Designer: Spenser Starke
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Artist: Julianne Griepp
Alice is Missing, a silent role-playing game about the disappearance of Alice Briarwood, a high school junior in the small town of Silent Falls.
Alice Is Missing is a unique kind of roleplaying game in which players only communicate using their phones, sending text messages to each other as they unearth clues about what happened to Alice.
Alice is Missing is a Role-Playing Game set in the fictional sleepy town of Silent Falls in North California where a girl, Alice Briarwood, has disappeared. Players will spend the game whittling down the potential suspects and locations in their search to find her whilst assuming the characters of Alice's best friend, the friend who moved away, her brother, a secret admirer and Alice's secret girlfriend.
It is a single session, 2-3 hour storytelling experience that has no GM and grapples with complex mature issues like missing people, tense family dynamics, grief, death, violence, and helplessness. Because of this there is a safety system in the setup of the game called Veils and Lines. If the group decides to veil a subject matter, it means that it can be brought into the game if it fits the narrative but will not explored in detail (for example gore) where as If a subject matter is lined, it means that players will agree to not include that subject at all. These are very important parts of making sure that everyone playing is comfortable and to ensure the group don't encounter subjects that may be triggering for any of the players. The game also includes a failsafe mechanic, during play if there is a subject that comes up that a player isn't comfortable with and wasn't discussed in the game setup they can send an X in the chat to let the other players know. This acts a prompt for everyone to move away from that topic.
The game is split into 3 phases; Set up, Timed Gameplay and Debrief.
The Set-up phase is where the Players spend time breathing life into their chosen characters and establishing their relationships with each other. Players first chose one of the 5 character cards available, these cards contain a secret which that particular character has, asks them to provide a little bit of background to the story and provides a prompt for a voicemail that is to be left during the setup phase (we’ll discuss this in more detail shortly). Players are encouraged to try and reveal their characters secret to at least one other player or even to the whole group organically over the course of the game, fitting it into the narrative where it seems the most appropriate. Once everyone has had some time to think about the background question, along with any traits they would like their character to have, they share this with the group while other players take notes on their character sheets.
The relationships are publicly assigned to any of the players in the game and help to add another layer to the story. It is also worth mentioning at this stage that a single player may have multiple relationships assigned to them or none at all. This is not an issue in the game but makes the dynamics more interesting if everyone has at least one relationship assigned to them.
In the last part of character creation, the players will need to record a voicemail their character left on Alice’s phone before they knew that she went missing. The prompt on the bottom of the card gives the player an idea for the overall reason for them calling Alice, for example apologising for a fight.
The game also encourages players to try and work elements of their secret into the voicemail to make the ending of the game more impactful and it is suggested that a short break is taken away from the table so these messages can be recorded in private.
After the break, there are a few more details to finalise in the setup of the game. A card is laid out on the table for each of the locations and suspects in the town and players will provide a brief outline as to why that person or location may be linked to Alice’s disappearance. For example, what kind of person is the Ex-Boyfriend and how have they been behaving recently makes them a suspect or why is the Lighthouse a place of particular importance for Alice? Players need to refrain from going into too much detail or from trying to link these individuals to locations at this stage as the game will take care of this during play. All these details are once again logged on each player’s character sheet and the cards are then shuffled into their respective decks to be revealed as the game runs its course.
Lastly cards are dealt out to the players that will act as the catalysts for the events that take place in the game called Clue cards. The clue cards have numbers on the back of them which indicate at what time they should be turned over, read privately, and actioned during the game. There will need to be 1 card in the game for each of the times (90, 80, 70, 60, 50, 45, 40, 35, 30, 20 & 10).
Players will need to keep an eye on the timer and when the time matches one of their assigned clue cards, they turn it over and complete the direction as instructed.
These usually ask for that player to reveal either a Suspect or a location card and to introduce something to narrative related to the revealed card. For example a card may ask you to draw a character card who turns out to be the Ryan Groggins The Ex-Boyfriend and the card says you went to the police about a lead but they ignored you, what about this person makes you think they were involved.
It will be up to the player to interpret this and bring it into the conversation however they would like to.
Once everyone is ready, a 90 minute timer is started and from that point on, the only method of communication the players have with each other is through text on their mobile phones in a mixture of one main group chat and as many individual chats with the other players as they wish.
While the main narrative in the game is to find Alice, players are also encouraged to explore and develop the relationships with the other players in the game using the relationships that were assigned earlier as a guide.
There is one additional type of card the game has which we haven’t touched on yet that is the Search cards. These cards can be used when a player travels to a location in the game and usually include an object which once introduced to the narrative helps to boost the drama and act as a prompt if you find yourself in a rare lull in conversation.
Next, players will also choose a random ‘Drive’ card, these cards provide an additional motive for your character and 2 relationships to assign to other players.
The Motive helps give players an idea of the state of mind of their character after finding out about Alice's disappearance and to help them further develop their interactions.
By the time the game reaches its final moments, players will have revealed where Alice is and who was responsible for her disappearance. When the clock stops, players have the opportunity to send one final message before the Voicemails that were left for Alice as part of the set-up are played out for the whole group to hear.
After the voicemails have been played, the game moves to the final phase called the de-brief. This is an important stage in which players are able to openly discuss what happened during the game, wrap up any loose narrative ends that they wish to finish and importantly make sure that everyone is feeling okay.
Our Playthrough Experiences
Alice is Missing went live on Kickstarter June this year and whilst some Covid-19 restrictions had begun to lift and socializing was becoming allowed in small groups in the UK, we were very much still keeping to ourselves and regularly catching up and playing games with our friends over Zoom. We found Alice is Missing's theme to be very intriguing and as people who has never played, let alone run an RPG game, the GM-less, 2-3 hour Single session experience felt like it would be a good place to start and wasn't too intimidating. The feature that grabbed our attention most however was the fact that the game is played through your mobile phone via text messages and seemed perfect for the current climate and ideal for remote play. These factors lead us to back the project very quickly.
For the pledge level we backed at we were sent a PDF print and play version of the game until the arrival of the physical copy, which is due in November this year. We were initially more than happy to wait until the physical copy landed on our doorstep before playing or looking into the game too much further. When we mentioned the premise of the game to our game group they too were immediately intrigued by the concept and the sound of the unique gameplay. As the months progressed, we worked our way through the games in our collection that could be played remotely over zoom, yet people would commonly bring up Alice is Missing telling us how eager they were to give it a try and ask if there was any news on when the physical copy was due to arrive with us.
Our first ‘test’ game was with 2 of our more regular gaming group, who also had no prior experience of playing an RPG. We made sure we each had copies of the Character sheets and jumped on to Zoom to get started on the character setup for the game and fleshing out all of the other details. We had an overhead camera set up on the table so that the suspects and location cards could be turned over for everyone to see and decided that the best way to communicate the Clue cards was to take a quick picture on the phone and send them to the relevant person at the appropriate time in a separate chat while being careful to not read the specific details on the cards. As it was the first time we had ever done anything like this, the set up phase took us much longer than the estimated 45 minutes in the rules and was closer to 2 hours but we did take an extended break to do our voicemails and just general chit chat. We took this at face value however, and assumed it was bound to take us longer to do this on our first play though & first RPG experience as we found our footing.
When the print and play was released, admittedly we didn't download the files straight away but as soon as we did, we realized how much of a big mistake we had made in not doing so sooner! We were expecting a tome packed full of complicated rules and caveats to read before getting started. Instead we were pleasantly surprised to find a concise and straight forward rule book which laid out everything simply and made learning the game super quick and effortless. We decided to get everything printed out, stuck together, and laminated and after a few hours work, we had a copy ready to go.
We were quite apprehensive heading into our first game, and as Ben was getting the timer ready after finishing the setup he said he felt quite nervous. He is used to teaching and explaining conventional board games, but with this being our first RPG he was worried that he may have missed something in the set up or that people would be unsure about how to approach the storytelling element.
The last thing we wanted to do was harm the player’s first experience. Turns out we had nothing to worry about, as soon as the timer started and the first text message of the game was sent, everyone jumped right into the game and replied perfectly in character. Everybody knew exactly what to do with their cards and injected interesting narrative into the storyline as the timer ticked down. We think this is a testimony to how well the Rulebook is laid out and how self-explanatory and easy the game is to play.
The game really starts to shine as it heads towards its climactic conclusion, by this point in the game you find yourself deeply intertwined with your characters and the narrative that it can be hard to emotionally separate yourselves from the fiction you have been creating. Because the game can be such a tense and moving emotional experience, the debriefing period at the end of the game is extremely important. This allows players time to process and talk about what happened over the course of the game together and ultimately to check that everyone is ok. We won't go into the details of the endings of our games (for the sake of being spoiler free), but it is incredible that in such a short period of time, you can become so emotionally attached and invested in the story. So far, we have played with a mix of casual gamers, board game hobbyists, D&D regulars and RPG veterans, every one of these people has been taken by surprise at how intense an experience Alice is Missing can be, and have been eager afterwards to discuss and process the events of the game.
Our second play through the next day was with a group of seasoned D&D players who had been itching to play. They really poured lots of information and tiny details into their characters which was interesting to see. We did once again run over the suggested 45-minute window, it seemed to us though that it is not necessarily worth worrying about too much about how long this takes as long as everyone is happy with their characters as we felt it makes an even better experience if the players are truly understand and can get into the headspace of their character.
We found the system we used of an overhead camera and taking pictures of the particular cards worked well for our remote playing group but as part of the Kickstarter, the team behind the game have also developed a version of the game for the browser based RPG tool, Roll20, which is now available for purchase, along with the pdf print and play version we played with. There is also mention of a completely stand-alone app being created to make it even easier to play remotely.
So, what do we think of the game?
While we have played games that have role playing elements in them such as Forgotten Waters & Fog of Love, Alice is Missing has been our first true RPG experience, and wow - what a place it is to start!
Moving onto the gameplay itself, using text messages as the only form of communication creates a real level of intimacy which is unlike anything we have experienced in a game before, it makes everything that happens feel so much more personal and creates a deep connection between players and their characters.
The game strikes a perfect balance between providing gentle little nudges that keep the story moving and giving the players enough freedom to put their own spin on the narrative. When it is your turn to draw a clue card, it doesn’t feel like the elements you were being asked to introduce are too daunting, even if they have a huge impact in the story. The way that the clue cards drip feed information into the story feels really organic and gives you the sense of searching around for any scraps of information to try and help you find Alice.
The game can be played with any timer that counts down from 90 minutes but there is an official timer that is easy to access on YouTube, we think this requires a special mention as it’s simply beautiful. The animated pink and purple artwork which mirrors the artwork from the box is hauntingly beautiful and the selection of licensed music (featuring artists; Message To Bears, This Patch of Sky, Justin LaPointe, and Be Still The Earth) sets the tone of the game perfectly. The music changes are timed to match the major events that happen in the game and build to a harrowing climax as the game draws to a close. The only one thing we do wish the timer had was a subtle audio cue, a slight dip in the music maybe, when one of the time markers was reached to avoid clock watching distractions and to act as a reminder to players that the time to read and action a card.
We were amazed by how much replay ability Alice is Missing appears to have. While there are only 5 characters in the game, there is a lot of flexibility in the way these are created, from one game to another characters can have a completely different personality and background which in turn hugely changes their dynamic and interactions in the game. For example, in one of our games, Charlie was a shy geeky kid who found it difficult to make friends and in the next, he was a loud sport loving jock who was very outgoing.
We can't comment on the component quality as the physical copy hasn't been released just yet and we have been playing with a print and play copy. The artwork in the game however is absolutely stunning, the box cover art and the art on the front cover of the rule book are hauntingly beautiful. The art on the cards gives us vibes of a graphic novel and work so well with the theme of the game. One of the stretch goals that was reached during the Kickstarter campaign was to upgrade the cards to tarot size so we can't wait to see the final product!
There are 10 different "Alice" missing posters that can be used in the game - this is such a nice thoughtful touch and adds another aspect of variety in the game, the posters are again absolutely stunningly illustrated.
The same can also be said for the clue cards of which there are 3 clue cards for each time marker (apart from the starting 90-minute card) so there are lots of different combinations which can come up. Even if you do come across the same card as a previous game, it is entirely up to the player how they interpret an instruction on a card and the way this drives the narrative. Two games in a row we had the same ending card, but the way story developed was completely different, and we didn't actually realise it was the same ending card until we talked about it in the debrief.
It is also worth mentioning that whilst the game does grapple with mature themes (a missing child being the key one), the nature of that content that comes up is entirely dependent on the imagination of the players in the group and the narrative that they build. The box itself states the game as a 16+ and it is entirely possible to play the game while avoiding overly mature themes using the Veils, Lines and X systems in the game.
Overall, our experience with Alice is Missing has been fantastic, it is incredibly unique, so cleverly crafted and will probably be one of the most moving experiences that you will ever encounter in a game. The stories you create while playing will stay with you and generate conversations long after the timer hits zero. As long as you have a group of people that are comfortable with the theme and have the required technology to play, we would highly encourage people to give Alice is Missing a try and couldn't recommend it enough!
Alice is Missing is without doubt one of the richest, most exciting, and most intense, immersive experiences we have ever had while playing a game!