A Curious Review of Automated Alice (the Cooperative Dice Game)

Automated Alice is a cooperative dice-placement game that was on Kickstarter back in October 2020. It just delivered to me a few days ago at the time of this writing (January 16th, 2022), so I guess it has to count as a 2022 game.

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Automated Alice is based on a novel by Jeff Noon … of which I know absolutely nothing, except that this has “something” to do with the Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland books.

I kind of blind-backed this cooperative game because I always like to try smaller games from smaller publishers. It turns out I really do like cooperative dice-placement as a mechanism (which is what Automated Alice is), as three of our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021 were cooperative dice-placement games! So, I was excited to get this little game to the table!

Unboxing

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As a kickstarter backer, I got a little extra mini of Alice wrapped in bubble-wrap: see above and below.

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The first thing you notice upon unboxing is the really nice dice bag!

Next in the box is a letter from the author (Jeff Noon) of the book Automated Alice. It’s a nice little emotional journey through what Automated Alice means to him. To be clear, the designer of the Automated Alice dice game is another fellow: Robb De Nicola.

The rulebook is next: you can see (above) that it’s quite readable.

The punchouts come next: Alice represents where the players are on the board and the “snake lady” is the bad guy (Civil Serpent) chasing Alice around the board. The clock is used for multiple things: timer (not real-time timer, but “number of rounds until game is over” timer), “good dice” pool, and “bad dice” pool.

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The majority of the action is around the 6 Case Files (I would have just called them boards)? These are the 6 boards that Alice will be exploring.

This is a cooperative dice-placement game, so there are a ton of pretty colored dice: these are the dice that go in the dice bag. There is also a single die (the MRS Minus die) that determines where the “bad snake lady” will go (you roll: she goes and blocks one of the 6 Case Files).

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Last by not least are some really pretty linen-coated cards: there are the missions that Alice will go on! See above. The players (as Alice) will have to place dice on these cards matching the color, order, sum, even/odd, and/or other conditions. It’s a dice-placement game!

Overall, the game looks pretty decent: I really liked the linen-finished cards! I think one of the reasons I picked up this game is that I liked the comic-booky art. There’s not tons of art, but the art on the cards was a lot of the reason I backed this game.

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Overall, pretty decent components.  I still like the art.

Rulebook

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The first page set-up and components are okay: they don’t actually show a picture of set-up unless you look on the box. Sigh. I had this problem with Backwoods: the rulebook should ALWAYS show a picture of the game set-up! But, the back of the box shows the set-up: see below.

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The rulebook is a little light on content: it doesn’t handle a lot of edge conditions.  I think there’s some things that need to be spelled out in the rulebook.   For instance:

There should a page describing, in more detail, all the special powers of the each of the case files.  What does the above mean?  “Blind swap a dice”?  Any die?  Green die?  From the bag?  From other locations?  It probably means from the bag, but I don’t know if green dice (which are “place blockers”) are in the category.  Help?

This wasn’t a particularly good rulebook.  It was just barely enough to get me going and playing.  I guess that’s good enough?  We need to talk more about the rulebook, but first let’s take a look at the solo game.

Solo Play

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The rules seem to get this right: the box says 1-4 players and there are set-up rules for each player count: the game just really changes in (1) how many clue cards are out and (2) how long you have until the game is over (what the timer is set to).

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A solo player has 12 rounds with exactly 1 clue card on each case file: see below.

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To win, you have to “solve” all cards, which means putting the proper dice on it: this is a dice-placement game after all.

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On your turn, you draw 4 dice from the bag: if you can match the color and conditions, you can complete a card!  See above for a completed card!  If you complete all 6 before time runs out, you win!

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Part of the problem are green dice: they just are “blockers”! If you pull a green dice from the bag, you MUST block one of the spots on the card you are on! The only way (besides special cards) to get rid of these is to sacrifice a die of the needed color (and same or bigger number) to cancel it out.  

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Worse, as you go, the dice bag gets leaner and leaner as dice YOU COULDN’T USE go the Dice Hold (middle of the clock)!!! Above, you see a “mid-game” dice hold with lots of dice I couldn’t use!  Green dice are a little different: If you can’t place them (the evil awful bad green dice) because spaces are filled, they go to the Civil Servant Threat track.  At 6 spaces, you lose the game.

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Every turn, the Civil Servant (evil snake lady) moves to some location (rolls the white dice) : she is a blocker!! The player(s) can’t travel to the Case where she is.  So, Alice must choose an unblocked location and moves there.  She draws 4 dice.  She MUST place the green dice first, then she can try to place the rest. Anything she can’t place goes on the clock.  If she “solves” a card, she gets to keep it: each card has a special power!

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In the picture above, Alice has solved the card so she can keep it! (Yes, purple dice are wild). Later in the game, she can discard the card to (in this case) turn any die to odd.

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The game continues until time runs out, the dice bag runs out, or all 6 spaces of the Threat Track are filled.

Cooperative Game

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The cooperative game is very similar to the solo game: you start with more clue cards (see above) and have less time on the clock.  The other difference is that the Civil Serpent only moves after everyone had had a turn.

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I’ll be honest here, without the cooperative game, I would have hated this game.  My friends and I re-read the rules and had an interpretation that “seems” inline with how we were supposed to play.  I liked the way we chatted, talked about where to move, and what to do with dice as a group.  We had fun with this game, but only AFTER we, as a group, figured out some poorly specified things. See “The Curious Case of the Comma” below.  Seriously, we had to cooperate to figure out the game!

The Curious Case of the Comma

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This rulebook isn’t very good: the basic game play is summarized on one of the last pages of the rulebook.  My first solo game went so badly, I almost threw this in a bin.  These rules are really poorly-written.  There are three main things that aren’t clear, and come from these 2 lines in the rulebook:

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Issues here:

  1. The comma on instruction 5 seems to imply you have to roll the dice you have moved or stayed.  Without the comma, it sounds like you can only re-roll if you move? 
  2. How many times are you allowed to move?  We think you can only move once, even though line 6 makes me think we can move up to 2 times and re-roll 2 or 3 times?
  3. But the total number of rolls is 3.  I wish they should have used the word “re-roll” instead, because line 6 almost implies you get 3 re-rolls “after” the initial roll?  We think they mean, like Yahtzee, you get 1 initial roll and 2 follow-up re-rolls.

Without further clarification, we misinterpreted these rules many times.  In my first solo game, I didn’t even think I could move after I rolled or re-rolled!  So I was completely slammed.  After me and my friends played cooperatively, we tried a few things and below “seems” like the right interpretation of these rules:

  1. You get your first roll.  Place dice (green must be placed first) as appropriate.
  2. You can (stay and re-roll) OR (move and re-roll).  This is second roll (1st re-roll).
  3. You can’t move again, but you can do a third roll (2nd re-roll).

With this interpretation, the game seemed playable and fun.

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I think Lewis Carrol and Jeff Noon might find it funny that a comma can make the difference between the game being fun or not! Lewis Carroll liked to play with language and meaning like that…

Where Are The Choices?

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The main choices in the game are the following:

  1. Use the Special Power on the Case Board you are on.  Above, Zenith o’Clock can add 1 to a die.
  2. Roll the dice up to 3 times.  Once you have pulled the dice from the game, you can re-roll them (like Yahtzee) up to two times
  3. Move.  You can go to any Case Board (except were Mrs. Minus is)
  4. Decide when to use special powers.  When you solve a case, you keep the card.  In the card above, you can discard the card to change a die to odd.
  5. Take a card from the Dice Hold, but advance time.  

In general, these are the main decisions.

First Impressions

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This game AT FIRST was just too random.  Notice above: I drew 4 dice and 3 of them were green!!! I have to place them on the card and block 3 spaces now!  Which will cost me at least 1 or 2 more turns to clear!  The solo game only gives you 12 turns to play, and if you have even 1 bad draw like above, you are almost certainly done!! You just won’t have time to clear the card and still satisfy the card conditions! Remember, you have to sacrifice a die AND it has to be greater AND it has to be the right color!  So, it may take 2 turns to just clear the space!

The “green snake lady” mechanic also adds more randomness: you roll a six-sided dice to see where she goes every turn!  She may stay out of your way completely, or she may block your progress at the worst possible time!

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I like the art, but this game AT FIRST was just way too random.  I never felt like I had any way to mitigate if I drew the wrong color!! 

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It turns out, moving AFTER your first roll of the dice allows you to mitigate what dice you pulled!  You pulled all yellow?  You can move to a Case File with some yellow dice!  AND THAT ONE CHANGE (which I had missed in the rules) MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.  I went from hating the game to having a nice time with my friends! 

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This became a light-hearted romp with dice as we moved around the board.  Granted, the randomness still hangs in the air a little (it’s a dice game after all), but the game opened up after that.  Should we leave a green dice to lower the green dice count in the bag?  What dice should we leave up? When do we use our special powers?  Where should we move so we don’t have to throw away a dice?  The game became a much lighter fare after that one rule: you can move after your first dice draw and placement! 

Conclusion

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This is a complete rewrite of my original conclusion: I originally thought this game was too random and couldn’t recommend it. After deciphering the rules with my friends, we came to the realization that this is a fun, light-hearted, dice-placement romp. There are some good decisions to make during the game, even if there is a bit of randomness. In fact, even though I liked the cooperative dice-placement games Intrepid, Roll Camera!, and Roll Player Adventures better than Automated Alice, that was not the case with my friends! They liked the simple (once you know the rules), quick (30 minutes), cooperative dice-placement of Automated Alice better! (To be fair, they still liked Roll Camera! and Roll Player Adventures better for in-depth cooperative dice placement games)

I do think this game needs a lot of clarifications, either in a rulebook rewrite, a player’s aid, or a FAQ: we had too many problems to gloss over this issue. Make sure you double-check our interpretations of the rules before you buy this! I’d hate to think recommend this game when I’m still not 100% sure we played it right.

If you like the Automated Alice world and just want to roll some dice in that world, this might be for you. Or if you want a light-hearted, quick, cooperative dice-placement game, Automated Alice might be for you. I liked the art. We had fun … after we figured out the rules.

If you are looking for some alternatives for cooperative dice-placement games, I urge you check out our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2022! See our reviews here: Roll Camera! is a sillier cooperative dice-placement game about making a movie, Intrepid is a heavier cooperative dice-placement game about running a space station, and Roll Player Adventures is an adventure using dice-placement as its main mechanism.

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