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Subject: Agricola - Does this Emperor have Clothes? rss

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Mark C
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My first plays of Agricola didn't really impress me. I figured it would grow on me, based merely on all the positive buzz on the geek, but it hasn't.


Perhaps the first thing to notice is this game takes a lot of space. 4 boards in the middle make a large board, but everyone also has a personal board...and then you need more space for cards to be played. Big games never bothered me as I have lots of space; so this is more of a "take note" comment. Also, there are a lot of different bits. Cubes, discs, boards, and cards, cards, cards. All very reasonable quality, and I'm thankful Z-Man picked this up so quickly and went through what must have been a fairly ambitious translation of a zillion cards. Also the cards are divided by decks "interactive", "complex", "easy" and "promo" which is a nice way of sorting them. Again, nothing negative here --in fact, you can say it's a positive that this game has a lot in it, and offers lots of replay with the variations. It's almost like you get a kit, not a game. All good stuff, so far.

Briefly, the game uses a placement mechanism very similar to Caylus or Age of Empires III, where you put one of your two family members to get resources, which can in turn be used for food, or for scoring. This type of placement mechanism is used in lots of games now. Perhaps the easiest comparison is to call it a much more complicated version of Stone Age that takes twice as long, with slightly more strategic depth, but way more replay. With Agricola, you have two primary objectives: 1. Produce food. 2. score points. There is some overlap, thankfully, as food producers also tend to score, provided you have some left over. Not so with the food itself.

Agricola is very punitive early in the game if you don't gather sufficient food to feed your family, but that's not too difficult. The only issue you'll have is if you get side-tracked. This tension remains for the entire game because the turn structure, and the food requirement, which accelerates (you need to put on weight in this game, I guess). Get too greedy building up your scoring categories, and you won't have enough food. Work too hard on one specific food and you might run into the same issue.

In a nutshell, get some food, and take scoring opportunities. Easy, right? But oddly, this is where I found the game somewhat flat. The scoring seems forced and unintuitive. The game is ostensibly about producing food, but in reality the scoring is quite rigid and caps your efforts just as you get good at something. I find this makes you burn actions in a scripted way. Usually towards the end of the game you're using actions to avoid large penalties. For example, if you have no grain, you will score -1, but if you have just 1 grain, you score +1, for a swing of 2 points, which is very good for a single action. But to score 1 more point, you need to acquire...get this...3 more grain, just for a single point. This non-linear scoring applies to many categories, and I find is counter-intuitive. I also believe it detracts from the game as it forces scripted play. Also, because many categories work the same way, many of the late scoring opportunities become identical.

Finally, there are two major paths to food production: a chain of actions using plow/take grain/sow/major improvement/bake bread or a chain of actions using wood/fence/animal/major improvement. The major improvements are one-time actions needed to acquire a conversion item such as an oven (which also require resources). Because your hand may favor one or the other, you can get stuck competing in your least desired path. Fortunately, there are many supplemental sources of food. Unfortunately, these are potentially insufficient, or unreliable, making it harder as the game accelerates.

I think it's worth discussing the scoring in greater detail, since I found it both uninspired and not consistent with the theme --although you could always make up some circuitous argument about theme that makes it fit.

Scoring (done only at the end of the game):
First sheep nets you 2 points (-1 for no sheep, and 1 point for 1 of them; since all scoring is relative, the swing is 2. I suspect the reason for this is sheer clumsiness due to modifiers from some of the cards).

First sheep, boar, cattle, grain, veggie, pasture, all 2 points.

Fields require 2 for 2 points. These categories all cap at just 5 points (-1 to +4), at different rates. If you are very good at managing sheep --too bad, you get just as much for 1000 as you do for 8. Same for everything else, although the top score is: 7 Boar, 6 Cattle, 5 fields, 4 pastures, 4 veggies, which compensates some categories for coming out later in the game. There is no reward for diversity of food sources as such, however, you'll score better with 1 of each category than you will for having the most in any one (net better by 8 points vs maxing one of these six categories). Likewise, there is no reward for having food at the end of the game, despite most of game being about getting food. Also, some cards convert resources to food, or score points for resources, but the rest of the game implies you cannot use anything beyond the arbitrary scoring caps for any use.

Cards tend to either give you bonuses to actions, or convert resources or actions to points. When done with a card draft at the start of the game, this aspect is quite good, as some cards work much better in combination.

Also, 3 points per person (if you "score" 3 times with your spouse, you gain 9 points).
1 point per room for the first home upgrade, and 1 more per room if you achieve the second.
1 point per stable (again limit 4)
A penalty of 1 point for each unused land space on your personal board. And a massive 3 points per food you failed to have during the harvest rounds. This will kill your score --it's really something you only suffer from if you make a mistake, or gamble on a space being left open and it gets taken before your turn.

One side effect of this complex (and IMO arbitrary) use of categories for scoring, is that it effectively keeps scores secret so you can't use that knowledge late in the game to thwart a rival. You'd have to be an idiot savant to look at someone's board and know their score. Also, as I mentioned earlier, it often leads to scripted moves late in the game.

The Good
On the plus side, the cards give the game a lot of life. There are little bonuses all over the place due to the 14 card hand you get, and if you use the interactive deck, many interesting penalties as well (assuming you don't like helping your competitors). With so many cards, there are many surprises out there, and chances for combination. If you use a card draft, or mix decks, there's a lot of game here just in that aspect. The game plays and sets up differently with the number of players, giving it even more variety. Z-man IMO did a very good job getting this translated and produced in English quickly. You get a lot in the box. This has fewer ambiguities than most games with a large volume of cards, although I'm glad it was taught to me. Picking it up cold would have been a lot more effort.

Summary
On the downside, Agricola is a so-so worker placement game, that is space-hogging, overly complex, oddly scored, and at times scripted. Despite all the spaces on the board, there are just too many cases where players will do the same move in the later rounds, even regardless of how they built up their farm during the earlier rounds.

On the plus side, it offers a ton of variety with the various set-ups and cards, and even more if you use drafting or other easy-to-explore variants. Plus, some players probably enjoy the diverse scoring system, and feel it offers its own challenge. Besides, who can resist farming? If nothing else, the theme is novel.

Still, I wonder how it rose so high with my fellow geeks, given the odd scoring, and resultant narrowing of choices it promotes. Puerto Rico IMHO was much more innovative when it came out, and has brought many of my non-gaming friends that enjoyed gateway games, deeper into gaming. I don't see Agricola doing that, although the sheer passion some folks have for the game may mean my experience is unusual. Whether you wind up just liking it, or loving it as so many geeks do, don't let me stop you from checking it out. For me though, it's an above average game that looks better than it plays.

You can decide for yourself whether this emperor has any clothes.
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Steve Austin
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Gamer_Dog wrote:
You'd have to be an idiot savant to look at someone's board and know their score.


Thumbs just for this.
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Tony Chen
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I perfectly agree that the scoring is uninspired and makes for scripted play, but I don't think it's counterintuitive. Would you want more than you can eat, but nothing to wear? Or just enough to eat and wear? I think farmers in the old days were self-sufficient and didn't trade much, and the scoring models that appropriately.
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Steve Duff
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Gamer_Dog wrote:
Still, I wonder how it rose so high with my fellow geeks, given the odd scoring, and resultant narrowing of choices it promotes.


Frankly, I think folks just love playing with the little sheep and piggies. cool
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Barry Goldstein
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drunkenKOALA wrote:
I think farmers in the old days were self-sufficient and didn't trade much, and the scoring models that appropriately.



I totally agree with Mr. Koala.
It may be added on parsley, but the game refers to an early independent agricultural time period.

Also the Tech is very early too. No tractors, combines, etc.
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Patrick Hickey
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Why I give Agricola a 10- You start out by planning your strategy based on the cards in your hand. Then your strategy collides with all the other players. Things aren't going the way you planned! Resources you need are being snapped up by others! Oh no! Plan B! No, wait, Plan C! And suddenly its over. Did you weather the ride?

Other worker placement games don't have the long term planning aspect that Agricola has- and if they do, it often degenerates into each person putting into effect their plan without caring much what their opponents are doing. Agricola balances the long term and short term game exceptionally well.

I don't know about BEST GAME EVAR or whatnot, because Settlers of Catan has probably made more people happy for more hours than almost anything published in the last 10 years, and its not even near the top of our rankings. But as games go, Agricola is an excellent one.
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Eric O. LEBIGOT
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Thanks, Gamer_Dog, for this very lucid review that makes explicit some important details about how Agricola works.

I do not share your main griefs, though.

Gamer_Dog wrote:
you'll score better with 1 of each category than you will for having the most in any one (net better by 8 points vs maxing one of these six categories).
Yes, Agricola rewards diversity. But the diversity has advantages, in terms of game play:

(1) The "get diverse sources of points" strategy is obvious: this provides players with a poor hand, players of the Family Game, and newbies with a strategy; and it's fun to try to follow a plan.

(2) There is no obvious best recipe for victory, which would favor seasoned players who happen to have learned the idiosyncratic details of the game. ("- Your score is impressive! - Well, I knew that I had to first build a 2 field fenced area for cattle, then that plowing 2 fields would give me enough points at the end, etc.").

Gamer_Dog wrote:
Likewise, there is no reward for having food at the end of the game, despite most of game being about getting food.

While it is true that you don't get points for food, I don't share the idea that "the game being about getting food" and that it is problematic that food is not directly rewarded in the scoring; to this judgment, I prefer your own description that players have "two primary objectives: 1. Produce food. 2. score points". Thus, there is no logical problem with food not being rewarded, as food and points serve different purposes; and as drunkenKOALA noted, this makes sense, thematically.

In any case, whatever the scoring system of a game, I think that what matters if that it is fair (not random, and clear enough so that all players know what their potential point reward is). As long as everybody knows the rules of the game, people can compete for the best score. In this respect, Agricola feels perfectly right to me.
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Domjan Svilkovic
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It is apparent that some people have trouble with the Agricola's 'some of everything' scoring philosophy. I personally don't find it a problem for the following reasons:

1) Even though you don't directly get points for specializing (4 point limit in most categories), that doesn't mean that it's often not a good idea to be really good at something. The reason, of course, is food. You may get the same 4 points if during a game you collected only 8 grain or if you collected 16 grain and converted a half of it to food through a very efficient grain engine, but it has a large impact on your actual gameplay. The same goes for animals.
Efficient food engine (that can be highly specialized) generates a large surplus of actions that are used to generate victory points (through played improvements, renovation and family growth). Even though you are rewarded for diversity at the end of the game, specializing during the game is often a really good idea. In the games I have played the people who diversified too much during the game almost always lost.

2) From the experience, it is certainly possible to win the game even with a -1 in a few categories. In the endgame, you can usually find even more point-rich actions to do then collecting your first vegetable or sheep. It is not unusual to collect 10-15 points in your last round (I think 18 was my personal record) so those 2 point actions are not necessary world-changing.

What do you mean by the 'scripted' endgame? If the script is 'collect a vegetable if you have none' then it's often a wrong one. If by scripted you mean that in the last few rounds it is usually somewhat easier to spot the optimal action and to predict the optimal action for other players, than I agree but I really don't have a problem with it. It's certainly not a 'robotic' play! The more complete knowledge you have in the endgame can actually easily lead to analysis paralysis. I actually quite like the gradual transition from almost completely chaotic inability for long term prediction to the almost perfect predictability in the last round. In my opinion it makes the game more exciting, not less.

Also, if you end the game with too many sheep (that is the same as too much food) there is really no point in whining about unfair scoring rules. The rules are clear. You obviously spent too many actions unnecessarily generating food when you could have been collection victory points.
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Jamie Pollock
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I always find the scoring aspect of Agricola good fun. The intuitive scoring, generally speaking, means all one has to do is look at someone else's farm to get an idea of how well that player is doing. Yet the clever part is it doesn't always give the whole picture unless you're playing the family game. There are occupations and minor or major improvements to factor into the end-game scoring and therefore, taking the snapshot picture of someone's elses farmyard during the game doesn't always reflect the true story of how well they're doing. That can lead to some close finishes that possibly weren't expected to be! Stone Age is another game that manages to retain a similar tension during the end-game scoring.

The way the scoring works means over-specialisation of your farm is discouraged. However, there are a myriad of cards which reward players for taking actions that will lead to some degree of specialisation. Points for each stone room for example, or each pasture above a certain number. As a result it's often possible to negate certain minuses through lack of a good by acquiring more positives points elsewhere and still end up with a competitive score.

That's why I think Agricola succeeds.
 
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Paul Lister
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Gamer_Dog wrote:
You'd have to be an idiot savant to look at someone's board and know their score.


Or play the game a few more times and it becomes easier, in this is i see it as no different from Puerto Rico, or even Power Grid.

It is entirely possible to win the game with end game minus points. I think if you play more you will see that optimal specalisation sets up an end game win by allowing you to feed your people for the least actions - thus leaving your actions free to maximise in other areas. Playing to the perception that you have to do a bit of everything is a sign of a realtively inexperienced player. In two of my recent games i have seen 'generalists' (i.e no minus points)score in the high middle forties and lose to specalists who have invested heavily in major improvements and cards giving bonus points. The more i play the game the more i find tactical and strategic depth.
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Jim Cobb
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Gamer_Dog wrote:

Scoring (done only at the end of the game):
First sheep nets you 2 points (-1 for no sheep, and 1 point for 1 of them; since all scoring is relative, the swing is 2. I suspect the reason for this is sheer clumsiness due to modifiers from some of the cards).


Hmm, I suspect the reason for this is that darn number line we learned about in school. The sequence seems to be something like ...-2, -1, 0, 1, 2, ... It's kinda like a pattern. -1 is two spaces from +1. I wouldn't call that clumsy, just, oh I don't know, maybe reality.


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Quote:
On the downside, Agricola is a so-so worker placement game, that is space-hogging, overly complex, oddly scored, and at times scripted.


Sometimes you just can't explain why a game is great for some and not for others. While it may seem scripted, to me it seems more like development. In terms of the scoring - there are many goals you need to balance. What may seem overly complex, seems like rich and varied gameplay to me.

I love it, not because of the hype, but because it has an addictive quality to it. And the fact that it can be played solitaire means I will get even more play and enjoyment out of it.


 
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Goran Topic
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lebigot wrote:
I prefer your own description that players have "two primary objectives: 1. Produce food. 2. score points".

Even this, I'd rephrase:
1. Stay fed.
2. Make a nice, self-sufficient farm.

Diversity rewards more than specialisation because we like our steaks with carrots and bread. Who wants to eat just bread, 3 times a day, their whole life? And conversely, I think of meat as spice (albeit one which you have to add a bit more of than, say, basil). Cutlet with a side of pork, with chicken salad on the side, not my kind of fun. And if you don't trade much, specialised farms get you exactly that.

Also, you don't get points for food, simply because food is not the focus. Not having to beg is.
 
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Gamer_Dog wrote:
You'd have to be an idiot savant to look at someone's board and know their score.

It's much easier with Agricola than with Go, trust me. And, even if I'm not even close to being good at it, it's one of the best games ever created. But I guess you must hate it. Oh, you don't...? It's a 9 for you? Strange.

And then there are all those weird games with hidden victory points, like Puerto Rico. I'm sure you can't stand those... Oh, you rated it 9.5? Hmm.
 
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James Bentley
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
Gamer_Dog wrote:
Still, I wonder how it rose so high with my fellow geeks, given the odd scoring, and resultant narrowing of choices it promotes.


Frankly, I think folks just love playing with the little sheep and piggies. cool


Ewe can say that again.

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Joshua Harris
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While I disagree with the majority of your comments, thumbsup for the well written, and solid review.
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Stephen Shaw
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drbsgold wrote:
drunkenKOALA wrote:
I think farmers in the old days were self-sufficient and didn't trade much, and the scoring models that appropriately.



I totally agree with Mr. Koala.
It may be added on parsley, but the game refers to an early independent agricultural time period.

Also the Tech is very early too. No tractors, combines, etc.


Personally I think that this is a very poor justification for an awkward scoring system. First, this wouldnt explain why you would need both pigs and cattle. More importantly, however, farmers in this time period were EXTREMELY dependent upon barter. Read Fernand Braudel's Wheels of Commerce series.

I am totally addicted to Agricola -- I really like it a great deal. The scoring mechanism, however, is something that I dont like about the game. If there was a better way to support more routes to victory, and/or some sort of barter mechanic, it would be a 10.

 
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A nice, honest review. To me, the scoring fits the theme. Nowadays people can and should specialize, but this game describes a world where success, health and self-sufficiency meant diversity. If you wanted protien in your diet, you better raise some animals. You'd also want cattle for milk, wool for clothing, vegatables, etc. Whether or not this is literally how it was in that place and time, I don't know or care, but the context does make sense and feels right.
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tom moughan
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ahh....I love the smell of a stack of sketchily placed animals in the morning!
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dsvilko wrote:


2) From the experience, it is certainly possible to win the game even with a -1 in a few categories....so those 2 point actions are not necessary world-changing.


YES.

thank you for raising this point - because I was going to! I ended up with a few -1 at the expense of playing minor improvements in my hand that turned 1 vp into 2 and earned me bonus points for investment in upgrades, etc. you can certainly make up a few lost points..and still gain a few more in the process to add to your score!
 
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Domjan Svilkovic
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Jethrone wrote:
Whether or not this is literally how it was in that place and time, I don't know or care, but the context does make sense and feels right.


I must say I just don't understand the obsession some people (not you) have about whether the game is realistic enough simulation of the real-life farming. It certainly isn't. It's not even trying to be. If you believe (not you) that a certain rule would be counter-intuitive to a medieval farmer, so what? The game is interesting, well balanced, fun and looks great! Who cares if you can't find a real-life base for each and every rule?
The justification for the scoring system is presumably based on careful playtesting, not on the study of farming.
 
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Mark C
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I don't think realism really matters either. As long as a game has a certain elegance (i.e. good depth of decisions relative to the complexity of the rules) or just gives you a fun experience. However, those are the reasons for my tepid review.

amadan wrote:
Gamer_Dog wrote:
You'd have to be an idiot savant to look at someone's board and know their score.

It's much easier with Agricola than with Go, trust me. And, even if I'm not even close to being good at it, it's one of the best games ever created. But I guess you must hate it. Oh, you don't...? It's a 9 for you? Strange.

And then there are all those weird games with hidden victory points, like Puerto Rico. I'm sure you can't stand those... Oh, you rated it 9.5? Hmm.


Not sure why you are reading it that way or taking offense with something that is simply a characteristic of the game, and I think it's fair to say it is.
 
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Gamer_Dog wrote:
Not sure why you are reading it that way or taking offense with something that is simply a characteristic of the game, and I think it's fair to say it is.

Sorry, Gamer Dog, if you read it that way. I was not taking offense. I suppose my sense of humour sometimes doesn't translate well to text. I was merely trying to point out the inconsistency in your saying that the state of a game of Agricola is hard to read, with your ratings the way you are - particularly of Go, which is notoriously hard to learn to read mid-game.
 
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amadan wrote:
Gamer_Dog wrote:
Not sure why you are reading it that way or taking offense with something that is simply a characteristic of the game, and I think it's fair to say it is.

Sorry, Gamer Dog, if you read it that way. I was not taking offense. I suppose my sense of humour sometimes doesn't translate well to text. I was merely trying to point out the inconsistency in your saying that the state of a game of Agricola is hard to read, with your ratings the way you are - particularly of Go, which is notoriously hard to learn to read mid-game.


I still see no reason why you would say this as I never state this has any bearing on my rating.

Taking those other games and focusing on this characteristic, then suggesting causality is even more dubious.

I don't rate Go highly for example, because of how one might read (or not read) the board positions.

If it's humor, I guess it went past me.
 
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Gamer_Dog wrote:
I still see no reason why you would say this as I never state this has any bearing on my rating.

The sentence ("Only an idiot savant...") at first glance looks like something one would write in a con section of a review, if one had pro and con sections. Also, it's situated just before the paragraph titled The Good, implicating (even if not overly stating) that it falls under The Not Good. I reacted to that, pointing out that it does not necessarily make a game worse. I did not suggest that you rate Go highly because of its unreadability - but you do not rate it lower, either (since there's not that much space to fall, if it's 9 in your book). The parallel with Go wanted to show that state opaqueness should not be so important as to warrant such a disparaging-looking remark. If you did not mean the comment to be a con, I misread you, and apologies for misplaced light irony.

And now, as any joke, if it's overexplained, it stops being funny very fast. I will not be commenting this any further.
 
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Mark C
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amadan wrote:
if it's overexplained, it stops being funny very fast. I will not be commenting this any further.


But many jokes get a second wind, where they become funnier with repetition.


 
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