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A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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First Fable is a gift to the very youngest of gamers

Lowell Kempf
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I've been reading various RPGs aimed or at least suitable for younger audiences for some months now. My primary source for them has been the family friendly bundle from Bundle of Holding but I keep my eye out for others. Which is how I discovered First Fable.

First Fable is aimed at the younger end of potential gamers. Officially, it is for eight to twelve-year-olds but the rules note that six-year-olds should be able to handle it and there is no real upper age limit. In fact, First Fable is designed to be the next step up from games like Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers.

Mechanically, it is very simple. Characters are built from tri-stats and edges and weaknesses. In fact, other than prebuilt stats, the classes don't have specific powers. The classes just give expectations on what the edges and weaknesses should be like. For instance, a knight would tend towards fighting rather than spell casting. There isn't a mechanic reason why a knight wouldn't cast spells.

Conflict resolution is dead simple. Dice pools with fours, fives and sixes as successes. So, yeah, you could just use coins but you want the kids to get used to dice. Contested conflicts have both parties roll their dice pools and compare results.

There isn't any kind of setting. It's just a world where pirates and fairy princesses both exist and can adventure together. Given the intended audience, I don't know if you need anything more. However, most of the RPGs for kids that I've looked at do have something.

One of the two things I liked about First Fable. First, when you go into combat, you set how much damage you'll take before you're out. It can be so little that you're just ducking out at the first sign of trouble or it could be much more significant. You'll never die but you can get penalties and additional weaknesses.

I think letting the players set the difficulty of the fight is very important. It gives the a sense of control and lets them own the conflict.

I also think that the ten point grown up (or GM) advice is very good. First Fable takes its job of being an intro to RPGs for the very young very seriously and I really respect the designers for doing that.

What I don't like about First Fable is how abstracted it is as a RPG and how freeform. I have no problems with that as a gamer but I think it's needs some more structure and concrete detail. Kids already know how to freeform. It's structure that might be the hard part.

Still, this is a free game that takes the idea of being an entry point into gaming for kids as young as six seriously and responsibly. It is gift to the community to help bring up the next generation of gamers. I really appreciate that and I think that is important.
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Sun Jun 28, 2015 4:01 pm
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My mind goes in circles about minimalism

Lowell Kempf
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Since I recently was looking at Cunning Folk by Button Shy, I decided to take a look at what other games they had come up with. Among their other micro games, I saw one called Wildcats.

It consists of three cards and I would either describe it as a meaningfully different variant of Win, Lose, Banana or a three-person One Night Werewolf.

But what it really made me think about was that minimal
games have come a long ways since when I first started collecting board games. Which is just a little over a decade, really.

When I first started really looking at designer games, Pico 2 with eleven cards was considered to be pushing the envelope. There was also 3 Spot, an abstract boardgame with three pieces plus the board. That was kind of the lunatic fringe of the minimalist movement.

But these days, three cards isn't even the extreme end. There are a number of games that consist of only one card. We're not going to count games like Rock-Paper-Scissors that don't use any components whatsoever.

Da Vinci put out a whole line of one card games, that were used as handouts for a game fair. Now, to be fair, a lot of the Bonsai games do you require additional components. But a couple of them, like Jungle or Word Finger, are really just the card and nothing else.

Huh. Actually, when I look at the Bonsai series, I see that they were designed for the 2004 Essen Fair. So this whole only one component thing has been around for over 10 years. I don't know if the increased interest in micro games has made people more aware of them or if I was just totally blind.

Actually, as I'm actually thinking about it, when you add dice games or pencil and paper games or games in which all the components are part of a single board that has moving pieces, were actually discussing games that are made up of one or two or three pieces it's pretty common and actually has a long history.

I guess what I am really thinking is that there is no race to fewest components. And really, if there ever was one, it only existed in the minds of people who weren't stretching their minds for enough. You know, the way I wasn't stretching my mind when I started writing this blog entry.

Periodically, I find myself thinking about how minimal a game can be from a component perspective. As if there was some sort of minimalist arms race going on. But, every time I start thinking that way and start looking at how many more games can be, I realize that people have long been designing games with almost no components.

Minimal games are fun from the travel perspective and from a storage perspective and from a just hey they did this perspective. However, what I need to remember is that the measure of a game is in the game play, not in a gimmick.
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Sat Jun 27, 2015 2:23 pm
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Some of the ways Monsterhearts got under my skin

Lowell Kempf
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While I wrote a very general reaction to reading Monsterhearts, which could be summed up as it's an amazing game with a lot of potential for deep play and exploring identity, there were a few elements of the game that I want to comment on.

To be a little bit more precise, there were three skins that really struck me. If you're not even vaguely familiar with the system, a skin is your class. Although, it might be better to describe your skin as your hangups and problems as opposed to your class.

The very first class, excuse me, skin I looked at when I first was even looking at Monsterhearts was the Chosen. That's partially because they were in alphabetical order. The chosen could be described in one sentence and so you want to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

After reading the entire game, the first thing that struck me about the Chosen is that it is the class with the greatest ability to change and even warp the landscape of the game simply by existing. The Chosen is defined by external conflict, while almost every other skin is really about internal conflict. The Chosen, by being in the game, brings in direct opposition to the players and can even bring in a big bad.

Not that that's a bad thing and not that you need a Chosen for those things to be a part of the game. But in less you to find the Chosen as someone who is completely deluded with no actual big bad out there, I think it would be hard to avoid it with the Chosen in the game.

I also found myself thinking that the Chosen was the most shallow of the skins. The conflict in many ways is driven by an outside force. However, as I looked to deeper at the Chosen, I changed my mind. The Chosen is driven by an unreasonable sense of responsibility. If you decided that you wanted to do a Friendship is Magic version of Monsterhearts, Applejack would be a Chosen. I am so proud of that last sentence.

The next skin that really struck me was the Mortal. And it's also one that I can sum up with a literary reference. You play the mortal if you want to explore what it would be like to be Bella from Twilight.

Before the movies came out, a friend of mine insisted that I read the first couple Twilight books. Possibly because her husband refused to and she wanted someone to discuss them with. By the end of the first book, I had that Bella had knocked Holden Caufield from the Catcher in the Rye out of the position of worst role model for teenagers.

So I went into the Mortal with utter hatred in mind. So of course I was delighted to find that the mortal addresses all the things that I hated about Bella. If you are the Mortal, you take codependence and crank it up to on an unhealthy, self-destructive level. In fact, there are some people who would probably find that playing the Mortal qualifies as therapy.

The last skin that really struck me was the Ghoul. You can play a werewolf with out-of-control violent tendencies. You can play an infernal who is in touch with the devil and pays for it. You can play a vampire with all the issues that that comes with, except for maybe sparkling in the sunlight. But the Ghoul is the most flat out monstrous skin by definition.

The Ghoul has come back from the dead, traumatized and driven by a terrible hunger. Outside of that hunger, they are detached and distant from the world. You get to define the hunger but if you have sex with another character, then sex with that character becomes an additional hunger.

In short, the Ghoul is a sociopath, sexual stalker, and potential rapist. That's really really heavy. And I don't think it's the easiest thing to try and avoid that stuff if you have that skin in the game. Out of a lot a very raw skins, the Ghoul is the rawest.

Having said all that, there is a potential description for both the Chosen and the Ghoul that isn't in the game but has come to my mind as I've considered them. They both could be very easily considered as different aspects or outcomes of child soldiers. I'm not sure what to do with that idea but it definitely has occurred to me.
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Fri Jun 26, 2015 6:41 am
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Delving into the meaning that is Monsterhearts

Lowell Kempf
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I have long been a fan of Apocalypse World and the Apocalypse World engine. I have also become a fan of Avery McDaldno. So it was pretty much inevitable that I was going to end up looking at Monsterhearts.

In fact, I was hoping to be in a Monsterhearts campaign a few years ago. In my personal perception of role-playing games, I consider Monsterhearts to be part of the Apocalypse Engine Trinity with Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

On the surface, Monsterhearts is a supernatural teen drama. however, you barely need to scratch beneath the surface to see what it's really about people struggling to figure out who they are. Quite frankly, that's kind of an intrinsic quality to teenagers.

In fact, it would be very easy to see the supernatural elements merely being a way of framing the personal struggles the characters are going through. Your problems and your issues don't come from being a supernatural monster. Being a supernatural monster is a way of expressing your problems.

While Apocalypse World already gave you plenty of ways to create your own problems, Monsterhearts ups the ante. Many of the moves, particularly the skin specific moves, usually have built in drawbacks. Using your special abilities often cost to you as well as gets you ahead.

Monsterhearts encourages you to play feral and the rules reflect that. It takes the raw nature of the Apocalypse World and make it bleed.

In short, it's awesome.

A very important part of the game is the darkest self. Every skin comes with one. Very simply, it's what happens when your problems take control. It is you lashing out against the world in a way that defines both what makes you powerful and what makes you totally messed up.

The darkest self isn't your kryptonite. It's not some terrible weakness. Instead, it forces you to confront what makes your character so messed up and what they are really struggling with. Let's face it, in games and in real life, we tend to avoid the real problems. The darkest self shoves them in our face.

And that is why it is so crucial to Monsterhearts.

One thing that I found a lot of people commented on was the queer content of Monsterhearts. Since your characters are teenagers, you don't have control over what turns you want. So no one can claim that their gender makes them immune to another person's moves.

Amusingly enough, when I read that section, all I thought was that it was a way of preventing people from using gender to block other people mechanically. Because, let me tell you, I know some rules lawyers who would try that.

However, this just underscores that Monsterhearts is not a game that is designed to be played with a distant, tactical mind where you are looking for loopholes. It's not an designed to be an easy game. It is a game that is designed to make you think and even more so feel. In short, a game with meaning.
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Fri Jun 26, 2015 3:17 am
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The meta game as the meat of the game

Lowell Kempf
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I came very close to backing Cunning Folk. After all, it was a micro game with a low price point. One of those kick starters where you tell yourself, eh, that's next to nothing. But I have found saying that too often adds up. So I just downloaded the black and white print and play option. If we really like it, that will tide me over until it gets released and I buy it regular style.

And, truth to tell, black and white suits the theme of the game.

Cunning Folk is a good old fashioned, Crucible-style witch hunt. You are either trying to find the two good witches and the good elder or the two bad witches and the bad elder. Amusingly enough, it doesn't matter which. Good, bad, you're just going for three of a kind.

The basic idea of the gameplay is that the cards form a face down 9 x 9 grid. On your turn, you secretly look at a card and state what you want everyone to believe the card is, then performing the action of the card. You can be called out and forced to reveal what the card really is, but false accusations can lead to being ostracized and out of the game.

At first, this looks like a deduction game. But it's really a game about bluffing, deception and lying your way to deduction.

I have observed before that bluffing is a very common mechanic in micro games. Games like Coup, Love Letter and Pico 2 all use bluffing as a central mechanic, just to give three well regarded examples. When you have limited components, I think developing a well defined meta game can help make a game much bigger then its pieces.

Let's face it, trying to identify three out of nine cards would get pretty boring quickly. Being able to try and influence your opponent through or manipulation and out right lying is a lot more interesting.

The obvious game that Cunning Folk brings to mind is Coup. But it also makes me think of Werewolf, probably because of the theme. A small, isolated, claustrophobic village that is being torn apart by secrets. It's a theme that is bigger than nine cards.

Of course, the question is will Cunning Folk live up to the potential of its meta game? Only play and repetition will answer that.
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Wed Jun 24, 2015 7:29 pm
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Hoping Yucata is doing well

Lowell Kempf
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Something that I didn't really notice for what I'm realizing was a good six months is that there hasn't been any new games added to Yucata. And I haven't seen anything about that on the forums I've peeked at.

Now, I don't have a problem with this. For one thing, I know that making a good interface takes time. I also know that you just can't just grab a game and make an online version of it. There's legal stuff at work. More than that, there are still a number of games on the site that I still haven't played. Of course, the most important thing about Yucata for me is that it has lots of games that I want to keep on playing.

Last year, thirteen games were added to the site. Some of them were really good ones too. And that was a very good thing for me last year. I was in a completely new city taking care of an infant. Yucata was my outlet for gaming and how I was able to stay in touch with some of my old gaming buddies. Having that infusion of new was very important to me.

However, while I may not have a regular physical gaming group yet, I'm now much more accustomed to living in Tucson and being a dad, not to mention a toddler is a lot more active and engaging than an infant. That need just isn't as strong.

I'm still on Yucuta a fair bit, trying to make moves at least once a day. I am very grateful that it exists and this isn't me bashing the site.

Seriously, I get to play a wide variety of games, some of which I am playing with good friends who live on the other side of the country, and I get to do that for free. I have nothing to complain about.

What I am hoping is that this isn't a sign that Yucata is in trouble and that I need to worry about its continued existence. I have gotten a lot out of the site and I wanted to continue to keep on thriving for years to come.
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Mon Jun 22, 2015 9:38 pm
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Can cartoons help personal growth?

Lowell Kempf
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In addition to enjoying Howard Taylor's comic strip Schlock Mercenary, I also look forward to when he posts reviews of movies. His tastes are close enough to mine that I'll usually end up agreeing with him. And he sometimes makes points that really get me thinking.

His reaction to Inside Out was that he didn't personally enjoy it himself but he felt that it was the most important movie Pixar had made and that it is a film that every kid should see nice it creates a functional model for understanding emotions.

Now, with a toddler in the house, we are going to have to wait until it comes out for the home market before we see it but I have a feeling I'll agree with both of his assessments. I have a feeling I'll interpret the movie as being about mental health issues and that it will be a very meaningful movie.

Which got me thinking about how cartoons address emotional and social issues in general.

At first, I found myself thinking about how cartoons when I was a kid were either pure entertainment or heavy in the blatant eduction and that cartoons talking about emotional and social issues are a relatively new development.

Even without doing a shred of research, I realized I was completely wrong about that. Even ignoring that folks like Fred Rogers were addressing emotional issues for decades, the early eighties were chock full of cartoons that were influenced by parent interest groups. If I remember correctly, the poster child of those was the Get Along Gang which was about solidarity and conformity.

(And yes, this resulted in a backlash of snarky deconstructions that were in many ways aimed at older audiences. However, as a dad of a toddler who is becoming more and more aware of the world, I'm focused on cartoons that are actually aimed at small children)

While social awareness and emotional growth have been a part of cartoons aimed at kids for what I'm realizing is three decades at least, I feel like they are getting more nuanced. (Yes, it could just be I am looking at them as a parent for the first time)

Just as a single example, we discovered Peppa Pig. While it has plenty of delicious snark for the parents (and occasionally, BRYAN BLESSED as the loudest rabbit in existence), it has a strong emphasis on emotional health, social behavior and diversity without making the kids goody goodies. In fact, they can be believably real brats.

I'm probably living in denial and in a bubble in my own head but the idea that cartoons aren't just for entertainment or even to reach numbers and letters but as a platform for real discussions about serious topics with my son is pretty cool.
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Mon Jun 22, 2015 7:08 pm
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Haunt Me uses a party game format to explore deep ideas

Lowell Kempf
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When I got the RPG bundle with God King, I also got Daniel Cruz Chan's other design, a tiny little one-session game called Haunt Me. Despite being much shorter and more free form, I was surprised to find that I found it the much more polished game.

The game structure almost looks like a variation of Werewolf. The players are folks who have been drawn to a haunted house and cannot leave and cards are dealt to reveal who is secretly the ghost.

However, things get more complicated than Werewolf very quickly. Every visitor has to determine some secret guilt that they have and the lie they used to hide it. Over the course of five turns, the players use truths and lies, determined by a hand of cards, to explore their visitor's story.

The ghost only uses lies when they talk about their past. The ghost's goal is to remain hidden so that it might keep some of the visitors... forever. Only a successful accusation that reveals the ghost will let everyone free. A single false accusation also ends the game but with everyone trapped for all time.

Interestingly enough, it is the visitors who have had to admit to their guilt and who can no longer hide behind their lies who end up staying if the ghost is unrevealed. Freed from their ties, they stay behind. Those who managed to still hide their guilt, possibly from themselves, are the ones who get to go back out into the world. Perhaps they have become their own ghost.

Honestly, I could actually give the rules for the entire game in about three paragraphs but that doesn't seem terribly fair to the designer.

Something that I have spent time of time thinking about in the last few years is bleed. In this particular case, I am talking about emotions from the game bleeding out into the players, as opposed to people actually cutting each other.

While Haunt Me has the frame work of a party game and even has winners and losers (although you can argue who qualifies as which), it isn't really about figuring out who the ghost is. It's about exploring the nature of guilt and lies and truth.

If the players put any weight on their decisions and any thought into the game, it is ripe for bleed. In fact, the first time I read Haunt Me, I thought it would be a great self trauma kit. The very free form nature of the game, with nothing to define your guilt and lies, only increases the bleed potential.

If you want an introduction to bleed or a one-session exploration of bleed, I think Haunt Me could lead to a very memorable playing session.
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Fri Jun 19, 2015 7:28 pm
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Sometimes, a good trait can be taken too far and become a bad problem

Lowell Kempf
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I was recently having a discussion with a friend about a mutual friend who can be both difficult to play with and particularly really difficult to teach a game to. Well, to be fair, this particular friend can be difficult to be around period

For the sake of anyone who reads this who actually knows me, any and every name will be left out. Unfortunately, anyone who knows me knows who I am talking about

When I was not able to do in the conversation was exactly pinpoint why he was so difficult to teach. It isn't as though we are talking about someone who is either stupid or inexperienced. We are talking about someone who is terribly bright and who's played a lot of games over a lot of years. You would think with all of those factors, they would be incredibly easy to teach.

Until, unrelated, I came across a comment about the difficulty in teaching complicated games. A common method of teaching games is to jump right in and teach the exceptions and a little nitpicks as you go. After all, a teaching game is about teaching. After the teaching is done, then the brutal competitiveness is allowed to come out.

But, if someone is ultra competitive and needs to be able to compete and, more importantly to their mind, to win on their first go, then that kind of teaching method won't work. They need to know everything about the game so that they can plan out their long-term strategy before they play. Before they ever play.

I feel weird criticizing that kind of behavior. After all, the objective of games is to win. And, in non-gaming contexts, winning can be even more crucial. So it seems to be petty to be complaining about someone doing their best to win.

But, while the objective of a game may be to win, the point of a game is to have fun. Ideally for everyone to have fun. If there is money on the line, that's one thing. But a bunch of friends getting together to have a good time? Then frustrating everyone else and keeping them from playing isn't a good thing.

Being competitive in many ways a very good thing. That's the him that's kind of how you get ahead in the world. The drive is very important. Even in the game, being competitive makes you a fun opponent. Someone who is a challenge and who people learn from when they play against them.

Clearly though, there can be too much of a good thing. When being competitive inhibits your ability to play a game or to interact with your friends, then it has become a problem.
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Thu Jun 18, 2015 5:26 pm
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The iPhone lets me ride the Wabash Cannonball

Lowell Kempf
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One of my least favorite ways to learn how to play a game is against an AI. I'm not even all that found of just plain playing against an AI. It just feels too much like a grind. Even playing against a faceless opponent online is so much more engaging and interesting, even at a move a day.

However, sometimes it is the only way to get to learn and play a game. And it is better than just reading the rules and imagining how the game would play out.

At least three years ago, I got the app for Wabash Cannonball, the precursor for Chicago Express. And sat on it because I just don't dig playing against AIs, particularly for learning games. Like I said.

But I finally decided that I needed to give it a go. Quite frankly, I like train games and Wabash Cannonball looked like it would do a nice job of giving me a rail experience in a relatively short playing time.

Before I start jawing about the game, let me say that I'm glad that I got a taste of it. Wabash Cannonball does a solid job of hitting a lot of the right train game notes in a way that's mechanically simple but leaves plenty of room for evil plays.

Wabash Cannonball puts you in the familiar position of being rail barons who are trying to end up with the most money at the end of the game. You fight over the limited number of stocks for a limited number of rail companies. You develop rail networks with a limited number of train tracks. And you improve cities to try and squeeze just that extra drop of blood out of your stocks because money is tight, tight, tight.

I'm not going to go over the rules. I'm just going to make a couple of observations about things that make the game stand out. Those little sparkles that say Wabash Cannonball or Chicago Express and not just a generic train game.

The first thing that really struck me (and would strike anyone) is that the only way to build rails is from a company's treasury. And the only way money goes into treasuries is from auctions. The winning bid gets added to the treasury and those treasuries start out empty. (Well, there is also a logging bonus from entering a forest hex. But that's pretty small compared to the auctions)

The natural desire to win an auction for as little as possible means you could be holding stock in a company too broke to lay track.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg about what I think really gives Wabash Cannonball it's real sense of identity as a game. And that is scarcity. Stocks in each company are seriously limited. The number of rails each company has is brutally small. And the number of actions per round are limited too.

Scarcity is not a unique formula in games or even rail games. (First Train to Nuremberg comes to mind) But each discrete action in Wabash Cannonball is simple and easy to explain. It's not a mechanically complicated game. It should be an easy game to teach.

But it gives you plenty of room for complicated schemes, which is only heightened by the scarcity of every single resource and the surprisingly ease of sabotaging other people's plans. Being a minority stock holder and using that status to run precious rails to nowhere and drive the stock value into the ground is not an unreasonable thing to do.

Now, I don't think I have a real understanding of how the game works. For that I need to actually play the game against real people and preferably face-to-face. But I do feel like I have a sense of how to play the game and I could sit down and play a game with real people without a problem.

Wabash Cannonball is a mechanically simple game but I think that it passes the test of being a legit train game with flying colors. It has a stock market with active stock manipulation. It has connections and infrastructure development. And it has money management which involves both of the first two. The only classic train element that I felt it was lacking was pick up and delivery and you can't have everything.

I'm not going to start compulsively playing the app. And I don't see myself going out and buying Chicago Express as soon as I can. But I am very glad I got a chance to experience the game.
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Tue Jun 16, 2015 10:12 pm
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