Spotlight on Games > 1001 Nights of Military Gaming

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Magic Realm
Multi-player fantasy wargame with a strong role-playing element. In the 1970s the fantasy role-playing game led by TSR's Dungeons and Dragons became the rage in serious gaming. Traditional war game companies like SPI and Avalon Hill saw significant segments of their customers shifting to these games. At first a reality they tried to ignore, eventually they had to do something. Not before 1979, did Avalon Hill respond with this and, in the same year, Wizards Quest. But while these games were created with fantasy settings, they did not depart much from the heavyweight rules and systems style of their war games. The inventor's games before this were historical war games like Fortress Europa, Victory at Sea and Victory in the Pacific (themselves derived from earlier work by John Edwards at Jedko). Although in this game Avalon Hill found artwork for the characters and actually credited the artists, they failed to fully consider or embrace the artistic possibilities that a fantasy game can offer. Players each take one of sixteen pre-made characters (of the usual types, e.g. White Knight, Black Knight, Magician, Elf, etc.) and wander about a board composed of twenty randomly-set tiles which contain monsters and treasures. Other components are spells, armor, weapons, horses and treasures. Characters differ a lot in their abilities and some, such as the Woods Girl, cannot really do well unless teamed up with another character. On the plus side, the rules make up for the usual RPG need to have a gamemaster; on the minus side, these rules are rather involved. There are now three versions, the first two suffering from having been written in the programmed learning format, which is nearly impossible to use as a reference. This is especially pernicious here as an 80-page rule book needs a lot of referencing. But even with a traditional format, the game is rendered difficult to play by the addition of so many tables and complications meant to completely model all that could occur in its world. The value in all these rules is unfortunately only in their thoroughness; originality and cleverness did not really come into it. Combat, for example, sees the character placing in one location and then just rolling a die to see whehter the monster(s) match up in an advantageous position or not. If they miss one another this can go on for several stultifying rounds; a simple die roll would work just as well. The sudden appearances of monsters are just as random; at one moment you can be looking for treasure and in the next a fast monster lands on you and you're dead. Speaking of this, searching for treasure is another very random activity. A player rolls two dice needing a 1 and a 4, but only the higher number counts, so finding something takes quite a long time. Overall a playing can easily require ten hours or more. This could be re-designed with more modern practices that eliminate the waiting and easily take a third off the time. The communication design is not done well either. For example, the Inn starts on a random tile, which is determined by random placement of a chit. But strangely this chit does not say Inn, but says some other words, e.g. "Dank Valley", which much then be looked up in rules. In fact there is so much looking up of rules and tables that this game should really be played with an electronic tablet nearby. Yes, there is a great deal of welcome fantasy flavor here, but it's really far too slow, and long, and number-heavy for most who would otherwise be interested. Complete list of characters, which no doubt influenced later efforts like Talisman: Amazon, Berserker, Black Knight, Captain, Druid, Dwarf, Elf, Magician, Pilgrim, Sorcerer, Swordsman, White Knight, Witch, Witch King, Wizard, Woods Girl. Players interested in this sort of thing are well-advised to try the more modern and accessible Return of the Heroes.
Strategy: Medium; Theme: High; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 5
Richard Hamblen; Avalon Hill-1979; 1-16
Magic: the Gathering
The famous collectible card fantasy game revitalized gaming in America during the late 1990's. Frequently-changing rules and all of the inevitable problems attending collectibility are just two reasons not to get involved.
Wargame in the Britannia system, this time set in India from the Aryans to the British. The system is quite similar to its predecessor apart from the addition of factories in later stages of the game. That, and the submission rules have gone quite wild as Britain will probably own, directly or indirectly, nearly every area on the map. It's questionable whether it was wise to extend to post-industrial times a system originally intended to model early tribes. Has a lot of problems, including not much activity for the player of the yellow tokens, possibly because the designer died during development. Read more about it in this extensive variant. [background]
Make You Gunfighters
In this card game from Japan players begin with a group of five gunfighters whose present locations are indicated by the five cards held in hand. On a turn one of these can move to one of the other six locations by discarding the card and drawing a new one. Or he can take a shot at another player's gang by simply showing a card for a location or one that's adjacent, as indicated on a small map. Any gunfighter card the target player has at that location is lost and the shooter earns money if any such card contains one or more dollar icons. With money a player has a third turn option, to "advance the story" by turning over an event card. Some of these help, some hurt – losing two turns isn't much fun – and some affect all players. There are three ways to win, but two of them – set collection or money collection – seem rarely practical. Rather all playings seem to end by means of elimination. However, a player who gets down to just one card gets to pull a Climax card which probably has a special ability prolonging his survival. Despite the amusingly fractured English of the title, the instructions are clear and unambiguous. The cards seem to be laminated, but only on one side. The board is a flimsy affair and the cardboard coin tokens really should be replaced with something nicer. If it hasn't been noticed already, this is Go Fish with the addition of six shooters. But with its very short turns and amusing flavor, even an elimination game like this can be effective. Of course, control of any sort is frequently absent and there's nothing particularly innovative either. And yet when played in the right spirit – perhaps after midnight – it does offer a certain manic energy that is appealing. And how many closers do you have that tolerate seven players?
Strategy: Medium; Theme: High; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 5
Kondou Koushi; Bouken; 2007; 2-7
Mare Nostrum
Military game set in the ancient worlds of Egypt, Babylon, Athens, Rome and Carthage. Each turn is played out in three acts. In Trade, players receive commodity and tax cards corresponding to their caravans and cities. They then have a joint group trade using a system that can be considered a refinement of that employed by Andromeda – drafting one card at a time from one another, rather than an entire group of cards. In Construction, they turn in these groups of cards in unique sets of 3, 6, 9 or 12 to create new, for example, caravans, markets, legions, fleets, fortresses, heroes, wonders – the latter two confer extra abilities. A set of 12 unique cards or enough of the 9 card sets wins the game, and immediately. At most two tax cards may be saved. Finally, in War players move their legions and fleets and conduct combat. Armies use fleets to hop over seas à la Diplomacy. Each combatant rolls a die and total pips are divided by five. Every resulting point, rounding down, scores an enemy loss. Since the average roll is only 3.5, only one round of combat is allowed and fortresses always roll sixes, legions are relatively feeble. Sea combat is allowed, but optional. In total, the situation reminds of Material World – play without combat is certainly viable and will yield a runaway winner in 60-90 minutes. The only realistic way for the rest to prevent the leading player achieving this is combat, thus generating an additional hour of contest. History fans will find the theme a hit-and-miss affair. As in Magellan, there is a wide space of time between suggested coevals Julius Caesar (died 44 BC) and Hammurabi who lived at least 2000 years earlier. An opportunity has been missed since actually Rome, Carthage, Egypt, the Greeks and the Seleucan Empire all did more or less co-exist as powers. National advantages like that of the Romans to produce legions more easily make sense, but others, such as ignoring the Carthaginian naval ability less so. It's as if the ultimate Carthaginian defeat at sea is all that matters and the Phoenician mastery of the waves over six previous centuries can be tossed off like a passing wave. In fact, everywhere the perspective seems to concentrate on the popular view of history rather than the actual. It's similar with the map coverage which totally ignores Hispania, a very significant mining region. Who could suspect that a title referring to all of the Mediterranean would only depict a portion of it. The artistic presentation does better. A brown and bronze map suggests something the ancient planners might use in their war rooms. Round counters are large enough to show attractive illustrations and avoid the problems previously encountered in Clippers. Apart from one error, the player aid sheets are comprehensive and attractive at the same time, although many will want to laminate them. The trading cards are very attractive, although numbers might have helped when trying to figure out how many uniques one has (sorting alphabetically seems almost as good). Who wins after this multivariate war depends on manipulation, foresight, positioning and good dice rolling. The latter point tends to fit ill with the master strategists who would otherwise be attracted. Another limitation seems to be a lack of strategic options. It appears that for each side there is a single best economic path and not much variation either in the military path. There are five different sides to play, but once those are exhausted it's not clear they will bear repetition. There are also relatively few decisions to make – many will prefer that significant choices with a wide number of options come more frequently. Contrast this with other recent opuses of this type. In Wallenstein the starting position is very different every time and offers the fun of programming simultaneous orders. In Empires of the Ancient World, there are several different starting options as well as strategic options, e.g. sea, engineer, trader, etc. It also offers the additional challenge of programming the combat deck. Another issue the intended audience may have is that of balance. With the advanced (free) setup, there appears to be a pronounced advantage for the Greeks who can postpone their leader and concentrate on an all taxation policy and the Romans who will certainly not start with a fortress when it can be purchased more cheaply later. But a side like Carthage tends not to do anything much different from the basic setup and so hardly benefits at all. Thus the basic setup is much preferred, but even then a side like Carthage seems to have a tough time doing well, despite being the usual Commerce director. After five playings, it seems that with experienced players it will often be the case that several players are set to win at the same time and that victory is not really a matter of true domination, but of just happening to edge first over the line (important to be the Political leader), a victory rather out of sync with the military theme. It's a very fragile system, depending as it does on everyone's willingness to play good defense against a leader and others not taking advantage of those defenders for their own gain. It's also rather demanding in an accounting sense of the Commerce leader and traders not to accidentally give an opponent too good a trade result. Such accounting may not be to the taste of many players. Really this is an analyst's dream, not so much on how to win, but on how it should be played to stop leaders and ensure a level playing field. While this appeals to a certain segment of the playing population – notably those interested in design issues – at the end of the day the intended audience will finish with this game frustrated. Ironically in a military game, the best feature of all is the trading system. Mike Siggins once made a comment about Andromeda that also applies: "is alternately VERY interesting, and then almost pointless". Even though true, a fun game should be possible with a further developed form of this subsystem at its center. [analysis]
This is a card game in a fantasy/manga setting invented by the maker of Fairy Tale and Saga, both of which are part of an ever-increasing and impressive development from multiple creators in the Japanese game industry (cf. Traders of Carthage, R-Eco, Mermaid Rain and Make You Gunfighters). This one features several ideas that are not really new, but are well-combined and judiciously balanced together. Each player has a secret identity card – shown as a different mask – with a unique supplemental victory condition. Each also drafts a different special ability before play. Then each round players take turns drafting turn order cards – not the same one two turns in a row – which also each confer a special ability. In this order, then, they choose which of several locations to visit, each providing a different function and each limiting the number of visitors. The library gives a spell, the circle two spells at the cost of a health, the tower a chance to fight the current monster, the arena a chance to fight another player, etc. Combat is fairly deterministic with the attacker adding spell cards to his basic power rating and the defender having the chance to respond (monsters adding a drawn spell card). There are also three "emblem" cards which like the Catan longest road award is held by the player who has accomplished the most in a given category. There are also mechanisms to discourage a runaway leader. In fact the only real downsides are that the slim spell deck, which will probably be gone through at least three times, features some spells which are rather better than others, e.g. the one that permits winning any combat, or the one that permits stealing it. The players lucky enough to acquire these should do well. The other issue is that play seems to go on too long – ninety minutes perhaps – for a game with such a limited number of choices. This might have an easy fix, however, by simply removing at random a couple of monsters from the deck. The artwork is not bad and the cards well made. Four is probably the optimal number of players.
Strategy: Low; Theme: High; Tactics: High; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 7
Satoshi Nakamura; Yuhodo Inc./Z-Man Games; 2003; 3-5
Material World
Multi-player wargame on a world scale uses area movement and simple mechanics. A fresh take on the traditional wargame instead presents the classic "guns vs. butter" dilemma since in order to win players must expand trade routes and invest in consumer goods in order to accumulate victory points. At the same time it is possible though hardly efficient to invest in military technology and to build armies. Incredibly powerful, this forces the same activity on the part of the other players. Thus the typical game sees the player furthest behind building up and devastating his neighbors who thereafter must do the same to their neighbors (if any of the wherewithal to do so remains) or see them coast to victory. Alternatively, the players all begin the game defending every trade route with armies and the game lengthens from three hours to six. Contains an astonishing 840 counters, the majority of which will not be used, but not many games can boast counters depicting Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, Martin Luther and others. Rules are straightforward, exceptions and political realities being kept to an absolute minimum, but some rules are not found where one expects. Overall, the concept is admirable and the board mechanics are nice and clean, but needed quite a bit more development to deserve attention as something more than a political-economic statement. Later retrofitted with new rules by the original designer untried. [chart] [analysis] [notes] [Pirate Games]
Medici [International Team]
Somewhat abstract Renaissance period wargame. [more] Games of the Italian Renaissance]
Wargame about warriors battling one another in an arena. The combat half of Wizard is a clean combat system that works well, although a bit limited after multiple playings. Later expanded in Advanced Melee, one of the components of the RPG The Fantasy Trip. Features attractive artwork by Liz Danforth.
Memoir '44
if no image, probably out of print

Light, two-player game of second world war western front operations. Designed by Richard Borg along the lines of his Battle Cry (1999) also includes a plethora of plastic pieces. Battles are tactical, representing small snippets of a front. A unit's ability to take losses is handled by placing multiple pieces in its hex space, but curiously losses do not affect firepower, which is determined via special dice. Perhaps combat losses are more meant to represent losses to morale. The best and worst of the game are the same feature: the randomly drawn cards which determine which of one's units may move and fire each turn. Normally a card permits only one flank or the center to operate. Thus it can be difficult deciding just what to do each turn. Planning for eventualities and shifting forces between fronts can be challenging too. Can you manage to win despite limited conditions? On the other hand, sometimes the cards can be so skewed to one's advantage, or disadvantage, that all the fun falls out. It's surprising that there are no rules, e.g. card drafting, to cope with such situations. It's surprising too that in this high quality package there are so many rules contradictions and special case issues, requiring the use of downloaded FAQs and which engender unwelcome dead time. This, combined with what is probably just one too many levels of detail, prevents it from being a suitable gift for younger players or any who are not hardened gamers. Overall this was a nice idea, but neither developer nor publisher have delivered as well as they might have. It would also be nice if the cover artist could explain why the paratroopers are landing in the ocean.
Strategy: Medium; Theme: High; Tactics: High; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 6
Richard Borg; Days of Wonder-2004; 2 [Buy it at Amazon]
Middle-Earth: Gondor
Two-player wargame from the Lord of the Rings novel by J.R.R. Tolkien depicts the battle and siege of capital Minas Tirith in which Gondor tries to stave off the forces of the Dark Power. Much of the map depicts the seven levels of the city, but most of the fighting occurs outside it. There are special rules for climbing walls, pouring oil on climbers, catapults, catapulting captured heads to demoralize the city, etc. Initially the Dark Power is the attacker while the Westernesse side has fun once reinforcements arrive. There is not much room for strategy as there is usually only one obvious way to do things and games seem to follow a regular pattern. Other complaints are that more terrain might have been included outside the city, the rules for magic feel tacked on, there is no character interaction, no test of wills between Gandalf and the Witch King and no special minor character presence (Legolas and Gimli). Throughout, the emphasis is on what the underlying military situation might have been rather than on really trying to mirror the literary feeling. There are some errors too. The Harad Axemen counters read B3Y while the rules say E2Y. One of the Mordor light archers says e1Y while all of the others and the rules say e1Z. It is not clear when oil can be used: is it only during the Sauron movement phase? Also, what happens when attack levels are reduced by one, yet a unit (an E or an e) is already at the lowest level? If there is an effect, what about anti-personnel catapults? If a Gondor unit is in a Tower and a Sauron unit is on the other side of an unbreached gate, may the Gondor unit attack? Do the Mumakil count as cavalry? Do combat units use siege towers during the Siege phase or the Combat phase? Is it allowed to catapult an undisrupted unit (for purposes of controlling a level)? There are also ambiguities around re-moralizing the garrison (more DP?). Strategically, most of the proactive challenge is on the Sauron side, who should try to lower the enemy attack ratings and then block the Rohirrim with Mumakil. Use the Fear spell to nullify the AP of catapults. Above all, never lose a leader.
Middle-Earth: Sauron
Two-player wargame from the works of fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien. This one depicts the battle at the end of the Second Age between the forces of Sauron and the Western confederation of elves, men and dwarves. A rather flavorless rendering using the cookie-cutter SPI medieval system, plus the Beast of Mordor, never mentioned in the books at all. The subsequent full revelation of the Tolkien universe in books such as The Silmarillion or even just Robert Foster's excellent The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth in which the Beast clearly has no place makes it looks a rather unfortunate choice in retrospect. Most of the same complaints on the above Gondor apply here as well. I have created an extensive variant to address at least some of the issues. [analysis]
Middle-Earth: War of the Ring
Wargame based on the Lord of the Rings novel by J.R.R Tolkien and centerpiece of the Middle-Earth game set which also included the games Gondor and Sauron. Versions include a character- and monster-only game and another which adds in all of the armies. A three-player rule allows Saruman. The map of Middle-Earth is very nicely done as is the card art, although flimsy. Play of the game has some interest and strategy, but most games seem to end in the same way, with a Fellowship party at Mount Doom fighting all of the Dark Power characters, i.e. not very satisfying from the point of view of the novel. Combat is a rather abstract, one-on-one affair. The army game is similar except that a lot of time is wasted managing incredibly huge armies which really have no final effect on play in any case. One strange artifact of the combat system is that the smaller the army size, the less it loses in combat. This permits the Westernesse player to dot the landscape with tiny delaying forces that will ultimately stop the Dark Power in its tracks. Another problem is that the logic of a novel does not translate well into a game. For example, for most of the novel the Dark Power had no idea where the ringbearer was, but in the game it is usually fairly obvious and the player can easily send forces to the right place to search. Consider also that the Dark Power player knows that his opponent is trying to bring the ring to Mount Doom in order to destroy it, but in the novel that entire strategy was never even dreamed. It is difficult to reflect that level of stupidity in a meaningful game.
Middle Sea
Subtitled "Empires of the Feudal Age", the multi-player wargame set in the thirteenth century includes rules for economics, warfare and diplomacy. Area map includes Mediterranean lands from Bay of Biscay to the Red Sea, from the Black Sea to Morocco. During Winter turns players deal with revenue, maintenance and levies. During the other seasons, there is movement and combat. As in Diplomacy, orders are written and both armies (leaders, infantry and cavalry) and fleets (galleys and round ships) are included. There are also coastal raids and fortifications. Combat damages not only armies, but also revenue capacity. Cards denote the owner of each area, which vary in their revenue-producing capacities. The game setup is not historical. Instead each player has free choice of three starting provinces and hopes to expand outward. There are also rules for spies (which permit examination of the face down units in a province) and blockades. Map and counters have attractive, authentic heraldic shields. Obscure due to very small print run, an interesting if longish effort that deserves more attention than it has. Probably best for 5-7 players. [Fantasy Games Unlimited]
Mighty Fortress, A
Six-player wargame set during the Christian Reformation, the antagonists being the Lutherans, Papacy, German (Holy Roman) Empire, Ottoman Empire, France and England. Played on a hex map, each player uses one set of four unknown overlapping victory conditions. There are a lot of interesting features here and plenty of room for negotiation. The Papacy and Lutherans are different from other positions in being more concerned with converts than territory. The ping-pong match between the Papacy and England over Henry VIII's divorce can be considered "iron maiden" rules as there is never any reason for the players not to perform historically — it would have been much better if the penalties for their actions were expressed not in victory points but in actual play effects. Serious rules ambiguities will make you want the errata from the web; even then be prepared to come up with house rules from time to time. Tends to be too long for what is going on. With Russian Civil War, in SPI's "Power Politics Series" and one of only two outside designs SPI ever published, the other being Winter War (not described here). [summary] [analysis] [playback]
Mind Duel
Magazine game about psychic combat in a science fiction setting does not seem to work at all as printed. It is not difficult for players to run into a situation where they cannot move at all and be easily defeated.
Mission Command Land
Game of modern tank and helicopter combat for children. Combatants are "the tan" and "the green", the battlefield a square grid. Each of a player's six tanks has a secret identity number from 1 to 6, which also provides its number of starting "life points". Also available to each player are a helicopter, several artillery pieces and 3 headquarters installations. Movement is restricted by an overall number of points given each turn. Combat is conducted via special hit dice similar to those previously seen in Hasbro's Battle Cry. But just before attacking, each player must undergo artillery and missile strikes which the opponent has programmed on a hidden peg board prior to movement. Since no occupied space can be programmed, a player can avoid some of this by continually bringing reserve units into the old spaces. So there are some tactics to the game, but this system programming has too little impact to justify the time spent configuring it, even if it is a good idea for keeping the one involved while the opponent decides moves. There are mildly strategic things players can do in their setup and positioning to try to mutually support units, but all seems to eventually falter under the vagaries of just a few dice rolls. Probably to avoid too-defensive play, the overall goal is destruction of enemy tanks, not the installations, so the latter tend to play an unfortunately small role. The pieces are attractive enough to be usable as playing figures apart from the board game and this clarifies the only possible audience: children 8 and above who would enjoy a little more structure to go with their play figures. Note that while 8 year olds can certainly play this, most will need help to learn the rules the first time, and probably also to complete the considerable assembly required. Otherwise, there is nothing new here and it's unfortunate that the topic of multi-unit combat, perhaps the area of most possibility, is virtually undiscussed in the instructions. It's too bad too that no packaging is provided to store the 32 plastic pieces and 60 or so cardboard damage counters, especially since some, such as the helicopter blades, are rather fragile. Said to be inspired by Milton Bradley's 1975 Tank Battle.
Modern Naval Battles
Card game about Cold War naval actions is the Naval War concept gussied up and gone high tech. Although it looks nicer, pretty much the same comments apply. This game features a surprisingly high number of expansions. [Take That! Card Games]
Mystic Wood
Multi-player fantasy wargame inspired by Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Spenser's The Faerie Queen. The "board" is composed of a number of randomly-distributed inverted tiles which the players must "discover" as they traverse with the goal of fufilling a quest according to their own personal idiom. The play of the game is thus very different each time with a high experience factor, but highly subject to luck. In addition, there is very little decisionmaking, but with a high potential for boredom as a player may lose a large number of turns during the game. This game seems to have begun life as Sorcerer's Cave by Ariel/Philmar, been revised and re-published under this title by Gibson's and then again by Avalon Hill.
Wargame of Homeric Greek heroes who fight monsters and recover fabulous prizes for up to eight. Each represents a named god or goddess with special powers who à la The Sigma File or Kremlin bid for secret control of the twenty-four named and variously strong heroes as well as the many different monsters. Players may also spend points to secretly aid or "ail" these counters. Combat is resolved by rolling a pair of dice to get an 11-66 result which is added to the attacker's offensive strength trying to exceed the opponent's defense strength. Players also hold cards which can perform special effects or give extra value for specific prizes. There are many problems. Reiner Knizia likes to use the term "stable" to refer to a game which does not misbehave or go awry in any circumstances. Unfortunately the term cannot apply here as things can go quite crazily off kilter. Matters are so chaotic that almost anything could happen. In fact it's even possible for players bent on destruction to use the much stronger monsters to kill all of the heroes. It could also happen that a player's secret victory bonus could range from unlucky "score points every time a player causes a tempest" (rather unlikely if Poseidon happens not be be in play) to the possibly very lucky "score points for every unclaimed prize". Sometimes the secret bonus is even in contradiction to one's special powers although having it depend on what others decide to do seems quite deleterious enough. Other problems are race conditions caused by various actions such as Divine Occurrences which the instructions state can occur "at any time", but leave ambiguous whether they can interrupt the current action or must wait until the action is completed. There are communications design problems too as the heroes have both names and numbers, but are not listed on the notes sheet in any particular order, either by power or alphabet. Nor do the numbers appear on the cards. The sheet doesn't list their strength ratings either. So you won't be surprised that the seven different ways to earn victory points are also not listed there. In a reversal of usual wargame convention and for no discernible reason, the defense number is listed on the left and the attack on the right. With all of the note taking and testing of control, completing the suggested number of game turns will take a very long time – probably eight hours with six players – and each player added makes it dramatically worse. Even the theme, the strongest feature here, does not work very well. Usually the gods did not secretly contest for control of various heroes, but simply supported their favorites, so one of the main mechanisms feels entirely foreign. This leads to further oddities such as a player getting a point just for successfully being able to move a hero – and losing one if not. It's really too bad that so many features don't work because the (paper) world map as the ancient Greeks imagined it looks quite nice and the named and variously rated heroes, monsters and prizes are very fun, most of them being already in our heads from childhood readings of mythology. While this may be re-usable for someone running an RPG in a mythological setting, it cannot be recommended for serious play without considerable adaptation.
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