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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.

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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A highly uninformed view of Medici

Lowell Kempf
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Since I've already written about Modern Art and Ra, I really feel like I should cover Medici. After all, it is the third game in Reiner Knizia's auction trilogy.

My problem is I've only played the game twice face to face. Almost all of my experience with the game is on the iPad against the AIs, which really doesn't give me a good sense of the game.

(I am not big on playing against computers but I think they are particularly weak in auction games or negotiation games. I am just a human elitist in that regard.)

However, there is no denying that Medici is an important part of Knizia's auction games and auction games in general. And since I have had at least a little bit of experience with it, I am prepared to say something. Just take it with an even smaller grain of salt than usual

Modern Art is defined by having a wide variety of auctions and dynamic market values. Ra is defined by having a push-your-luck element and an intricate network of scoring elements. Medici is defined by being a pure as the driven snow auctions. Even High Society, with its special tiles and poorest loses rule, is more watered down than Medici.

You could argue that Medici does have elements of push-your-luck and set collection. But, unlike Ra where those are their own chunk of the gameplay, Medici just uses those elements to facilitate auctions and evaluate them.

The story in Medici is that you are all Renaissance merchants trying to earn the most cash through buying low and selling high on your shipments. But even by the standards of Euro games, the theme in Medici is pretty thin. You strip away all the art and replace the goods with colors and you'd barely affect the gameplay experience.

Medici is played out in three rounds where each player will be collecting five tiles or shipping five lots of goods. The tiles come with two different pieces of information on them. There will be one of five different goods and have a number ranging from zero to five, not counting a gold tile that has a ten on it.

On your turn, you choose one to three tiles to flip over for auction. You can't flip over more than you have empty spots for. Then, there's a once around auction with the person who flipped the tiles going last. You bid straight up points. When everyone has five tiles, it's time to score them up.

You earn points based on two things. The total value of your tiles, er, shipment, and the number of each type of good you've shipped throughout the entire game. There's a first place, second place, etc. And each place is a set amount of points, with ties dividing the points. You also get a bonus if you get to the top of the goods track.

And, of course, who ever has the most points at the end wins.

I have to make a special note about player counts. You blindly discard tiles with the fewer the players meaning the more tiles go bye bye. And more scoring positions get added for more players.

Medici has been around since 1995, over twenty years. It's gone out of print in a regular basis but it always swings back around and comes back into print. Folks keep on loving it. It might not be a juggernaut Catan but it's no flash in the pan.

So, this is my uneducated, haven't-played-Medici-enough guess as to why: the economy of the game is so brutally tight. The return on your investments is set and that's the only way you have to get points.

Other games have money equals points but they usually have other ways of earning money. Auctioning off paintings in Modern Art, for instance. In Medici, even a small overbid can be catastrophic. Sometimes, you can get ahead by paying as little as possible but that can sink you if that's all you do, unless you are very lucky and the other players play very badly.

In short, I think Medici works by taking the auction and honing it to a razor's edge. That might be too sharp for some folks. Too sharp for me some of be time, to be honest. But I can see why the gameplay is so strong.

Huh. I see a card game version is coming out. Looks like, just like the Modern Art card game, the auctions have been removed. That worked surprisingly well with Modern Art, with the use of special abilities and the changing values market. With Medici, that leaves a fairly simple push-your-luck element and a fairly simple set collection element. I don't know if that's enough and it definitely seems like it should be a much lighter, less brutal game.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Sep 16, 2016 3:49 pm
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You knew I had to write about Ra

Lowell Kempf
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Ra is one of my favorite Knizia games, as well as my favorite auction game. It has stood the test of time, not just for me, but with the hobby on a whole. I believe it's a game that will still be getting played and published twenty years from now.

While it is primarily an auction game, Ra also incorporates push your luck and set collection as mechanics. Knizia blended those three elements together into a tightly knit whole, with each element supporting the others.

Here's the game in a nutshell: players take turns either pulling tiles out of a bag or calling an auction for the tiles that have been pulled out. The kicker is the Ra tiles. Drawing enough of them will and the round with no one getting any more tiles.

The variety of tiles in Ra is greater than I can easily summarize. And they all score or lost points in different ways. It's easily the most complex part of the game and the hardest part to teach. Of note are the disaster tiles, which will actually make you lose other tiles.

And the last element I want to make sure I mention as the sun tokens, which are what you use for bidding. They limit how much you can bid and you can only use one at a time. This helps prevent people wildly overbidding and also limits how many auctions you can win on each round.

Oh, since I haven't actually bothered mentioning the theme before now, I figure that I should cover it. The game is set in ancient Egypt and each round is supposed to be an epoch. It actually works rather well, since you are developing technologies and fostering Pharaohs and building monuments and things like that. I mean, the game has been re-themed for gangsters but I feel that the theme of the tiles does marry well with the idea of the passing of ages. Plus, cool Egyptian art.

Now that I've given a very brief thumbnail sketch of Ra, leaving out details like automatic auctions when you pull a Ra time, why do I think it is such an awesome game?i

The push-your-luck element is strong enough that Knizia used similar mechanics as entire games, like Cheeky Monkey. It adds a lot of fun and tension to the game. Every that only one person has bidding tokens and is pulling tiles to try and get s great haul, it seems that everyone else starts chanting Ra, Ra, Ra.

But that push your luck element is countered by the diversity and complexity of the tiles. Different tiles will be worth different amounts of points to different players. Understanding both what you will get out of a given lot of tiles and what other people will get is very important.

There's a strong tactical level to Ra, about dealing with what tiles come out. If certain tiles don't come out, you can't plan your game around them. But the game is also very strategic as well. You need to have a good sense of how the tiles will score as well as what's still in the bag. In the long run, a global understanding of the game situation will trump any given lot.

Ultimately, that's what makes Ra such a strong game. The push-your-luck element creates a lot of constant tension and makes it possible to have a lucky break or an unlucky fall. But the complexity of the tiles makes having a global understanding of the game very strong. The better player should win Ra but they have to work at it.

The diversity of the tiles and the luck of the draw also gives Ra a lot of replay value. You can't play the game on autopilot or try and follow the same formula every time. You have to react to what Ra gives you and build your plans around that.

Ra came out in 1999 and, while it has gone out of print, it seems to reliably always come back into print. The core mechanics of the game are simple to explain but the game has some serious depth, as well as a truckload of fun and replay value. I consider it to be a definite classic.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Sep 15, 2016 8:48 pm
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A mental exercise about worker placement

Lowell Kempf
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While discussing Mint Works, a worker placement micro game, the question came up: what game do you use to introduce worker placement as a mechanic?

Realistically, the answer is whatever game you understand well enough to be able to comfortably and comprehensively teach. Your ability to teach the game matters the most.

Agricola wasn't on my short list of entry-level worker placement games yet I and other folks I've known have had great success with it as someone's first worker placement game, even when not using the simpler family-level rules. And Agricola has a reputation for not being an entry-level game. Perhaps falsely. After all, the theme helps make the game accessible since everyone knows what you do on a farm.

But, this mental exercise is about picking games that are what games we think would be easy for folks to pick up. My shortlist ended up being Lords of Waterdeep, Sticky Fingers and Stone Age. Since it's popular mechanic, I am going to bet there are many good candidates that I have never played or even heard of.

Sticky Fingers is one of the simpler worker placement games I've played and I do like it quite a bit. But it doesn't involve engine building per se, which I think is an important part of the worker placement experience. Lords of Waterdeep, a game I've come to appreciate the more I play it, has the opposite problem. The engine building is more subtle and complex than I thought at first.

Stone Age ended up being the game I thought would be the best game to introduce worker placement to people who think that's another name for temp agencies. It is relatively simple but very dynamic. And, while the engine building just invokes adding people, tools and agriculture to your tribe, it's still engine building.

It doesn't hurt that it's a game that I still enjoy playing. My personal introduction to worker placement was Pillars of the Earth, a game that I still think is a strong design but I grew tired enough of that I eventually got rid of it.

Of course, this is all just a mental exercise. When it comes to actually doing introducing people to worker placement, what really matters is what games you actually have access to and enjoy enough that teaching them will be fun for everyone.
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Wed Sep 14, 2016 5:25 pm
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High Society is a quick but brutal little auction game

Lowell Kempf
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It took me a number of years to find a copy of Reiner Knizia's High Society. I had read about it almost since I first discovered Boardgame Geek and designer games but it had been out of print in the US when I first started looking for it.

High Society was one of Knizia's earlier games, back when he was primarily known for auction games. At one point, it was even considered part of his 'auction trilogy' with Medici and Modern Art, until Ra kicked it out. Maybe it's part of a second trilogy with Dream Factory and Amen-Re Regardless, it's always been well regarded.

When Gryphon Games reprinted it, I immediately snatched it up. And then it sat on the shelf for quite a while. Part of it was that I had so many games at that point it was hard to work it into rotation. Part of it was that it was it was a quick, light game when my gaming group was all about big, heavy games. And part of that was whether or not it could live up to its reputation.

Eventually, I forced my group to play High Society. And it was an instant hit and went into regular rotation. It helped that I was past my try-new-game every session phase and more focused on getting replay value out of the good games.

The elevator pitch for High Society is that you are a bunch of the idle rich, trying to buy more status symbols than everyone else. However, if you spend too much money, you'll lose the status of being rich and the game.

Mechanically, you all start out with the same amount of money and a series of tiles gets flipped over and auctioned off. Most of them are positive points but some of them are special or even negative points. Four of them are red and when the fourth one shows up, the game ends immediately.

Before you figure out who has the most points, you figure out who has the least money. That person is out. If there is a tie, everybody is out.

And that's the wrinkle that turns High Society from an auction game that you would never remember to a tight, brutal, little game that really makes you say 'let's play that again.' It's simple rule but it makes the entire game so much edgier.

High Society is a quick, simple game. It doesn't have the weight or length of most Knizia's other great auction games. However, it lacks a lot of tense, tough auctions into the fifteen minutes it takes to play. It took me a while to find and play it but it turned out to be worth it.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Sep 13, 2016 8:47 pm
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Mint Works - minimalism at work

Lowell Kempf
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The Kickstarter for Mint Works is almost at an end and it's been funded well and above the goal. Enough that a number of stretch goals have been met. When a game is that small, even a little bit extra can be a big expansion.

I've kept my eye on Mint Works ever since I first saw it as part of a PnP contest. I've been interested in micro games pretty much since I got into board games but Mint Works manages to be something different from other micro games I've seen.

It does that just by being a worker placement game and a pretty straight foward one at that. The actions are pretty simple. Get more workers, get building plans, building buildings from plans. Whoever gets seven points in buildings first wins.

The original version of the game consisted of two pages of cards, plus whatever tokens you used for workers. I know the Kickstarter version will have more cards but we are still talking tiny. Smaller than any other worker placement game I've come across.

One difference from most worker placement games I've seen is that you don't get your workers back. They as effectively currency and you need to get more through a very limited income or actions or buildings. Still, since everyone is competing for a limited pool of actions so the basic mechanic of worker placement holds true.

The placeholder for simplest worker placement game for me used to be Sticky Fingers. That's a game where you play rival thieves and you have to gather up tools, use those tools to steal stuff and then fence the stuff off for money which is called points in the game.

And I do like Sticky Fingers. While it is simple, it has enough tension and complexity to keep it interesting. However, what it is not is an engine builder. The board is effectively the engine and you are fighting to use it the most efficiently.

Mint Works is in the running to be my new simplest worker placement game. It is honestly simpler and it is a worker placement game. And, as a micro game, it feels a different role as far as gaming needs are concerned.

And, unlike Sticky Fingers, Mint Works is an engine builder. The powers of the buildings give you are awfully simple but they are there. You definitely have to build up your infrastructure as well as going for points.,What I am uncertain of is how strong it's replay value is. The Kickstarter version, with more cards, does add promise for replay.

Mint Works is definitely a fascinating work of minimalism.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Sep 12, 2016 9:25 pm
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Why For Sale is a classic

Lowell Kempf
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For Sale is one of those games that is a definitive classic. It came out in 1997 and it's given the world almost twenty years of solid gaming since then.

For Sale is a game about the gentle art of flipping houses. In the first half of the game, you are buying houses, preferably as cheap as possible. In the second half, you sell those houses, preferably for a lot.

The game consists of two decks of cards, houses and checks, and a stack of coins. The houses have a numeric value from one to thirty while the checks range from zero to fifteen. My copy, at least, has pretty goofy houses, ranging from a cardboard box to a space station. I'm willing to bet there are editions where the coins are cards too.

Everyone gets a starting pot of coins, which you'll use for bidding in the first phase. You deal out houses equal to the number of players and then the bidding starts. You go round and round the table, with folks either raising or passing. If you pass, you give the bank half your bid (which could be zero) and take the cheapest house that's left. Only the winner pays their full amount but they get the highest value house.

After you run out of houses, you start the second phase. Selling those houses. Deal out checks equal to the number of players. Everyone secretly chooses a house and simultaneously reveals them. Checks then get handed out in order of house value. You know, highest value gets the highest check. Remember, some of them as worth zero so you can get hosed.

After all the checks get auctioned off, you count up the value of your checks and whatever coins you have left from the first part. Whoever has the most money wins!

Obviously, For Sale is an auction game (and by Dora's, not Knizia! That always surprised me) but it's a gentle one. Every round, everyone gets a card, no matter what. And, if you're lucky and/or patient, even that lousy cardboard box might be worth something.

At the same time, the game rewards good judgement. You have to know when to pass, when to unload your junk houses and when to pull out your high value homes. No one gets buried but good play wins the day.

It's that combination of simple, easy to understand rules with forgiving auctions and meaningful decisions that has made For Sale a classic.

I have heard For Sale called the king of fillers, meaning it's a game that takes less than a half hour and can be used to fill in the time around longer games. The word filler often gets a lot of flack, although less since Love Letter inspired waves of micro games. Personally, life with a toddler makes games like that a real gift. And For Sale takes the fifteen minutes it takes to play and makes them a real fun gaming experience.

I haven't played For Sale as much as I have wanted to. It came into my collection when I was trying out new games constantly and it got lost in the shuffle. Despite that, I remember how it was always fun with every group I played it with. A lot of the games I played from that period in my gaming life have left my collection but For Sale is a game I'm going to hang onto.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Sep 12, 2016 2:02 pm
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Modern Art and the art of auctions

Lowell Kempf
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Modern Art is not my favorite auction game. That's probably Ra, as far as games where the primary mechanic is having auctions. For Sale and High Society are also high up there. (In fact, I'd even go so far as to say if you only own one auction game, For Sale is one of your best choices)

But Modern Art wasn't just my introduction to auction games. It was a great introduction because it is a crash course on auctions. It is one of the fundamental games on the subject.

Instead of going over the rules in detail, I'll put in a link to the review I wrote back in 2005: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/88939/essential-auction-gam... Okay, let me get back to talking about the game.

Modern Art pulls off being such a fundamental auction game by using four different methods of auction, not counting the double auction. You got the traditional caller auction, the blind auction, the once around auction and the set price auction.

Really, the only auction it doesn't cover per se is the moat common form of auction in games, going around until everyone but one player has dropped out.

Modern Art also has a really neat economic system going on, with only the three artists earning any money at the end of each season but the values adding up through out the game. Some folks have argued that that keeps it from being a 'pure' auction game. Considering that Knizia basically sawed the auctions off in order to create Modern Art the Card Game, I can see that.

Still, the auctions and the determination of the value of each system are all tightly knit together to form the economy of the game. In particular, the players are auctioning off the paintings to each other and pocketing the profits themselves. Everyone is invested in the economy of the game.

I'll admit that one of reasons Modern Art isn't at the top of my auction list is because people who overbid can not only knock themselves out of the game but literally hand the game over to someone else. Fortunately, you can teach people what the maximum potential value of a painting is but not everyone is good at listening

Modern Art is a very engaging game, involving all the players. It really explores auctions and has a tight economy tying everything together. It's a really fun game that is great for exploring game mechanics. It really has earned a place in my collection.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Sep 9, 2016 7:19 pm
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Shopkins and matching - gotta catch them all

Lowell Kempf
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I am coming to the conclusion that matching games are even more common then roll-and-move games when it comes to board games that are aimed at the under five set.

Not that I am really complaining, seeing as how matching games still offer some real choices, as opposed rolling a die and doing whatever it tells you. And I figure that learning matching skills and memory skills is at least as educational as learning how to count spaces.

But, wow, are there a lot of them out there. Every single licensed product under the sun has one, which makes sense. All you need is the artwork and you are ready to go. No further game development necessary.

So every time I find a matching game that has some kind of twist build into it, it's kind of interesting for me.

We recently picked up the Shopkins Make A Deal Matching game, based on the chibi Shopkins toys. Those are cute little anthropomorphized things you buy in stores. Seriously, it's that general. Food, jewelry, wheelbarrels, tennis rackets. If you can buy it with cold hard currency, they will make a cute little figurine of it.

The game follows the general matching game formula, building a grid of facedown tiles and flipping them over to find matches. You know the drill.

Where the twist comes in is that you get one point for each unique tile that you have. If you make a successful match, you can choose to take another turn or to make a deal.

If you make a deal, you get two choices. You can swap a tile with another player, netting you reach a point. Or you can flip a coin with heads letting you steal a tile from another player. It has to be one that they have two of, though. You don't get to steal points.

Mind you, that still not enough to make it really that interesting a game. The swap action only works if you have more than two players and with more than two players, it means that the people not involved in the swap are the ones actually taking a loss. More than that, the entire make a deal series of actions only works once people have got a collection of tiles.

For actual playing purposes, it still doesn't thrill me the way Spot It or Animal Upon Animal do. There are clearly more interesting games for toddlers out there. I still find it interesting to find an additional mechanic and one that fits the theme of got to catch them all.

Huh. Wonder if the mechanic was first developed for a Pokemon matching game.

OrigInally posted on www.gnomeponder.com
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Fri Sep 9, 2016 7:15 pm
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Leadfoot Getaway - a RPG/Boardgame hybrid for two players and one fast car

Lowell Kempf
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Leadfoot Getaway is not just a two-page RPG, it's also a game straddles the line between a role playing game and an adventure board game. To be fair, that's a super thin line and I don't know of an adventure board game that doesn't have one foot in role playing. However, it's still a good trick for a game fits on a double-sided sheet of paper.

Part of the Indie Mixtape Megamix, Leadfoot Getaway plays out a particularly tough job in the life of a Driver. You know, the role that's pretty much defined the career of Jason Statham. Although, the genre has been around for a whole longer than that. Still, it lets you describe the game to someone in one sentence.

It's designed for two players. Obviously, someone gets to be the driver. They get to stat out the driver. Or, really, they get to stat out the car. The sweet ride gets four stats, ranging from one to four dice. The stat that stands out is Style, which adds gadgets to your car.

The other player is the passenger, which really means the game master. In addition to playing all of the NPC's, they use a regular deck of cards to randomly generate the road the driver is going on.

Without going into enough detail to tell you how to actually play the game without getting it, each card provide some sort of challenge to the driver. Red cards are cool stuff while black cards are tough challenges.

Something that amuses me is that while Leadfoot Getaway is a ridiculously focused game, so focused that it could pass for a board game without much trouble, you can still really play with the setting. You could have it be set in the 70s with old school muscle cars or really hit the style and make it science fiction like Knight Rider or Speed Racer. Heck, you could make the sweet ride a horse and have it be a western.

Despite the simplicity and tight focus, there do feel like there are some meaningful gaps in the rule. For instance, other than losing gadgets or benefit tokens, there doesn't seem to be a damage system. In theory, eventually the driver will always make it.

Despite the super tight focus and some rules issues, I can immediately think of people I'd like to play Leadfoot Getaway with. It didn't leave me in awe but the fact that I want to try it out says something.
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Fri Sep 9, 2016 5:56 pm
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Auctions - a fun but dangerous mechanic

Lowell Kempf
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I had a recent discussion with a friend where discussed how we both liked auction games but we had both had experiences where poor player decisions had completely wrecked games.

I have seen games of Power Grid, where the power plants are auctioned off at the start of each turn, when a player has their heart set on a specific plant and effectively puts themselves out of the game. And auctions are only one part of that game.

More often than I care to remember, I've seen games of Modern Art get thrown out of whack when winning an auction becomes more important for someone than winning the game. That's particularly bad since you can figure out the maximum value of a painting and money from auctions usually goes into a player's pocket.

Although the worst game I've seen for bad player choices making everything fall apart is technically not an auction game, although I can see how it can be seen as one. That's the venerable Executive Decision by Sid Sackson. It's a game where supply and demand is entirely determined by the players and one player can wreck the whole economy. When played well, it's brilliant but when played poorly, it's a train wreck.

All of that said, there are ways that designers can help mitigate poorly bid auctions throwing games out whack. For instance, in For Sale, everyone will get a house or a check each round, no matter how poorly they've bid or how bankrupt they might be. Poor choices won't kick anyone out of the game.

The best game I've seen that manages to balance auctions is Ra. It does this primarily by only limiting the number of times you can win an auction and limiting how much you can bid.

And, mind you, with players who understand what is going on and aren't going to be silly, auctions are a lot of fun. They create a metric ton of interaction and tension. And, if if you need to teach someone how to judge auctions, games like Ra and For Sale are great tools to do that, as well as just plain great games.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Sep 8, 2016 6:01 pm
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