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Jim Cote
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I never expected to own a copy of Shadows Over Camelot, much less to be writing a review for it. When I first heard of the game, I was excited about it. However, upon reading the section "A Word on Collaboration" in the rules, I immediately dismissed the game. How can you play a cooperative game with subjective cooperation rules? The threads discussion this very issue were full of contradictions and disagreements. Being a long-time role-player, the idea of the game would not go away. The whole concept that there might be a Traitor was very compelling. I finally gave in.



The Game

Each player takes on the role of a Knight. They are all identical except that each has one special ability. There are 8 Loyalty cards which are shuffled with one dealt to each player. Seven say "Loyal" and one says "Traitor". Thus, the Traitor can be anyone...or no one. These cards are kept secret initially.

The playing area is composed of 4 boards. The main board has 4 locations, and the other three boards each represent 1 location. These 7 locations (called Quests in the game) are where Knights may move. Each location determines one of the actions available to any Knights there.

Players start the game in Camelot (one of the locations). Each receives a Merlin card and is dealt 5 more White cards. Players then take turns. On his turn, a Knight must do one Evil action, then do one Good action. The Evil actions are:

Add a Siege Engine: The Knights lose immediately if there are 12 Siege Engines. Doing this is costly, but can be preferable to drawing a Black card in some circumstances.

Lose a point of Life: Each Knight starts with 4 Life points, and may accumulate up to 6. You are allowed to bring your own Life to 0 (sacrifice yourself) for the good of Camelot. See "The Holy Grail" below.

Draw a Black card: Every Black card has something bad on it. Some are worse than others. Some are always very bad, and some are only very bad based on the situation. Some affect the entire game. Some are played onto a specific Quest (or cause a figure to be played there). If the Black card is a numbered card corresponding to a Quest, the Knight who drew it may play it face down and draw a White card as a bonus. However, this may draw suspicion.

The Good actions are:

Move to another location: You can move from your current location to any other location except for occupied locations which only allow one Knight. This action wastes valuable time and should be done as few times as possible in the game. You need to figure out where you are most needed, and commit to staying there as long as you are useful. See "Black Knight" and "Lancelot's Armor".

Perform a Quest action: Each Quest has a single action you can do while there (Camelot has two). See the individual descriptions of the Quests for details.

Play a special White card: Special White cards have various powerful effects when used appropriately. They allow such things as: canceling the effects of Evil, healing, gaining extra White cards, passing White cards between players, etc.

Heal yourself: You can discard 3 identical White cards to Heal a point of Life. This action may be necessary in rare circumstances, but is usually a waste of time.

Accuse a Knight: Is there a Traitor in your midst? Has someone been playing a little too inefficiently, or perhaps sabotaged a Quest? Accusing a Knight has effects on the game end conditions. See below.



The Quests

Each of the 7 Quests in the game advance for Evil as the game progresses. Normal Black cards that are drawn apply to specific quests. The Knights must respond by doing Quest actions. In all cases, it is a race. Each Quest can end for Good or for Evil. If it ends for Good, one or more White Swords are added to the Round Table, the Knights there gain one more Life points, some White cards are drawn, and perhaps a Relic is won (see Holy Grail, Excalibur, and Lancelot's Armor Quests). If it ends for Evil, one or more Black Swords are added to the Round Table, the Knights there lose Life points, and perhaps Siege Engines are added. The Quests are:

Camelot: This Quest is special as it is the key to the game. There are 2 Quest actions possible. If 12 Siege Engines exist around Camelot, then the Knights lose. A Knight may fight a Siege Engine as a Quest action. He plays any number of Fight cards (White cards with the numbers 1 to 5), and rolls the d8. If his cards total greater than the die role, a Siege Engine is removed. If not, he loses a point of Life. Like Healing, I feel that fighting Siege Engines is rarely a good thing. The other Quest action is to draw 2 White cards.

The Black Knight: Only one Knight may be on this Quest. It ends when either all the Black or White card spaces are filled. The Black card spaces are filled when Black Knight cards are drawn from the Black deck. The White card spaces are filled by the Knight there using his Good action to play one White card. The White cards played must form two different pairs. When the Quest ends, the sum of the White cards must be greater than the sum of the Black Cards. If the Knight leaves before the Quest ends, all White cards played so far are discarded. This Quest "resets" each time it ends.

Picts/Saxons: These two Quests are identical. It ends when either all 4 Pict/Saxon figures are played or the White card spaces 1-5 are filled sequentially. Figures are added when Black Pict/Saxon/Mercenary cards are drawn from the Black deck. The White card spaces are filled by the Knight there using his Good action to play the next White card. These Quests "reset" each time they end.

The Holy Grail: This Quest is a tug-of-war. The Knights play Grail cards. The Black deck contains Despair cards. To win, seven more Grail cards must be played than Despair cards. To lose, seven more Despair cards must be played than Grail cards. If the Knights win this Quest, they get the Holy Grail. This Relic may be used once to bring a dying Knight (0 Life) back to 4 Life. When this Quest ends, further Despair cards add a Siege Engine to Camelot.

Excalibur: This Quest is also a tug-of-war. The Knights discard White cards to draw Excalibur to their side of the lake. The Black deck contains Excalibur cards that move it towards the Evil side of the lake. To win, the Knights need to discard five more White cards than Excalibur cards that have shown up. To lose, five more Excalibur cards must be played than discarded White cards. If the Knights win this Quest, they get Excalibur. This Relic may be used once to add +1 to each fight Quest (Black Knight, Lancelot's Armor, The Dragon, Siege Engine) or may be discarded to cancel the effects of a Black card when it is drawn. When this Quest ends, further Despair cards add a Siege Engine to Camelot.

Lancelot's Armor/The Dragon: Only one Knight may be on the Quest for Lancelot's Armor. It ends when either all the Black or White card spaces are filled. The Black card spaces are filled when Lancelot's Armor cards are drawn from the Black deck. The White card spaces are filled by the Knight there using his Good action to play one White card. The White cards played must form a "full house". When the Quest ends, the sum of the White cards must be greater than the sum of the Black Cards. If the Knight leaves before the Quest ends, all White cards played so far are discarded. If the Knight wins this Quest, he gets Lancelot's Armor. This Relic may be used when drawing Black cards. Instead of drawing one, you draw two, choose the one to play, and place the other under the draw deck. When this Quest ends, the board is slipped to the Dragon side. This quest is similar, except you need three sets of 3-of-a-kind to fill the White card spaces, any number of Knights may go there, and there is no Relic to win. When this Quest ends, further Lancelot's Armor/Dragon cards add a Siege Engine to Camelot.



The Knights

Each Knight has a special ability which let's him "break the rules" just a little in various circumstances. Also note that any Knight may lose a point of Life on his turn to perform an additional (but different) Good action.

King Arthur: He may give any card in his hand (secretly) to another Knight in exchange for a card back. This ability can be effective to "feed" other Knights on Quests with specific cards, or to give Special White cards to Sir Galahad.

Sir Galahad: He may play a Special White card as a free action in addition to his normal Good action.

Sir Gawain: When in Camelot, he may draw 3 White cards instead of 2.

Sir Kay: When on a Fight Quest (Black Knight, Lancelot's Armor, The Dragon, Siege Engine), he may play one additional White card after the results are determined. This is particularly useful to keep the Siege Engines at bay in the dire hours near the end of the game.

Sir Palamedes: He gains an extra point of Life when on any successful Quest.

Sir Percival: He may look at the top Black card before deciding which Evil action to take. This can be useful in specific circumstances, but the Black card will usually have to be drawn at some point.

Sir Tristan: He may leave Camelot (move action) and then perform another (different) Good action.



Cooperation

Since it's basically all the Knights against the game (and potential Traitor), it is important that the Knights coordinate their efforts against the Quests. Who is going where? Do they need help? You need to be aware of what cards are being played, and what cards might be needed. Playing selfishly will hurt the group. It is not important that you win the Quest or the Relic, but that someone wins it. When it is appropriate for you to die, you will do so willingly for the good of Camelot!



Collaboration

This is the aspect of the game I had the biggest problem with. After playing many times now, I don't see it as much of a problem. My groups are all role-players and can deal with this quite nicely. I do, however, explain the game using my own system of specific collaboration rules:

+ You may never directly or indirectly give information about a specific card you do or don't have.

+ You may not disclose (or give any attitude about) a card that only you have knowledge of. This applies to Percival's "peek", using Lancelot's Armor, when Arthur exchanges cards, and when placing Black cards face down.

+ You may discuss Merlin cards freely when a Black card is drawn, since the party needs to collectively use 3 of them in some circumstances. Players may lie about their holding for selfish reasons, or because they are the Traitor.

+ In any situations where a true/false answer gives away a specific holding, there's no choice but to allow it. For example, asking a player if they can finish the Saxon quest when the cards 1-4 have been played. You cannot, however, ask a series of true/false questions to narrow down specifics.



The Traitor

This makes the game work. The very fact that a player might be working against the group keeps the tension high and the players alert. It also means that the slightest misstep makes you a suspect. If the Traitor remains unknown at the end of the game, 2 White swords are flipped to Black. If the Traitor is rightly accused, a White sword is added to the Round Table. If a Traitor is wrongly accused, a White sword is flipped to Black. What can the Traitor do?

+ He can play slightly below optimal. He can move more often than perform useful actions. He can play 3's on some Quests instead of 5's pretending they are his best card.

+ If he is Percival, he can "peek" at the top Black card and choose to play it if it hurts the party--hemming and hawing over the decision of course.

+ If he has Lancelot's Armor, he can look at the top two cards of the Black Deck choosing the worse of the two--pretending they are both bad.

+ He can add a Siege Engine as his Evil action. This is almost always bad for the group, but since Good Knights also do it, it looks innocent until you get close to 12.

+ He can win Quests. This gives the Traitor the Relic, and if the group cannot agree on the distribution of the awarded White cards, they are distributed randomly starting with the Traitor. This denies the use of the Relic to a loyal Knight, and denies specific cards to players that might need them.

+ And of course, he can blatantly do bad things. This will reveal his nature, and he will surely be accused at some point.

Once the Traitor is revealed--by being accused or by using the Fate card on himself--he is removed from the board. On his turn, he still performs an Evil action (except losing a point of Life). In place of his Good action, he draws a random card from the hand of any Knight. This can be devastating for Knights who have hinted too much about what they are holding, or for Knights close to finishing a Quest. Therefore, it may be wise to leave an obvious Traitor unaccused for a certain amount of time.



Strategy

On every turn, each Knight has to do an Evil thing and a Good thing. So with 5 players, every once around the table, 5 Evil things happen and 5 Good things happen. The ratio of Evil to Good actions is the same no matter how many Knights are playing.

Now consider this. Over time, 3 of the Quests disappear and result in a Siege Engine being added. So drawing a Black Card becomes more and more the equivalent of adding a Siege Engine. The best Black cards you can draw at this point are the ones for the 3 Quests on the main board. They merely put pressure on you to complete those Quests, but do no immediate harm overall.

You cannot hope to win the game in the long run. When every Knight is down to 1 point of Life, and there are 11 Siege Engines around Camelot, your only (loyal) option is to draw a Black Card. Half of them will add the final losing Siege Engine. Therefore, the game is a race. You must get 12 swords at the Round Table before losing, and more than half of those swords must be White. If there is a Traitor and he hasn't been found out, then two more swords must be White to account for that.

That being said, if you hurry to finish the Holy Grail or Excalibur Quests, then you increase the chances of adding Siege Engines. My thinking at this point is just to pay attention to those quests enough to keep them from being lost. Focus on Lancelot's Armor since it is so valuable. Of course, the Black cards that show up, as well as the White cards collected, will partly determine what you can and can't do.



Summary

Shadows Over Camelot strikes a certain chord with role-players because of its fantasy theme and "hidden" interactions. The Traitor mechanism really pushes the game over the top. Without this, it would just be a very mediocre coop game. The components are all top quality, although I feel the boards are a little over-produced.

I understand all the things people say they don't like about the game, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying it. The Quests, and the game itself can begin to feel samey. All you are doing is moving around and playing cards into straights, pairs, and full houses. But that's like saying all auction games are the same, which is clearly not the case. The other small thing I would point out is that once you have enough White swords to win (7 or 9), all you really want to do is lose Quests as fast as possible (provided you don't gain enough Siege Engines to lose). This feels a little anti-thematic.

Overall the game is excellent and a good time with any crowd that can get into the theme. I wouldn't say "get it" to everyone, although anyone who plays RPG's, dungeon crawls, or even Werewolf, would probably enjoy it.

Components: (over-produced game boards)
(overall)
Rules:
Fun:
Luck:
Complexity:
Replayability:

Overall:


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Excellent review!

Bear with me while I pick nits here: I think it should be pointed out for the sake of any newcomers who read this excellent article that the images shown in this article are of copies of the game that have been painted by their owners; the actual pieces in the game are gray.

Like I said, I'm nitpicking. Excellent review; you get my thumbsup
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Travis Hall
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divisionbyzorro wrote:
Bear with me while I pick nits here: I think it should be pointed out for the sake of any newcomers who read this excellent article that the images shown in this article are of copies of the game that have been painted by their owners; the actual pieces in the game are gray.

Actually, only the first picture shows painted figures. The rest of the pictures show unpainted figures, straight out of the box.

Don't be fooled by the coloured bases. Those are painted, straight out of the box.
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Steve Bernhardt
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Good review.

Regarding the traitor, I think that it is what makes the game compelling to people, but it doesn't work well. I would like to see a traitor's powers scale with the number of players. A traitor in a 3 player game can be brutal, while being largely irrelevant in a 7 player game.

Your communication house rules fix another major problem, I think.
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Jim Cote
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I haven't played the game yet with more than 5. I wonder if having TWO potential traitors would work? With 7p, shuffle 9 Loyal and 2 Traitor cards together. cool
 
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Pierce Ostrander III
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Edted -

Wow. This is the most beautiful review I've ever read... uh seen. uh... whatever. It's very nice to look at.

Given all I know of your tastes and previous passions, I thought you wouldn't like this game! I was surprised when I read on your blog that you had purchased it. Hmmmm... It lasted about 4 plays on me before it got boring and got traded away.

I hope you continue to enjoy it!
 
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Jim Cote
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fubar awol wrote:
Given all I know of your tastes and previous passions, I thought you wouldn't like this game! I was surprised when I read on your blog that you had purchased it.


That's why it took so long for me to come around. I'd love to find more games with similar traitor mechanisms but without the subjectivity. Something with a little more Euro feel.
 
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Gordon Wong
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Very good review! I'll recommend my friends to read this.
And I agree with you on the writing about Collaboration. Being role-playing as knights, we shouldn't talk in terms of cards. Instead I much prefer like these... "I need to study the maps before leaving Camelot." "I cannot deal with the Picts alone." "Let me give a final strike on the Saxons?" "Who are good at hunting the dragon?" "I foresee a very big threat coming..."
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Bob McMurray
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Really outstanding review and easy to read and understand. Just for the sake of future readers of this thread, I would like to add my perspective on the rating you give to "replayability".

As of this writing, and there will be (many) more, I have played this game 70 times in 7 months. At this point I am keenly aware of the distinctions in play between 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 player games. They all play differently with different points of emphasis and are enjoyable in their own rights.

There is also the factor that the game plays markedly different depending on who the other players are. My games are drawn from a pool of about 15-20 different players so there is no lack of variety in what the players are bringing to the overall game experience.

Finally, as you acquire more and more experience in the game you can implement the various "handicaps" which make the game both more difficult and different yet.

Our favorite handicap is 10 black cards played before the Oath of the Round Table which always serves to keep the knights on their toes and also produces a unique "initial setup" every game. Other handicaps I know people use individually or in combination, each of which will produce a different gaming experience, include:

squire rules (no special powers until that knight wins a quest)
1 less life at start
1 less white card at start
automatic mists of avalon
5 black cards before Oath of the Round Table

So, my experience, given all of the above dynamics, is that replayability for this game is much more like a 9+.

Again, Jim, thanks for the great review of a great game.
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Jim Cote
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My replayability rating comes more from the fact that each quest is essentially the same every game. What makes each game unique, as you say, is the players and the cards drawn from both piles. Even with your suggestions, I think it will get a little old for me over time. If I only play it once each major game session, I think I could play it forever.

70 games of SoC in 7 months! Yikes! surprise
 
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Jeremy Carlson
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Great review Jim. Really outstanding, and because of it, I really want to give it a try now. I played the Lord of the Rings (whatever the name really is) co-op game, and I didn't care for it. So when I heard about this one, I didn't really care. But I took a look at this review because I am so looking forward to Battlelore, and wanted to see DoW's older stuff.
Thanks for making me not overlook this game.
 
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Jacob Lee
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Thanks for your excellent review, Jim. Yours was one of the ones that convinced me to trade for this game.

The "anti-climactic" ending would be a very serious problem for me. When it first occurred in LOTR (we had a couple of die rolls left and we realized that Sauron couldn't actually get to the ring bearer), I wanted to get rid of my copy right then and there. That should have been enough to keep me away from Shadows when I read about the possible dull way to finish the game. However, the theme sucked me in.

And I have to give credit to the numerous variants posted here. That possible anti-climax has really been nullified with some of these variants and I should probably thank them directly, too, for sharing their creativity.
 
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Stan Hartzler
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Quote:
The "anti-climactic" ending would be a very serious problem for me. When it first occurred in LOTR (we had a couple of die rolls left and we realized that Sauron couldn't actually get to the ring bearer), I wanted to get rid of my copy right then and there.


I don't understand why this is a big problem; the complaint I read more often about cooperative games is the opposite, that they are too hard to win. It sounds to me like saying, "I don't like chess because I gained a strong enough advantage that my opponent resigned before I could checkmate him." Certainly once you are good enough to win early, it makes sense to add a handicap the next time to keep the game challenging, but why is a win disappointing when it happens a couple of turns early?
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Aaron F
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The ending isn't "anti-climactic", it's "anti-thematic", and here's the issue: it's not like in Chess, where you've won a few moves early. Instead, the problem is that you've clearly put down enough white swords, and yet the game isn't yet over. Each turn could result in another siege engine, so it is still possible to lose the game. So, the un-thematic part is that, at that point, if you win a quest to close out the swords, you win; if you *lose* a quest to close out the swords, you win; if you fail to do either, before the siege engine count hits 12, you lose - even though you've exceeded the number of white swords needed. Hence you end up in the situation where you need to lose quests to win the game.

That's the part that's a little messed up. If you could simply hit 7 white swords and declare victory, that would be a different matter.
 
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Travis Hall
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aaronf wrote:
The ending isn't "anti-climactic", it's "anti-thematic", and here's the issue: it's not like in Chess, where you've won a few moves early. Instead, the problem is that you've clearly put down enough white swords, and yet the game isn't yet over.

Seven white swords is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory. Twelves white swords is clearly enough for victory, but anything less is not clearly enough. Anything less puts the ending in doubt.

Quote:
So, the un-thematic part is that, at that point, if you win a quest to close out the swords, you win; if you *lose* a quest to close out the swords, you win; if you fail to do either, before the siege engine count hits 12, you lose

Shift your thinking. It is very thematic to have to wait for the Round Table to fill before claiming victory in SOC. Camelot is under siege. If Camelot falls, how can the knights call it a victory? Indeed, if the siege has not yet been broken, if the knights do not yet know whether Camelot will fall, how can the knights call it a victory? The forces of evil outside the gate won't go home just because the knights decide they've done enough and put up their arms.

If you get enough swords on the Round Table, the war throughout England will end. If enough of those swords are white, the war ends more-or-less favourably for the people of England and that victory will in turn allow the knights to finally break the siege of Camelot. However, if the war takes too long to resolve, Camelot can still fall before the siege can be broken. That's what occurs if Camelot is overrun by siege engines when there are seven or more white swords on the Round Table.
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William Roop
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Actually, they released an expansion that adds 8 new knights (there are now 2 of each color, only 1 of a color can play) as well as a Merlin piece and travelling rules (a deck that players draw from when they travel) as well as enough loyalty cards and 2 traitor cards to play an 8 person game with possibility to play up to 2 traitors. Extra cards for both the white deck and black deck have been added with an interesting way to keep them from being easy to spot in an older deck of cards: They printed more generic number cards and other black cards so they can hide in plain sight.

The travel cards CAN slow things down as they MIGHT make a knight lost in travel. But they DO add Merlin Travels cards that allow the Merlin piece to move to a quest to assist in it's completion. The jury is still out on whether my group thinks the travel deck is worth it.

The extra knights and alternate powers keeps the game fresh with groups that have played the game a lot.

The only time I have gotten to play with 8 players, we did NOT draw a 2nd traitor and the traitor we DID have wasn't experienced enough to be very effective.

I love the way the game scales up for 3 - 8 players, although we USUALLY don't play traitor rules with less than 4.
 
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Tim Emmerson
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Hi, Jim. Quick question. In this 2006 review you give the game 8/10, but in your profile it is listed (as of 2012) with a User Rating of 4/10. Did I miss an edit to your review? Was time not kind to the game? Why the disconnect?
 
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Jim Cote
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My ratings are based on my desire to play the game. I haven't played SOC is 8 years. Since then, there are a lot of better hidden traitor games with more interesting decisions. Still, it's a nice entry into the mechanic, especially if you love the theme.
 
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Tim Emmerson
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Got it. I understand.
 
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