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Playing With Fire – The Downfall of Pompeii review

Pompeii COVER

So, I have a fairly decent sized games collection, and as a part of doing what I do here on the site there always seems to be something new to play. That doesn’t mean that older games should be forgotten though, especially when something gets reissued and you know that people should get excited about it. Everyone’s had that moment when they play something, decide that they really enjoyed it, then promptly forget that the damn game exists and move on. However, when that happens, there’s always the chance that serendipity will do its thing and put you and that game together again somewhere down the line.

That’s what happened to me and the new version of The Downfall of Pompeii. Originally released back in 2004 and designed by Carcassonne‘s own Klaus Jurgen Wrede, it’s been reprinted in a smaller box version by the folks over at Mayfair, and glorious fate has seen the pair of us meet up again. And guess what? I’m going to tell you a secret. Pompeii is a better game than Carcassonne*, and I’m gutted that it’s taken me nearly eight years to find myself in possession of another copy of this fine little game. That’s eight years wasted where I could’ve pulled it off the shelf, sat down with three other people and said “Hey! Check out this game by the guy who did Carcassonne, which is actually a better game than Carcassonne!”. The campaign to get a copy of this into every gamers home starts here. JOIN ME.

(*OK, this is a big claim to make, but seriously, it’s true. Playing basic Carcassonne gets dull pretty quickly because there just isn’t enough to do. However, if you chuck in Traders and Builders? Man, that is a sweet game. However, if you’re just playing with a standard set, I will always say sack it off and get Downfall of Pompeii out. Seriously.)
 

Everyone knows the story of Pompeii, yes? Way back in AD 79, the volcano Vesuvius erupted with barely any warning, covering the town in lava and ash, killing thousands and petrifying the outlines of their bodies forever. You can visit the ruins of the town today. Hell, there was even a Doctor Who episode about it that had Karen Gillen and Peter Capaldi in it before they went of to take more pivotal roles. You should watch that one, it’s pretty good. Anyway, prior to the destruction of the city, it was a thriving place that welcomed visitors from all over the Roman Empire. People loved it, and it’s this balance of getting as many of your people into the city and trying to get them out again that makes Downfall of Pompeii so bloody entertaining.

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With only a few gates open, the game quickly sees pieces bunch together and things get hectic!

You are, essentially, looking at two games in one, where how you and your opponents act in the first will have a major effect on the second. The first part of the game sees you vying for spots, bringing in people to fill the buildings dotted about the town. Then, once the moment hits and the volcano bursts into action, the game turns into a race to get as many of your people out through the gates in the town walls. There’s this amazing switch from placement game to race game when the card comes out that triggers the second half of the game and all the tension that has built up while you’ve been bringing your people in boils over and the horror begins…

So, a little more detail. The first half of the game is card based with each player holding four cards, each one representing a building in the city that are numbered from 1 to 11. Each turn will see you play a card and place one of your ‘people’ – little coloured wooden cylinders – into that numbered building. A new card is added to your hand, and play passes to the next person. A little way into the game,  the first of two ‘AD 79’ cards appears, introducing a couple of new rules. First, you’re now allowed to add more than one of your people to the board, the amount of which depends on how many are already in the building you’re adding to. With spaces in the numbered building being quite limited, neutral coloured buildings can now be filled up, turning Pompeii into a thriving, bustling little place. Not all is well though – should an Omen card be drawn from the pile, the player holding it gets to select another player’s piece on the board and throw it into the volcano.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the game comes with a little plastic volcano to hurl your victims into? BECAUSE IT DOES. AIN’T NO VOLCANO IN CARCASSONNE, IS THERE?

The Terrifying Vesuvius in all its glory! All will burn!

The Terrifying Vesuvius in all its glory! All will burn in its fiery molten rock!

Ahem. Soon the board begins to fill up and the time will come when the second AD 79 card is flipped, meaning that all cards are immediately chucked back in the box along with any people you’ve not brought into the town. The time for planning is over – now, it’s all about running away, and getting as many of your people to safety as you can. Before this begins, the lava begins to flow as six tiles are drawn in turn order and placed on the board. Each tile has a symbol showing which of the six starting points to begin at or join onto, so should you have a tile with a mask on it, you must place it orthagonally next to one with the same symbol.

This rule continues as play goes on, with each turn starting with another tile being drawn from the bag and added to the board. Of course, decisions must be made – do you put the tile in the way of other players but potentially block your own path? Perhaps you direct the flow towards some of the trapped people in the town? Maybe you’ll even sacrifice one of your own people to destroy a handful of other players’ pieces? And should any people be on the space that you choose to place your tile, they are immediately taken from the board and thrown into the volcano. Making noises at this point isn’t just considered good form, it’s a mandatory part of the game.

You then get to move up to two of your people, and look! It’s another simple but really interesting idea! Each piece may only move the same amount of spaces as there are people in their original square, so with three people there, you can move up to three squares. A solitary piece may, of course, only move one. This mechanism encourages you to bunch pieces together – not just grouping your own, but joining up with other players so you can get a good boost on your next go. However, large groups of people on squares makes for a tempting proposition when it comes to the every moving lava, and with another random tile being drawn every turn there’s a high risk that whole swathes of the population can be wiped out in a couple of turns. It’s a wonderful risk / reward type of affair, equally satisfying on both sides should you manage to pull off your plan of a well timed escape, or hurl a bunch of people into the volcano with a well chose tile placement.

So, Downfall of Pompeii is a game filled with positives; simple to understand, filled with strategic decisions to make that even younger players will be good to make, a touch of randomness with the lava tiles… It’s really rather lovely. In the interest of fairness, there are a couple of very minor negatives that I feel should be pointed out; the set-up of the card deck is a teeny bit fiddly and the instructions on doing so need to be read through a few times, and the lava tiles are a little thin when you’re now used to an industry standard of at least 2mm thickness, but these are really very small downsides. The game is a joy to play, filled with wonderful moments – getting a person off the board in the face of an oncoming tide of lava, or engulfing a pile of opposition pieces with a lucky tile draw… you find your pleasures in many different ways, and you’ll rarely find a more entertaining way to spend half an hour at your gaming table.

The Downfall of Pompeii was designed by Klaus Jurgen Wrede and originally released in 2006 by Mayfair. This new version comes in a smaller box but actually contains slightly more stuff – a three tile “Dual Vent” expansion is included – and will set you back around £25. Between two and four people can play with games taking between 30 to 60 minutes. And sersiously, you need to get yourself a copy, for it is most lovely.

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Out In The Fields – The Castles of Burgundy review

CoBCOVER

So it seems that at the moment, golden boy of boardgaming Stefan Feld can do no wrong. We’ve extolled the merits of a few of his games over the last couple of months here on littlemetaldog.com and – surprise surprise – here’s another glowing write up. This time we’re journeying into medieval era France as we take on the tricksy and delightful The Castles of Burgundy, a game that combines a little bit of chance with more options than a high-end car showroom.

From the start, I’ll say that Castles is not for everybody – if you’re the kind of person who complains that Dominion is nothing more than multiplayer solitaire, I’d avoid even picking up the box. What little interaction there is in the game is limited to someone snatching away a tile that you had your eye on before play managed to get around to you. It’s an exercise in brain burning where you’re constantly having to change your plans depending on what kind of things are available for do.

So, how does it work? Despite the multitude of choices, the way the game is played is simple. Each player has a board comprising of thirty seven hexagonal spaces, themselves formed into a large hexagon that represents the land you’re trying to build on. A central board is filled with tiles that are split into six groups and refreshed at the beginning at each of the game’s five phases. By rolling two dice at the beginning of your turn, you’re given the chance to spend whatever you roll and pick up a tile from that area – so, roll a 5 and you get to choose something from the space marked with the same number.

The Central Board where

The Central Board where the options open to you can be dazzling. Goods everywhere, hexagonal tiles that’ll form your own settlement, bonus points… how did he come up with such an intricate game?

Taking one of those tiles doesn’t mean that you get to add it to your board immediately, though. Three spaces are found at the bottom left of your playmat where you must put a tile first – sort of holding it in transit for a while – before it gets to become a part of your settlement. Again, a dice must be used to ‘build’ the tile, as each space is also numbered. You may think this is limiting in the extreme, and you’d be right in thinking that. Thankfully, players have worker tiles that can be spent to add or subtract from whatever you rolled, allowing for a bit of manipulation.

Those tiles come in many different types, each one offering a little boost or way to skew the rules in your favour. Grey tiles represent mines, giving you an extra silverling (the game’s currency) at the start of each phase that you can spend on a selection of more randomly selected tiles found in the centre of the communal board. Yellows are all about bonuses, screwing with the rules and generally boosting your powers. Greens are farm animals and can prove an immense boost as each time you add one of the same type – sheep next to another sheep for example – the points stack.

The Blue tiles add to your rivers, meaning that you take goods from the central board for you to sell; the more you sell of the same type, the higher the points return. Dark Green tiles are the Castles that give the game its name, and these allow an extra play of… well, whatever you like. They’re incredibly powerful and should be used wisely. Finally, the Brown Building tiles offer the widest variety of options as each type gives you a different ability.

Some bestow money or extra workers on you, while others allow for the immediate grab of another tile from the board or the placement of extra ones to your play area. A true master of Castles of Burgundy will be able to put together a truly impressive chain of these, transforming the two standard actions that you normally get in a turn into a parade of hexes being taken from here and added to there, all of which sending that final score into the stratosphere.

One of the Advanced player boards

One of the Advanced player boards. These are filled with randomised set-ups and everyone will have a different one, but there are Starter boards where each player works with the same spaces. Also, see how everything is language independent!

It can feel that pretty much everything gives you points in Castles; selling goods, finishing off areas of land, getting animals… keeping track of everything that’s going on with your board as well as what’s available (and what’s been taken!) from the central area requires a sharp mind and plenty of focus. Managing to do so is a valuable skill, and it’s that skill that will raise you above other players of this game. As with all of Stefan Feld’s creations, Castles is a game that rewards multiple plays and the investment of your time. While you learn and develop your strategies, you’ll also have to cope with the luck of the dice rolls and the random element of what tiles will actually get pulled out at the start of the phases. Adaptability is key – if something isn’t working for you, a change of plan can often be a better choice than sticking desperately to course.

If I were to have any criticism, it’d be the downtime you get with three or four player games. It’s far from a dealbreaker, of course, but I much prefer to break out Castles of Burgundy as a two-player effort. Not only does it mean that you’re almost always engaged, it gets the play time down to a very manageable thirty to forty minutes – ideal if you’re filling time while waiting for others to arrive. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing with more than two though – it’s still an excellent game with three or four around the table, but for a speedy yet deep experience, Castles of Burgundy is hard to beat.

The Castles of Burgundy was originally released in 2011 by Ravensburger / Alea and is designed by Stefan Feld. Between two and four can play with games taking between 30 – 60 minutes.  Copies from Gameslore are a bargainous £24.99, so head on over and grab yourself a truly great game.

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Love Machine – Neuroshima Hex review

I finally got my hands on a copy of Neuroshima Hex a few weeks ago and was pretty shocked to discover that it was originally released way back in 2006. Based on the long running Polish RPG Neuroshima, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has run amuck leaving humanity trying to live from day to day while avoiding the murderous machines. Think of it a bit like Terminator mixed in with Mad Max and you’ll get the picture.

Neuroshima Hex is a war game abstracted into the extreme where up to four factions strive to defend their HQ for as long as possible while still being as aggressive as possible. The different armies each have their own abilities and skills, The Outpost being the last of the good guys, attempting to keep humanity going through guerrilla attacks. The Hegemony are their flipside, valuing strength and throwing themselves into close combat as they struggle for power. Moloch, the big bad of the piece, is the machine based army responsible for wiping out most of humanity and looking to finish the job, while Borgo is the leader of their mutant offspring that wants to grab power for itself.

Each player begins with a stack of hexagonal tiles, taking their HQ piece and placing it on the board which is made up of nineteen hexes. Around the outside of the board numbers count down from 20, representing the “health” of your base – should this hit zero, you’re out. At the start of each turn, a player draws three tiles from their stack and must immediately discard one. You may then play them or hold on to them for a future turn, but the most you’ll ever have available to you is two per turn.

There are two different overall types of tile – Units and Actions. Units are the ones that will fight on your behalf. All you need to do is place them on the board and wait… Looking through the tiles in your army, you’ll notice that there’s a fair few symbols to get your head around but don’t fear; you’ll understand them pretty quickly. Attacking will either be melee (signified by a short, stumpy triangle) or ranged (a much longer, thinner one). If you see a net on your tile, it immediately stops any tile the net is pointing to from doing anything. A cross means that your unit has toughness and can take more than the usual one hit. There are even some tiles that bestow boosts to adjacent units, but there’s one thing you really need to pay attention to: the all-important Initiative number.

Every unit that’s able to attack has an Initiative rating and once the fighting starts you’ll see how important it is to consider them. Working from the highest number downwards, all units will attack at the same time – all 3s could go first, then 2s and so on until you get to the bases which are ranked at 0. After each Initiative phase, any units that are destroyed are removed from the board immediately – see why you have to pay attention now? A poor placement could mean that your well prepared plan falls apart in no time at all…

The Actions are much simpler to get your head around, being that they’re one off events that you trigger by discarding the tile. Some are unique, but most of the time you’ll see actions that allow you to move units, push them back or – most important of all – start battles. Throwing one of those into the mix will set off the chain of events that will see countless tiles on the board getting removed. You can also start a battle by filling the board up, so don’t get too attached to any units as it’ll be rare that they’ll actually last more than a few turns!

Artistic! (Photo by blakstar from BGG)

Depending on how many people you play with, Neuroshima Hex can feel like totally different games. With two it’s filled with tense, almost chess-like decisions and small moves; everything feels significant and you’re constantly looking for a chink in your opponent’s armour. Three and four player games are much more chaotic and are often joyously ridiculous – when you see that battle tile get flipped and all of a sudden fourteen tiles immediately disappear from the board, you’ll break down into fits of laughter more often than not.

This latest edition has space on the board for the placement of more tiles (perfect if you’re looking to introduce a fifth or even sixth player into the mix – there are expansions that allow for this) and rules for setting up scenarios. There’s a vibrant community online who create whole new groups and set-ups for other players to experience, so be sure to check them out. The game is nicely produced – the only minor downside is that I’d say the art on the tiles is functional rather than gorgeous, but in all honesty you’ll be concentrating on the icons more than anything else. Every faction also gets its own player board detailing exactly what tiles they’ll be getting which is very useful indeed.

Despite being really easy to get into, I have a feeling that Neuroshima Hex isn’t a game for everybody. When there are a lot of tiles in play it can become something of a brain burner as you attempt to work out exactly what Initiative level each unit is at and in what order things will happen on the board. You really need to think ahead as much as you can, reacting to what the other players are up to and thinking as tactically as possible, so if you enjoy that kind of game experience I’d thoroughly recommend it. Just don’t sit around the table to this one if you know the kind of people who get riled when their long-planned strategy doesn’t pay off! You may well see a table get flipped…

Neuroshima Hex was designed by Michal Oracz and works with between two and four players. The English language version is published by Z-Man Games while Portal handle the original Polish version. Games will take a maximum of an hour (and are way shorter with only two players). If you fancy a copy, get on over to Gameslore where you can pick one up for £32.99.

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When I Argue I See Shapes – Ingenious review

Reiner Knizia comes in for a fair bit of stick from a section of gamers. The whole thing about his games being dry and lacking in theme can be true – even stuff like his Lord of the Rings game feel a bit like the game was developed first and the LotR story was laid over it. To be honest, if that works for him, fair play to him – his designs still sell well even if not everyone is a fan. I must admit that I don’t like everything he’s responsible for, but I’ve recently been playing one of his games released back in 2004 and have really been enjoying it.

Ingenious is a tile-laying game with relatively simple rules and a trademark Knizia twist. Between two and four players have a rack of six tiles before them, each one basically two hexagons joined together. Both ends of the tile have a coloured shape printed on them, one from a selection of six – think of them like oddly shaped dominoes. Once per turn, a player selects one of their tiles and places it down on the hex-tiled board in a bid to either score points or prevent other players from doing so.

Scoring initially sounds confusing but is easy enough to pick up on. If the tile you’ve just placed has the same symbol (or a row of them) adjacent to it, you’ll score a point for every symbol. You don’t just score in one way though – moving out from the tile in five different directions opens up the opportunity to get a lot of points through clever placement. Both ends of the tile are scored in this way, then the points are added to your own score track. Players are aiming to get as many points of possible, as you’d expect, but here’s where the twist comes in.

So, here's how scoring goes. Any blue stars adjacent to the just placed tile get you a single point. If you manage to place it next to a row of blue stars, you earn even more...

As the game goes on, you must make sure that you’re pushing all six of your colours in relatively equal amounts. If you happen to leave one or two behind, this could well cost you a victory because when the game draws to its conclusion, each player’s worst-performing colour is their final score. If you manage to get five colours into the high teens but neglect to score your final one, leaving it back in single figures, your opponents will find it very easy to defeat you.

Each of the six scoring tracks goes from zero to eighteen and should you manage to get a peg all the way to the end, you’ll be granted an extra turn before replenishing your rack. Keeping an eye on your lowest scoring colour offers the chance to discard all your tiles should you not have any of that colour available in front of you and acts as a nice way of keeping all players in contention. The game can also be won if a single player gets all six coloured pegs to the end of their scoring rack but this is a very rare occurrence – it even says so in the rules!

It only really takes a couple of turns to get your head around the game’s core concepts. The idea that the “highest lowest” scorer is the winner can be a little confusing for players who aren’t used to designer games, but the rules include clear examples that demonstrate how things work.

Mid game and things start taking a turn for the sneaky!

Thanks to this comparatively simple ruleset – play a tile, score points, draw a tile, continue until there’s no space left – I’ve found that the game is very accessible to a wide range of potential players. Sure, early games will see most people simply racing to score as many points as possible, but it isn’t long before they realise that there’s a second layer of tactics to consider: cutting off your opponents while still ensuring you have access to score colours that you still need.

This is when Ingenious truly comes into its own; seeing that realisation dawn that there’s not only the potential to get points for yourself but also to screw over your fellow players is both funny and terrible – funny because they get all excited that they’ve learnt a new concept, terrible because you know they’ve taken that step and are now a much stronger opponent…

The latest version of the game has been produced by Esdevium here in the UK and it’s a very nicely put together set. The board is solid, the 120 tiles are light but sturdy and the whole package has a satisfying heft to it. My copy has a couple of tiny printing issues on two tiles (two blue stars are missing a point!) but that’s the only downside I see with this production run.

All in all, I honestly believe it’s one of Knizia’s better games. Even non-gamers are drawn to it thanks to the rows of bright colours that form on the board over the course of play, and a quick explanation of what to do will get everyone up to speed in moments. Sure, there’s an element of randomness there thanks to the necessity for tile drawing, but being able to discard your rack should you need to compensates for that quite well. This abstract levels the playing field between players of all ages and skills impressively and is a great introduction for new players to games that are a little different to the norm.

Ingenious is designed by Reiner Knizia and was originally released back in 2004 (when it was also nominated for the Spiel des Jahres). The latest version is made by Esdevium Games, plays with between two and four people (though there are solitaire rules too) and is available for around £25. There’s also an iOS and Android conversion of the game that is pretty faithful to the original and well worth checking out!

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Sun Hits The Sky – Sunrise City review

Everyone who loves their games knows all about Alien Frontiers. One of the highest funded board game campaigns on Kickstarter, it quickly drew the attention of those players who love flinging dice about combined with decision making and plenty of confrontation. Add in the fact that it was beautifully produced, had solid gameplay… no wonder it’s so well loved.

And now Clever Mojo Games are back with a new project: Sunrise City. Again, financed through everyone’s favourite crowdfunding website, this moves the action straight back down to earth and the titular city. Rather than floating through space and colonising a new planet, players create a brand new city from scratch. Working literally from the ground up you’ll place buildings upon buildings, scoring as many points as you can as you scrape the sky.

Behold the prettiness! From empty lots to towering skyscrapers, Sunrise City has it all.

I’m going to come out pretty much immediately with this; every time I’ve played this game, I’ve enjoyed it more and more. Designer Isaias Vallejo has managed to craft a game that hits that spot between being incredibly simple to pick up and play while also being having enough depth to appeal to more experienced gamers. But how does it work?

Between two and four players are tasked with building the city over the course of three rounds. Each round consists of four phases – Preparation, Zoning, Bidding and Building – that will see Sunrise City grow from nothing but a City Hall to a bustling metropolis. At the start of the game players are given four randomly assigned Role Cards, each one allowing a minor bending of the rules and determining who will go first. One role is used each round then discarded – it’s up to you to choose whether you’re going to aim for bonus points or manipulation of what’s happening on the ever-increasing board.

During Preparation you’ll also recieve four Zone Tiles and four Buildings. Zones come in five different colours and types: Parks, Commercial, Industrial, Residential and – probably the most important one – Mixed Use. Going around the table, the Zones are placed with only one restriction: you must make sure that at least one pavement-to-pavement connection is made. Many tiles have waterways that will restrict building on the ground floor, so you must make sure that you’re not scuppering your future plans with dumb placements.

Of course, you may not even get to build on the tiles you’ve placed, for Bidding is next. Everyone is given six chunky discs in their colour and – again, in turn – these are placed on the Zones. Placing a disc on a tile means that it’s your area for now, but other players may put theirs on top of yours! The only way to stop this is by having two of your own discs stacked, essentially locking that area down for your use alone, but this means you’ll potentially have less opportunities for building later. Whoever’s disc is at the top of the stack after all have been placed will leave theirs there – all others are removed, then it’s on to Building.

This is where the meat of the game is (and where you’ll score the vast majority of your points). It’s the phase where you place your four buildings down all over the city, making sure that the colours match – yellow on yellow, blue on blue – with one exception; the Mixed Use tiles. Anything can be put on these tiles, meaning that you’re not going to be stuck with buildings you can’t use… most of the time. Space on the ground level may well run out pretty quickly, but this is where the game’s stacking mechanic comes into play – as long as those colours match (or you’re building upon or using a Mixed Use space) the sky is the limit. In fact, there’s bonus points available for every odd-numbered floor that you place, so aiming high is recommended.

One of Sunrise City's many building tiles - this one's Mixed Use and Residential. You score the middle number when it's built - the outer two are bonuses.

Remember all that bidding you did earlier? Well, here’s where it becomes important: you’re only allowed to put down one of your buildings on a zone if you have at least one of your chips there. The building tiles will cover two zones, meaning that you’ve really got to pay attention to where they’re going to go. Thankfully, by creating that first level, you’ll also score bonus points for the side where your chip is. If you’re in control of both zones you’re covering, excellent – you could be in for a big points boost. But if you build and happen to cover someone else’s chip… well, then they get the bonus for that side, not you. So that’s the question: do you give away points in order to potentially give you the chance to play other Buildings in future turns? It’s a tightrope that needs to be very carefully navigated…

Sunrise City is a very quick game that offers a comparitive depth that you rarely find in first designs. With the whole thing done in three rounds, even with four players you’ll complete the whole thing in an hour. From the moment you crack open the (very heavy) box you’ll see you have a quality product – there’s not a square inch of space to be found in there. It’s packed out with incredibly thick tiles, loads of wooden bits… you’re certainly getting value for money on the contents, then on top of that you’ve got something that’s really fun to play.

It’s also got a very striking Art Deco style – all the Zone and Building tiles look great, and when the game’s complete you realise you’ve worked together to create something that is really pretty damn cool. In the whole package, I’ve only got one minor issue: the Mixed Use and Commercial Zone tiles are quite close in colour, but as all the Zones have icons to show their designation anyway that’s kind of a non-starter.

In my opinion, the folks at Clever Mojo have hit another winner in Sunrise City. It’s accessible to a wide range of gamers, fun to play and beautifully produced – what more could you want? Copies will be available within a few short weeks; if you backed it on Kickstarter, I’d start counting the days off right now…

Sunrise City was designed by Isaias Vallejo with art and design by Sarah “Chip” Nixon and the mighty Chris Kirkman from dicehateme.com. It’s is due for release in March 2012 through Clever Mojo Games. Between two and four players can take part and games should max out at around an hour. Get building!

 

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