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Musings about Deckbuilders (not CCGs)
Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
Texas
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Let's start with a confession -- I didn't like Dominion when I played the prototype.

In fact, I didn't latch onto it until the first or second expansion. Then I played a lot. I've logged 100+ face to face games, and many more online. That's much less than some people, but still...

Then I started exploring other deckbuilders. I haven't played them all (by any stretch) but I've played a fair amount of them, and I'm trying to decide what makes some good and some bad.

First I'll discuss the games (and my ratings for them), then some points of interest and compare/contrast.

Apart from the BGG numerical ratings, I use a simple four point scale:

Enthusiastic -- I promote and play this game almost every time suggested,
Suggest -- I'll often suggest the game (maybe not if I've played recently),
Indifferent -- I won't suggest it but I'll play from time to time,
Avoid -- I won't play it, except to be polite. Sometimes not then.
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1. Board Game: Dominion [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:30] [Average Rating:7.78 Unranked]
Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
Texas
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Why didn't Dominion work (for me) initially?

Well, the basic set is ... basic. It's clever idea, but it didn't hook me. The strategy space, once you get past the initial "How does this work" isn't exciting. More importantly, while the purchasing decisions are good from the opening (with a few surprises like Chapel's dominance being not-obvious), the "How do I play this hand" usually feels pretty straight forward.

Still, Dominion invented a genre.

Good ideas -- The Core Concept.

Issues -- As an introduction (both to Dominion and Deckbuilding in general), the base set feels simplistic now. But revolutionary at the time.

For base Dominion, I'm Indifferent (although see next entry).
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2. Family: Dominion
Brian Bankler
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Once the first few expansions hit, Dominion became (for me) a great game.

Obviously part of this is the "first-mover" advantage. Dominion had a large class of interesting cards already in the pipeline when the game hit the shelves, other designers and companies were playing catchup. Dominion also benefited (IMO) from its appearance on BSW (later supplanted by the excellent isotropic server).

As it currently stands, Dominion has a large three-fold strategy space.
1) Set Analysis -- Given these 10 kingdom cards, what is my plan?
2) Tactical Play -- Given what I drew this turn, how do I play it?
3) Purchasing -- Given my plan and current money, what do I buy? (In particular, when do I transition from money/engine to VPs? and What do I do when I get a bad draw that doesn't forward my plan?)

For any particular game, some of these decisions will be pretty easy (for an experienced player. A new player could be overwhelmed if they are playing with cards from mixed sets they'd never seen before). But there are lots of them, for such a dense game.

Good ideas -- Lots of new mechanisms scattered throughout the family. A very diverse set of kingdom cards.

Issues -- Not many, from a strategy viewpoint. A bland theme in many people's opinion.

Once you add the expansion, my rating climbs to Suggest, although in practice I mainly play with my son and online (which is much faster).
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3. Board Game: Thunderstone [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:338] [Average Rating:7.08 Unranked]
Brian Bankler
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Thunderstone took Dominion and added a dungeon crawl theme. But what else did it do?

Well, the first thing I noticed was that there were now two types of money. You could go to the village with your hand (in which case money matters) or you could go to the dungeon (in which case fighting mattered).

The thing is -- a given deck has X money and Y fighting (some cards contribute to both of course). Getting a huge money hand then a huge fighting hand is better than getting two average hands. It's actually a bit more complex than that, because fighting dealt with multiple currencies as well (lighting, in particular).

Dominion has good and bad cards, but everyone will see the same total through the deck (if the decks are the same). That isn't true in Thunderstone. This increases the variance.

Thunderstone also introduced (at least, introduced to me) rotating availability. In Dominion, every card is available at the start and equally to everyone. But Thunderstones village has a mix of things, some easy to conquer (buy), others less so. But they are all single cards, so what Player A gets and what Player B gets are different.

The result of these design decisions -- Thunderstone has more luck involved. As such, I personally only played it a handful of times.

Good Ideas -- I liked the leveling up mechanism, where you trash cards and replace them with better cards by spending XP. And the theme
Issues -- Two types of money, Rotating Availability.

Rating -- Indifferent
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4. Board Game: Ascension: Deckbuilding Game [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:358] [Average Rating:7.09 Unranked]
Brian Bankler
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Ascension has a cult following in SABG.

The most important aspect of Ascension is that it's the poster child for rotating availability. There are no central kingdom cards to setup. (Even in Thunderstone, only the dungeon cards rotated). Here you 'shuffle up and deal.'

Which means that during my ten or so games of this, it felt like how I played the game had only a minor impact on the outcome.

This also suffers from Two types of currency.

Good ideas -- I like the idea of a 'quick setup' deckbuilder. Who doesn't?
Issues -- Rotating availability.
Rating -- Indifferent
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5. Board Game: Eminent Domain [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:295]
Brian Bankler
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Eminent Domain has an intriguing new idea. Each turn you have a Glory To Rome like action that you do and other players can choose to also do or draw more cards.

The twist is that taking the action adds another copy of that action card to your deck.

Clever.

However, I found the gameplay for Em Do to be stale. In a sense, the chief mechanism is Implicit Collusion. You want to be able to effectively leech on other players turns (or time it so your leech/draw card cycles are efficient). You also want to minimize leeches. There's a push-pull, though. If you start doing Action X, you wind up with more Action X cards. But overall, I think that in the games I saw, the person who managed to leech well won.

More damaging, in my opinion, was the fixed card set.. All the cards available are the same every game.

As much as I like Dominion, a lot of the fun is in Set Analysis. And when the deck is the same that cuts that entire of deckbuilding out. Some card may be usually great, but not in this set. Or that set has a combination built on two (usually terrible) cards. But if you the same cards always available, that doesn't matter.

And as a practical matter, having a fixed card set makes the game less approachable, because there are a lot of options. Dominion may have a bazillionty cards, but only ten show up in your first game. When playing with a new player, you can simply veto tricky cards but still have an interesting set by including mainly base set cards but one or two ones. But Eminent Domain's "All technologies available at once" overwhelms.

(Come to think of it, Set Analysis is also pretty pointless with Rotating Availability).

Good ideas -- Your choice of action affects your deck composition.
Issues -- Fixed card set. Slightly overwhelming to new players.
Rating -- Indifferent, tending towards avoid.
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6. Board Game: Puzzle Strike [Average Rating:6.83 Overall Rank:877]
Brian Bankler
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[I'm speaking about the game as of 1st/2nd edition. Haven't tried 3rd edition rules]. Puzzle strikes "Killer idea" isn't chips (although that's cute), it's the fact that each player has a different starting deck with 3 unique chips.

That makes Puzzle Strike a dancing bear. It works, and that's amazing. The characters aren't perfectly balanced, but you'll need a lot of time playing to figure out how and why. And they are reasonably balanced. It also means that Puzzle Strike's base set feels more replayable than another game, because even if you kept the same kingdom cards (chips), swapping out characters would give a new feel.

But, like any dancing bear, you can complain about a lack of grace. An asymmetric game that is reasonably balanced & enjoyable for new players AND experienced players is tough to pull off, and Puzzle Strike's been tweaking the formula. Dominion's answer to a killer combo is to shrug ... well, everyone can buy it. But that's not true for chips that combo with unique character chips. The result is that the game is endlessly tweaked, which does bother some people.

Ignoring that, the base game works well. There is an powerful strategy ("Big Purple" as compared to Dominion's "Big Money") but implementing it correctly is difficult. I'm personally terrible at this game, which makes it much more interesting.

Puzzle Strike also has player elimination, which puts some people off, but that's not really related to strategy.

Good ideas -- Unique starting decks, while still reasonably balanced.
Issues -- Reasonably balanced isn't perfectly balanced. That doesn't bother me (usually its fast enough), but tastes vary.
Rating -- Suggest
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7. Board Game: A Few Acres of Snow [Average Rating:7.50 Overall Rank:142]
Brian Bankler
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San Antonio
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The Halifax Hammer gets all the press, but it is enabled by the fact that you have a fixed card set. Even if the game was perfectly balanced, the lack of Set Analysis would eventually make the deckbuilding aspect of the game somewhat stale.

Still, AFAoS had innovations galore. You have geographical cards, that have to be acquired via card play and link to an expanding 'network' of cards, and the concept of a true boardgame mixed with a deckbuilder. There's a lot to admire here. I just don't think the final product worked well.

Good Ideas -- Complex card interactions. Deckbuilding a component in a larger game.
Issues -- Fixed set of cards. Also, The Hammer.
Rating -- I was already tending towards indifferent prior to the discovery of a dominant strategy (because of the fixed set of cards), but that shoved this firmly into avoid.
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8. Board Game: Core Worlds [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:320]
Brian Bankler
United States
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Core Worlds feels distinct from most deckbuilders, and I believe it has to do with timing. In many deckbuilders (up to this point), you start with 2 turns in your deck, then reshuffle. Here, you start with two and change.

Also, as far as I know, this is the first deckbuilder that ends after a specfied number of turns instead of running out of some cards or eliminating your opponent. In fact, you'll likely only shuffle your deck about 3 times (barring a hyper-thin deck strategy).

Finally, unlike the other deckbuilders, you have a tableau of cards that you add to from turn to turn. In other games, cards are either in your hand, your deck, your discard, or waiting to be acquired (or trashed). The tableau makes Core Worlds a strange beast.

For example, in Core Worlds you conquer worlds (which are VP, and go to your tableau) by spending fleet and ground strength. In theory, these are two forms of currency, but because they mainly sit in your tableau until used, random variations about when you draw them don't matter as much. The main currency is energy (which pays your costs for cards and drafts) and actions. You start energy limited, but can wind up energy or action limited. In a sense, the action restriction feels like a way to preventing runaway leaders (much like the hand limit in Phoenicia/Outpost/Scepter of Zavandor), but I think it works.

Core Worlds has a set # of cards available each turn, so it has Rotational availability. However, instead of one large deck there are five small decks (for the first two turns, second two, etc), so the variability isn't as dramatic as in Ascension. Most all of the cards cost the same amount or require roughly similar force to conquer.

The main flaw (which doesn't prevent me from playing) is that thinning your deck out by not conquering early worlds for the first 3-4 turns seems dominant. If everyone knows that, it's balanced, but not as interesting as it could be. Hopefully the expansion (recently announced) will adjust the balance a bit.

Core Worlds (like Puzzle Strike) has different starting decks, but the difference is only 1 card out of 14. However, the advanced version of Puzzle Strike has a draft where players each get two unique cards prior to turn 1. That adds a reasonable amount of variability (although a few more draft cards would help increase this. As it stands with 5 players all the cards are available to draft).

Good ideas -- A draft to start decks off differently. Taming the random availability of cards by smaller sub decks and timing the cards to game stage. Mixing the tableau with deckbuider.

Issues -- A thin deck strategy is available in all games, and dominant. This limits game to game variability.

Rating -- I've played this a lot over the last three months (10 games), and constantly suggesting it, but I suspect I'll be taking a break and waiting for the expansion

Edit 5-20-13
: I've tried the expansion, and it's rejuvenated the game for me. This will probably never get to 100 plays, but it will likely make 25 (and, as a somewhat longer game, that's impressive). I'll do a full analysis at some point. With expansion, suggest.
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9. Board Game: Nightfall [Average Rating:6.62 Overall Rank:882] [Average Rating:6.62 Unranked]
Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
Texas
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My most recent acquisition, nightfall is set in a world reminiscent of White Wolf's World of Darkness (Note -- An AEG lawyer just punched his computer screen, then smiled as he realized he can bill another hour writing me a polite email).

Nightfall is definitely a take-that game. Each turn, your cards in play (Minions) attack opponents, can be blocked (MtG style). Any unblocked points give the victim wound cards, which determine the winner (fewest wounds when they run out).

Unlike Dominion's Curse cards, wounds aren't altogether bad. Since you are vampires/werewolves/monumental badass humans who hunt them, a few wounds can put you in the fighting spirit (wounds actually increase your hand size, after a small delay).

Nightfall overcomes one hurdle well -- turtling. Many multiplayer CCGs (and board games, for that matter) have an issue where two players who fight both come out losers. Nightfall's simple solution -- you have to attack with everyone at the start of your turn (you decide which minion attacks which player).

Nightfall's new mechanic is a quite interesting action phase. Like many games, you can play one card for free. But each card lists one or two card types (colors) that can be played. The active player can play as many cards as he wants (not resolving them) as long as he can chain the colors together. Then the next player adds to the chain, around the table. Then you resolve these cards "Last in, First Out."

I've just begun exploring the possibilities, but let me just say that LIFO queues combined with forced attacking make interesting decisions. Some minions, you really want to play the right before its your turn (so that nobody can play a card that damages them before they attack). Some of them are good defenders, so you want to play them on your turn so they absorb incoming damage. Most cards also have a 'kicker' ability, which only triggers if the previous card in the chain was the correct color.

Nightfall has symmetric decks, but the setup includes a draft for which cards will be available, and each player also drafts two cards that will be only available for him. This means allows for real differences in strategy without the potential imbalancing effect of different starting decks.

I've only played this a handful of times, but now this intrigues me.

I can't speak to how well this works with just one set, since I purchased a set with some expansions already mixed in.

Good ideas -- Private available kingdom cards (and a draft for them). Card/action chaining. Also, the starting cards all trash themselves (once they've entered and left play), which is a cute point.

Issues -- Multiplayer, you can gang up on people. That's not necessarily a good idea (except for the player who is winning and wants the game to end), so there will be table talk. Some groups will dislike that.

Right now I'm Enthusiastic. but ask me again in a dozen games or so. I expect Suggest will be the final point (but perhaps only 2-3 player).

Update 5-20-13: This fell back down to indifferent. The multiplayer kingmaking was part of it, but it just didn't hold up. Sold my copy.
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10. Board Game: Heroes of Graxia [Average Rating:5.66 Overall Rank:7131]
Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
Texas
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I've only played this once, so this isn't a detailed comment, but it was way too fiddly for me to enjoy. That's all I remember.

Avoid
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11. Board Game: Lines of Action [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:1812]
Brian Bankler
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Now that I've gone through the games that make up my experience, some discussion.

Dominion originated the base structure -- "A, B, C" for Action, Buy, Cleanup. In Dominion, you get one action, but some actions give more. But this is hardly a dominant model. Puzzle Strike uses it, but Core Worlds (and A Few Acres of Snow) limit you to a specified # of actions). Eminent Domain gives you one action, and the ability to follow. Nightfall has chains, one chain (or none) per turn.

"How actions work" isn't a core function of deckbuilding, so it's not surprising that games are all over the place. (Which isn't to say you can build a system wily-nily, just that any action structure can be interesting).
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12. Board Game: Buying Spree [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
Brian Bankler
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"B" is for buy.

Dominion lets you buy one card a turn, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. It's reasonable, but I think that "Buy as many cards as you can afford" is more interesting. (Puzzle Strikes "You must buy every turn" is also a neat idea, as your deck is never static).

Dominion also makes purchasing the only way to earn VPs (before Prosperity, anyway). Discounting winning via cursing your opponents, you buy to win. And since VPs (mostly) clog up your deck, you have an inevitable tipping point.

One complaint I've heard (for Nightfall) is that you build your combo and then the game ends. But is Dominion's way preferable? Build a combo and then go around the table a few times buying out the VPs? Well, it does pose an interesting question -- how early is too early to get VPs? The tension between VPs and Engine drives Dominion and that tension makes Dominion interesting. (So, in that sense, I agree with the criticism of Nightfall, although I think the criticism is fairly mild ... similar to "The game doesn't drag on.")
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13. Board Game: Clean Sweep [Average Rating:6.70 Unranked]
Brian Bankler
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Ah clean up.

Dominion's method is simple, but I think the "you may choose what to discard" (or even Core Worlds "You may keep zero or one cards" provide more interesting options. In general, this is an underexplored aspect of the genre.
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14. Board Game: Suppenkasper [Average Rating:5.59 Overall Rank:8357]
Brian Bankler
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How thin is too thin?

The Chapel is Dominion's critical kingdom card -- a fact that is not at all obvious to new players. A thin deck strategy appears to dominate whenever it has the chance, and a deckbuilder needs to be aware of that and limit trashing to keep things interesting.

(One of my issues with Ascension is that trashing shows up randomly. And a player who got early trashing has a significant advantage).

Core Worlds and Nightfall have built-in, but limited trashing. That's clever.

A critical ratio for deckbuilders is ratio of shuffles to turns you take. If that number is zero, then you are playing a game like Wiz-War, not a deckbuilder. If its one (shuffle every turn) you are playing a card game (shuffle and deal each turn) just with complicated rules. I don't know that there is a 'correct' ratio, but it seems to me that I prefer games where the number is around .3.

Of course, in most games you are adding adding adding cards (rarely trashing) so the first shuffle or two are the most important.
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15. Board Game: Resident Evil Deck Building Game [Average Rating:6.58 Overall Rank:1427]
Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
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In the comments below, a local asked me why I hadn't played this. And I realized -- I had! In fact, I found my comment on the game from over a year ago. "The random encounter in the sewers seems like a pretty terrible idea, and hitting the worst monster once or twice will put you out of the game. What's the point of a deck building game with such a huge random luck element in *every* setup?"

So now I know what's worse than having things randomly popup. Having things randomly pop up after you have committed your turn to them. And my memories are hazy, but I seem to recall that there are two types of currency.

Rating -- Avoid.
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16. Board Game: Mage Knight Board Game [Average Rating:8.16 Overall Rank:8]
Brian Bankler
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I finally played this (and the expansion) earlier this year, and it has quickly become one of my favorite games.

This is a hybrid (a deckbuilder with a board), like A Few Acres of Snow. Of interest is that you know (roughly) how many times you'll play through your deck. For the full conquest scenario, you get six times through the deck (if the game goes the distance). This is enough so that you'll need to improve your deck, but it's not too horrible to take a few wounds (curses). Even a fair number of wounds.

Also, running out of cards forces you to end the round, which gives other players one more turn. So, unlike other deckbuilders there isn't a massive advantage to thin decks. You'll speed the game up, but cost yourself a turn in the process. The "Chapel" like cards do help in MK, but are not game changing.

Also, when you gain new cards for your deck, you put them on top of the deck (instead of the discard pile) which means that your deck improves faster, mitigating the relatively few number of times through.

Planning is helped because you do not discard unplayed cards automatically (although you may choose to do so).

Of particular interest is that each card (except wounds) can be used for any basic action, or for it's printed action, or by spending mana used for a superior printed action. So, in effect, each card has six possible uses. (But, particularly in the early game, you can only use one superior action a turn).

This makes hand management and deciding how to spend cards interesting.

As a deckbuilder, Mage Knight has interesting ideas. But (IMO) the true glory of the game is based on its complex puzzle-like nature and trying to balance short and long term goals.

Good Ideas -- Added cards go on top, multiple uses for each card, unique starting deck for each character, deckbuilding is a component in a larger game, fixed # of times through the deck.
Issues -- This is a board game with a deckbuilder. The complexity makes it much heavier than most games on this list (not an issue for me). Rules need work. Takes a long time, particularly with 3+ players.

Personally, this is one I'm enthusiastic for, and have quickly gotten to 25 plays (about 20 solo). One of my favorite games (of any genre) in the last few years.
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17. Board Game: Eaten by Zombies! [Average Rating:6.06 Overall Rank:2590]
Original Dibbler
Germany
Aachen
NRW
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Good Ideas: high amount of interaction because you can add cards to the zombies the other players are facing, loosing cards during the game, elimination through card loss.

Issues: I don't see any.
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18. Board Game: Terra Evolution [Average Rating:5.53 Overall Rank:8989]
Original Dibbler
Germany
Aachen
NRW
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Good points: different theme.

Issues: You can make mistakes that make it impossible to win early in the game or in other words: it does not make thans if you don't knw the game well.
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19. Board Game: Rune Age [Average Rating:6.91 Overall Rank:590]
Original Dibbler
Germany
Aachen
NRW
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Good: different currencies, scenarios.

Isssues: Only three special cards you can buy per scenario which lowers the re-play motivation because games tend to be similar.
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20. Board Game: Arcana [Average Rating:6.23 Overall Rank:1857]
Jerome Nivet
Ireland
Cork City
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Good ideas - The mix of open and blind auction/bidding mechanism, unique theme thanks to the original art.

Issues - Some have argued that Arcana adds nothing new to the genre, and that it is more of a tricktaking game than a deckbuilder per se. Some have also argued that it is "too random".

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