speedy task that’s done in a couple of minutes, the Cubes become an engine to drive the creation of a TV show that the players are the stars and directors of – it’s a great collaborative storytelling experience. On the flip side of that, Blank helps players use their imaginations in a very different way – rather than storytelling, it’s all about creating new rules and cards that react and affect things that have already been added into the card game. By involving players in the creation and evolution of a game, they develop a sense of investment that will hopefully bring them back again and again.

 

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Jeremy: What’s your current favorite game in the Hub Games catalog? And why?

Michael: Out of the games we’ve released, I’d probably go for Blank. It’s essentially an intro-level game designer’s toolkit. Initially, it plays like familiar games such as Uno – get rid of the cards in your hand by matching colours and numbers. However, there’s a selection of always-on rule cards that impact each round, and some cards some with Game Effects that trigger if the card is on top of the discard pile. If you win, you get to make a permanent change to the game by customising any card of your choice. Come up with a new rule or effect, sign the card, and you’ve immediately made the game unique – and that’s why I love it so much. If there’s a rule you don’t like, make a card that changes or alters the rule in some way. Want to play Blank in an entirely different way? We’ve had folks turn it into a set-collection euro-style game. There are so many different ways to turn the game into what you want it to be, and I adore seeing the ideas that people come up with. Of course, there’s plenty we’re working on behind the scenes that we’ve not officially announced yet, and I’m really excited to get those new games in front of players too. If folks catch up with us at Gen Con, they may be able to get a sneaky look at what we’re planning!

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Blank is another example of a game where players are only limited by their imagination. Can I make a euro game with these cards?

Jeremy: I was blown away by your upcoming game, Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr after seeing a small portion of the gameplay at Origins. The subject matter is very mature and true to life. Could you explain the concept of the game and a little bit about the mechanics?

Michael: The players act as staff in a medical facility where you head into work one morning and discover that you have a new patient you need to care for. At the beginning of the game, you only know a little bit of information. You know his name is Billy Kerr and that he’s 60 years old, and your notes tell you that he’s had a heart attack on a flight from Sydney, Australia to London, England. His flight was diverted and he was rushed to your hospital, and now it’s your job to look after him. It quickly becomes apparent that he has a lot on his mind, and he asks if you’ll listen to what he has to say… and that’s where the rollercoaster begins. Now, if you boil it down to mechanics, I’d say it’s a co-operative game with some worker placement and light resource management. That’s partnered with an impactful narrative that you work through over the course of ten Scenarios, eventually discovering the whole story of Billy’s life. So yeah, it’s a bit different!

Jeremy: I believe publishing a game like Holding On is a risky move. It’s very ambitious and also very niche. Why take on such a risky project? Do you think the board game community is ready for this kind of material?

Michael: Why NOT take on such a project? People said the same thing about films – in their infancy, they were just a sideshow, why would anyone want to risk investigating heavier subjects? We could make another cube-pusher, we could make another roll-and-write… but why not experiment? There’s nothing wrong with making those, and I freely admit that we’re incredibly privileged to be able to take such a chance on a game like Holding On, but yes, I think the world of gaming is ready for this. The dam’s already burst, we’ve got games that tackle harder topics like This War of Mine that have proven successful. I also know that this game isn’t for everyone – there’s plenty of people out there who have made their feelings known! – but I believe there’s enough people out there who are ready for something different. Showing Holding On at shows like UK Games Expo and Origins has only strengthened that belief. It’s a game that will inspire discussion not only at the table, but hopefully afterwards too. It’s the very definition of the kind of thing we want to produce – it’s most definitely a Game with Heart, and a huge number of gamers are ready for it.

Jeremy: Will you tell more stories like this in the future? Will there be a series of Holding On-like games or more mature content games?

Michael: I would love to be able to tell more stories like this. If The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a success, it’d be amazing to be able to create a new Holding On. Rory and I have discussed it, of course, and he has an incredible subject for a potential follow up that I’d be honoured work on. I’ve been thinking about how I could keep the mechanisms fresh too – when you play Holding On, you’ll see that the game changes a lot as you move through the Scenarios, with new game elements and objectives popping up frequently – so I’d want to ensure that we don’t just tread the same ground.

We’re also in the early stages of a few other games that could be considered more aimed at a mature audience. Nothing I can really say a lot about yet, but there’s one project that is very exciting indeed. I’m hoping we’ll be able to announce that next year with a view to a 2020 release, but we’ve got a fair bit of worldbuilding to work through on that. Not everything will be aimed at an older market though, I promise! We want to get as many people playing our games as possible, so you can expect to see a wide range of releases in the coming years.

Jeremy: Do you have any upcoming events where people can check out the game before it hits the market?

Michael: We’re going to be at Gen Con in August, where we’ll have a couple of tables out in the demo hall to run games of Holding On, Untold and Blank (including some very special Blank games with Matt Leacock, who’ll be attending for… certain reasons that will be announced at the show!). Folks can book in advance using the Gen Con Events Finder by searching for Hub Games(event link), by the way, though there’s not a lot of slots left at this point! There’ll also be a copy of Holding On at the Asmodee booth so folks can check it out there, and hopefully either myself or Rory will be running those games. After that, we’ll be at Alliance Open House in September which is a retailers only show, but by getting the game in front of FLGS owners in the US is vital for the long term success of Holding On. After that it’s straight on to Essen Spiel and the game’s official launch!

Jeremy: What’s the release date or release window for Holding On: The Trouble Life of Billy Kerr?

Michael: Essen Spiel takes place on the last weekend of October this year, so we’re looking at a co-ordinated release of October 25th, 2018. It’ll be in stores across the US that same weekend. We’re also releasing the German language edition at the show which will hopefully be in stores shortly after. Other languages are currently being discussed, and we’ll hopefully have some announcements about those as we get closer to the launch!

You can expect the Hub Games booth to be very busy at Gencon. I suggest you grab event tickets using the event link. They will be at Booth 237. Thank you for your time and hopefully you’re just as excited as I am.

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