Alice is Missing is a cooperative role-playing game that was on Kickstarter earlier in 2020. The game delivered to backers in two forms: (a) either as an electronic PDF or (b) a box with components/cards/rules. The PDF delivered earlier in the year (about October 2020?), but my physical copy delivered right at the end of November 2020. It took a while to get people together to play this, as it requires 3-5 players (there’s no notion of solo rules to learn the game).
What makes this game interesting is that it plays over cell phones! In the year 2020, when we are supposed to be physically distancing, my friend Kurt and I were both intrigued by this game that can be played completely remotely. This idea of playing just over cell phones is unique and interesting! The premise of the game is that Alice’s friends are all concerned because Alice is Missing! (Thus the name of the game). The 3-5 players each play as one of Alice’s friends or relatives. The friends are all working together OVER CELL PHONES ONLY to find Alice and figure out what happened to her! Once the game is in swing, players sit somewhere quietly and only contact each other over cell phones. The game comes with a timer and a playlist (on a you-tube video: see here), so as the players text each other, a vaguely haunting collection of music plays. By the end of the game, the friends discover what happened to Alice.
There’s really not a lot to the components tothe game (which is why a PDF delivery of the game is even feasible). The box, 72 cards, and the rulebook. The cards are nice.
One complaint with the components are the cards: the only place they cards are labelled is on page 5 of the rulebook. I really would have appreciated each type of card being labelled: The art is cool and thematic, but the art is general enough that the correlation between (say) suspect cards and their name wasn’t 100% clear. I know everyone is on a kick to make things “iconic” and “language-independent”, but that makes it harder to distinguish components. Look, we figured out what all the cards were (see picture above), but it would have helped the first play through to have cards labelled!
The other thing that was slightly annoying is that we still had to print out some components! The Character Records (which I had each player print out separately), the Wanted Posters (which have different incarnations of Alice), and the Game Guide (summary) all had to be printed even after buying the physical box! I can forgive the Character Records (because we mark them up and are done with them), but the Wanted Posters and Game Guide seem like they cheaped out. And as a foreshadowing of sorts, the Character Sheets (as referred to in the rulebook page above) actually print out as Character Records (not sheets), so they couldn’t even get their terminology consistent.
Oh, so this rulebook wasn’t very good. I was chatting with my friend Kurt, getting ready for one of our games, and I told him I have read it all the way through twice and still didn’t quite get it. He commented “You are a better man than I! I haven’t been able to get through the rulebook once!” Frankly, this rulebook was poorly written. By the time I had set-up for our first play, I had to read through the rulebook six times to make sure I got everything! What makes it poorly written? I think the rulebook is so busy focusing on a bunch of low-level details (which you don’t know why you care about yet), that it misses a high-level overview. There’s a number of high-level overviews it misses:
- What’s the purpose of the game? There’s no clearly stated purpose up front. We are trying to find Alice, but what does that mean? Are we solving a mystery (like in our Top 10 Cooperative Detective Board and Card Games)? Do we have a quest? Are we trying to avenge her death? Alice is Missing … so what are we supposed to do? We just text each other? Are we possible suspects in the game?
- What are we as characters trying to do? As stated, we text each other in the game. Do we suspect each other and that’s why we are texting each other? What else can we do besides text? Are we texting to try to meet up? Do we do something else?
- What’s the overall structure of the game? How do all the pieces fit together for gameplay?
It’s only after going through the rulebook multiple times that the purpose, structure, and player activities reveals itself. This game seriously needs a rulebook rewrite and a summary card. (Side 1 of the Summary card would describe Character Creation in high-level bullets, Side 2 of the Summary Card would describe game structure in high-level bullets). The Game Guide attempts to do some of the summary, but it tends to focus on tips for playing the game NOT how the game works.
So, what is this game? It is NOT a Detective/Solve-A-Mystery game. It really is more of a collective story-telling game. A collaborative story is developed over time: the players works together creating the story and reacting to story points. These main story points come up in cards that are revealed every 10 minutes or so:
The story point cards (the blue cards above) come out at the indicated time on the 90 minute timer. These cards are distributed over the players evenly so that each player gets (approximately) the same number of story points. When the timer hits that point, the player will read his/her story card and perform the actions. Story point cards cause a few things to happen: First, a Suspect or Location card is revealed (which becomes a potential final Suspect/Location). Second, the card indicates a story point and the player needs to reveal organically in the cell phone chat. Here’s a sample story point: “The (Revealed Suspect) just posted something creepy on Social Media! What was this?” You have to be creative, and then somehow reveal this new information in the cell phone chat. The story points are the main device to move the story forward.
By the end of the game, the players will discover what happened to Alice. But what it really means is that the players have crafted a story around these story points.
Set-Up: Local Play vs. Remote Play
Besides the unique “play over cell phones” angle, the other reason I picked this game was that it offered a chance to play over the Internet. The base game describes rules to play locally (Locally: all players in the same room around the shared table), and then alludes to changes to make the game work remotely. The game’s solution is to use the Roll-20 Guides/On-line platform. Although my groups are fairly savvy with technology and role-playing games, none of us have used this platform. The Roll-20 solution was a non-started in many ways: some people were new to role playing altogether, and even the RPGers among us didn’t use the online Roll-20 platform at all. So we had to improvise!
Basically, the faciliator had to “text” story points cards to characters at the appropriate times. Normally, the players would just take cards from the table and do that themselves, but since only the owner of the game has access to all the cards, he had to be the facilitator. This basically made the facilitator’s job a little more difficult, but it did work remotely.
If you want to get the game, be aware that the person running the game (the facilitator) will have to work hard!!! The facilitator will have to know the game, set-up the game, and run the game. The rulebook states that Alice Is Missing does not need a DM (DungeonMaster) to run the game, but this isn’t really true: The facilitator needs to work hard to run the game! It’s still fun as the facilitator does play a character in the game, but he’s more like an NPC (Non-Player Character) than a full participant.
The Facilitator is especially important if you play remotely, as he/she has to text pictures of cards to the players as the game unfolds.
So far, this review has been pretty negative: rulebook issue, structure issues, component issues, set-up issues. BUT, in the end, we all enjoyed this game, as it was a unique experience. We played for 3 hours on a Friday night, most of us in different cities around the USA. There was tension as a story evolved! Being alone with your cell phone as creepy things happened was evocative! We inhabited these characters and this world on our cell phones!
My group all enjoyed Alice Is Mission, but we recognized the flaws. This game is fragile. Everyone in my group was open to the experience, but noted it was too easy for the game to go “off the rails” because there’s no “purpose” other than creating a shared experience. The game is incredibly group dependent.
One player noted that the game was fun once: she wasn’t sure we would/wanted-to play again, even though the story points do change every time. I think that’s a fair observation: part of the fun of the game is the uncertainty on what’s happening. Once the game unfolds once, it’s not as interesting the next time. I suspect we will be able get 2 to 3 more plays out of the game. Once all my game groups have played once, then we’ll probably be done with the game. But, that’s not a bad thing! Escape room games (like Unlock: Epic Adventures and Star Wars Unlock) can only be played once. Between Escape room games, Detective games, and legacy games, there’s plenty of room for one-shot experiences like this.
Be aware of what this is before you play/purchase: It is NOT a detective game where you solve Alice’s mystery!!! Alice Is Missing is a unique storytelling experience you and your friends play on your cell phones. It’s potentially a lot of work to get going (especially for the facilitator), but if this sounds interesting to you, it’s probably worth a try.
EDIT: One of my players contacted me and wanted to point out the following:
It’s a good overview, but your review sure felt more negative than my own impression of the game. I really liked it. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have to deal with any of the “down sides” of having to get through the rule book, figuring out the game, fiddling with the cards, etc., but the game seemed pretty straightforward, friendly, immersive, and accessible. (Thanks for facilitating the game, by the way – it sounds like it was pretty frustrating for you, but it was certainly a success from my perspective.)
By the way, apparently there’s a reason this game reminded me of “Kids on Bikes” – it’s the same publisher! I checked out the site and their Twitter feed, and apparently they’re working on an “Alice is Missing” mobile app which will facilitate play, dropping the cards automatically and stuff. Sounds like a great way to play the game, frankly, since the setup we had was a bit fiddly for you.