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Subject: Why I prefer Stone Age to Agricola rss

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John Clark
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First, note that this review is not called "Why Stone Age is better than Agricola". I agree that Agricola is, by most objective standards of boardgame design, a better game than Stone Age. I would just prefer to play Stone Age, and I will tell you why. Broadly there are two reasons: theme and gameplay.

Theme:

Both Stone Age and Agricola are games about gathering resources, building or buying stuff (which result in additional benefits and/or victory points), increasing your workforce and feeding your workforce. In many ways the theme strength is higher in Agricola, in the sense that your farm can have all sorts of things whereas Stone Age is limited to tools and farms. However, some things really irk me about the theme-ing in Agricola.

1. I can easily understand where the resources come from in Stone Age: the people go out into the forest, mountains etc and work there are return with a number of the relevant resources, which is determined by the number of workers, tools and luck (the dice). This is very thematically solid and the way these three things combine to produce resources is really very clever. Now compare Agricola. Resources simply arrive at the start of each round and people go out to get them. But where do they arrive from? Why do they arrive? I suppose you could come up with some ad-hoc rationalisation to answer these questions, but it does not come naturally out of the game like it does in Stone Age.

2. Why can’t you collect stone from the start of the game in Agricola? Why can’t you have a baby from the start of the game? Agricola, unlike Stone Age, restricts your possible actions until certain points in the game. Now, I am not saying this is a bad thing - it is actually the key mechanism which allows each game to be a bit different since the time when you are allowed to have a baby varies from game to game. But it just irks me that it makes no sense thematically.

3. Thematically, the number of people required to do the different actions broadly makes sense in Stone Age but not in Agricola. I have already mentioned the number of people required to collect resources. But how about the number of people required to have a baby? That’s only one in Agricola! Ah, I hear you say, the one to have a baby in Agricola is the mother who is out of action while having the baby while the father can still collect resources etc. And here is the point: the time-frame of Agricola is hard to understand. How long in ‘game time’ is a turn in Agricola? The key point is that the baby born in one turn is available to work on the very next turn! So the turn must be at least around 5 years. But this does not make much sense in the context of the rest of the game which revolves around the harvest cycle, which presumably occurs once a year which mean game turns are only 4, 6 or 12 months depending on if there 3,2 or 1 rounds in between harvests. Consider Stone Age now. There is no problem with thinking of each turn as 5-ish years. A game starts with five people who are presumably each between 10 and 30 years old. The game typically lasts for around 10 turns, or 50 years. This makes the original people very old by the end and requires some suspension of logic when they want to have their first baby at the end of the game, but otherwise it is ok. Obviously neither game wants you to think that people eat only once a year or once every 5 years - the food aspect is summarising the overall need for food on a regular basis.

So these points summarise my issues with the theme-ing of Agricola. I should add a few words about the huts and civilization cards in Stone Age, which are the weakest part of the theme. The civ cards are actually not too bad - these represent different developments (like the developments in Agricola) which provide both short-term and long-term benefits. In Agricola the developments provide on-going benefits plus a straight VP value at the end. In Stone Age the developments provide an immediate benefit plus a VP value which varies according to your end-game stuff. So, I have no problem with the development cards in either game.

The huts are more tricky to provide a thematic context for and I am not going to try. While I would like the huts to work better with the theme it has never bothered me too much since they don’t play a role in the core mechanic of the game, which is the whole worker-placement thing. The conversion of resources into VPs is a problem in almost all games since this is not how life actually works but games need some way to decide the winner. The Stone Age huts could be fairly easily made more thematic. For example, the picture of the hut could better match the types of resources needed but for some reason the designer chose not to do that. Anyway, my point is that the thematic strength is never going to work too well in the VP part of the game.

OK, perhaps you have read all this and your reaction is something like, "get over it, they are only games and the theme will break down at some point". Well, that’s true. Everyone has a preference for how much theme integration a game should have. In short, Agricola tries to be a game which simulates the construction of a farm in quite a lot of detail - this is serious micromanagement - but key aspects of it are non-thematic in order to make the gameplay work. Now that is ok - all games with a theme must make sacrifices for gameplay - but the fact that Agricola has SO much micro-theme-ing means that the inconsistencies really stand out and irritate me. Stone Age does not attempt to be a high-detail theme immersion game and so (ironically) the theme hangs together better than it does in Agricola, which inevitably trips up in its thematic detail.

Gameplay:

OK, I’ll briefly add why I prefer Stone Age to Agricola from a game-play perspective. Again, this is only to describe my preferences and not to say that Stone Age is actually objectively better than Agricola (it probably isn’t).

1. Agricola is brain-burning, mainly because the string of actions you need to get correct is long and prone to making error. This is a logistics game. In a way, Stone Age is as well, but the string of actions required to do something is not as long. Some people love this kind of thing. The funny thing is, Agricola is probably neither a strategic or a tactical game (although there are elements of both). I think its primarily a logistics game. In a purely tactical game you simply make the best move you can on your turn, without any regard for future turns. In a strategic game you have a pretty solid idea of your full game plan and work towards it. In Agricola, you can’t really have a full game plan - the actions of other players can mess things up too easily and cards may not come out in the right order - but neither can you take each move at a time, since you must ‘chain’ your actions. Instead, you need to have a series of mini-strategies (each of which is a set of logistics) and kind of use them to muddle through to the end. Stone Age is more of a strategic game rather than a tactical game. At some point reasonably early you are going to decide on how you are going to proceed - through starvation, big tools, rapid hut depletion etc - and work along those lines, realizing that there will be tactical decisions as well, especially in terms of the card order. Neither of these ‘styles’ of game is inherently any worse than the other but my personal preference is for the Stone Age style, which I think is broadly in line with the mix of strategy and tactics in Settlers Of Catan.

2. Like Stone Age, Agricola is a worker-placement game. As such the main vehicle for player interaction is in the fact that there are limited spaces for workers and players must jockey for those spaces. The big difference is that in Stone Age you each have 5+ workers jockeying for seven spaces on each resource plus the three special areas (farm, tool, babies), whereas in Agricola you each have 2+ workers jockeying for ONE space on each thing. Therefore, Agricola is much more cutthroat in terms of getting the good stuff. In Stone Age everyone can get brick on a turn. In Agricola only one person can get the brick (I know there is an additional space you can go to get one brick but having to use this is less efficient). This makes things very tight. It also means that the aim of each player is in balancing up what their best turn is in terms of both getting their own best result and preventing other players doing what they want. That is, player interaction is almost entirely through blocking other players from doing what they want to do. Of course, Stone Age (being a worker-placement game) is similar, but its much less cutthroat. Blocking plays a much smaller part of a player’s thinking (except in 2-player where placement restrictions are more like Agricola). My preference is for less ‘negative’ player interaction. Agricola is a ‘nasty’ game, a bit like Carcassonne - it is often better to block others than to improve your own position. Stone Age still manages to be a ‘nice’ game (mostly - there is scope for ‘nasty’ play!), which I like better - its simply a preference of mine (I would prefer not to use the words ‘nasty’ and ‘nice’, but you know what I mean).

3. (added in later following discussion below) In Agricola you can know that you are out of the running pretty early on, which is a killer for newbies. Stone Age and Power Grid are two examples of very clever games which seem to conceal to newbies how bad they are going until the very end. In Power Grid this is because of the late game surge which catches the newbie by surprise and in Stone Age the concealed cards can result in a lot of points which completely change the leader. However, in Agricola you know, even during the very first game, that you are way behind after just a few rounds and the rest of the game is simply going through the motions - it IS really annoying. What this means is that Agricola needs to played by a group of similar experience with the game. In Stone Age and Power Grid, the newbie will lose but will have more fun because it won't be so obvious - a kind of wilful ignorance to the fact that you know you will lose. In Agricola you know you will lose after the first half hour and the game rubs your nose in it for the next hour. That stinks.


As I said earlier, I actually think that Agricola is a better game than Stone Age, and the BGG ratings reflect that. Agricola has agonising decisions, a ton of variability and replay-ability (thanks to the decks), nice theme which is well used (up to a point), lots of options etc. I will keep persevering with Agricola but in general I would still prefer to play Stone Age.
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Jaxhil Mama
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Thanks for posting your thoughts! I have been trying to chose between Agricola and Stone Age (leaning toward SA) and your post has been extremely helpful. I am going to go for Stone Age, which I think from your description will play much better in my family.

Thanks a lot!
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Phillip Heaton
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Both game scratch the same itch for me. Stone Age takes half the time to play, costs half as much, and it is much more newby friendly.
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Andy Harris
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I love 'em both.
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Trevor Schadt
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First of all, great summarization! You hit a lot of the major points of both comparison and contention between the two games.

In my opinion, the main difference between the two of them is intensity. As you said, Agricola is a "brain-burner," Stone Age not so much. Not that it's fluffy, but Agricola requires a lot more of both long-term planning and quick-thinking reorg when a player earlier in the order takes the one spot you really needed this turn. (I have often heard my roommate mutter under his breath "OK, then, on to Plan Q...")

I have described Stone Age as "the gateway game for worker placement." It is relatively light (compared to others in the genre, like Agricola or Caylus), the randomness of the dice give it a friendlier feel (if you do badly, you can blame it on a string of bad die rolls), and it is quick to play. That being said, I will look at someone after they've played their first few games of Stone Age and say "OK, now that you're familiar with the mechanic, I have this other game that's pretty much Stone Age on steroids. It's called Agricola, and it's a farming game. Want to try it?"

Worker Placement is a game mechanic with which most Ameri-gamers are unfamiliar, because we just don't make a lot of games like that here. So people who aren't hard-core gamers will need something (comparatively) light to get them comfortable with how it works; Stone Age, at least to my friends, fills that need.
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Vince Lupo
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I think the variance (round cards being randomized and not available until certain rounds) in Agricola sort of makes sense actually. Just like in real life sometimes certain actions either aren't available to people or not logical. For instance, the stone might not be available because your area hasn't discovered a quarry for it. Maybe childbearing wasn't an option because of health issues or other things.
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ackmondual
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Philgamer wrote:
Both game scratch the same itch for me. Stone Age takes half the time to play, costs half as much, and it is much more newby friendly.
Also, half the # of components, half the game weight(-ish), half the physical weight.
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Paul Doherty
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I much prefer Stone Age to Agricola, as well...
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Ron Glass
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I am an old time wargamer form the 60s and 70s, but my friends are amazed I like and play Agricola. Why? Its all about perspective.

I do not see Agricola as a medieval farming game as some simply call it. I see its as post-apocolyptic, with the 2 starting "family" members being Vic and Blood who have gone over the mountain and found a place with no Screamers to finally settle down. And "Family Growth" is NOT about having babies... its about finding females willing to work and "play" to add to the family as opposed to those you simply eat (puts a new twist to the food collection actions when you choose "fish", doesn't it??? ;-) ).

I do not get this sort of "enjoyment" from Stone Age so do no longer play it, though the few games we did had lots of Barbara Bach/Ringo Starr humor. So, most have their version of Agricola, I have mine, and apologies to any who do not get the references to "A Boy and His Dog".

Ron, friend of Blood and Vic
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Mike Waleke
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I was trying to pick between which one of the two to put on my wish-list for christmas and I ended up choosing Stone Age, for most of the reasons you mentioned plus game length.
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Bill Gallagher
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johnclark wrote:
In Stone Age everyone can get brick on a turn.

Not quite. Even in a best case scenario, all but one player will getr a chance at any given good. For instance, in the four player game, only three players can get brick (even if there are spots remaining after the third player places his/her workers). It's certainly more available than it is in Agricola though.

Good review!
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Brian Forsythe
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I like both games. I end up playing Stone Age a bit more often because some of the gameplay reasons you give. I'd almost always prefer Agricola to Stone Age, but it fills my girlfriend and many of my regular gaming folk with excruciating anxiety.

Regarding theme, I can appreciate some of the points you're making, but would argue that Stone Age's theme (especially with scoring, something you mentioned) is much thinner. Larger groups being on the average more productive and the use of tools are very thematic elements. On the other hand, huts made of gold? Being short a few food is no biggie, since I can feed them wood/stone/clay/gold? (Feeding them wood invariably leads to Beavis & Butthead impressions.) I can discover music/pottery/writing at the cost of a stone and a gold? I can't even find a thematic tie at all in the other cards -- they're just mechanisms to buy a short term resource benefit and long term points.

On the pregnancy/honeymoon hut/time scale issue, I would say Stone Age falls short here as well -- I can make a baby (in I assume nine months), and this requires two people for the duration; meanwhile, the rest of my tribe spent the entire time panning for gold?

I think Agricola's cards give the game a lot of thematic depth and its intensity/urgency express the difficulty of subsistence farming. My point is that I think you can argue theme in either direction without needing to dig deeply. Personally, I don't feel immersed in Stone Age's theme -- I think it could be pretty easily rethemed.

Well, I was with ya until this bit:
johnclark wrote:
my personal preference is for the Stone Age style, which I think is broadly in line with the mix of strategy and tactics in Settlers Of Catan.

I don't think "ya better hope the rolls go in your favor" is 'the Stone Age style'. ninja (Sorry, couldn't resist this dig, though I will resist comparing my enjoyment of playing Settlers to back-alley emergency dentistry.)
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Chris Ferejohn
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Interesting analysis. This is my favorite kind of review: describing what works/doesn't work about a game for you and why. I've actually been trying to articulate what it is about Stone Age that makes it fall a little flat for me. It seems like it should be a great fit with probability manipulation, worker placement, set collection, and multiple paths to victory, but it feels arbitrary to me in a way that Agricola doesn't.

It's interesting that you basically declared a draw in terms of theme, because that's the bit that doesn't really work for me in Stone Age, at least as it relates to VPs. In terms of the worker placement and subsequent actions it works great - the more people you send to the forest, the more wood you get back (on average), but the arbitrariness of the huts and cards just makes the application of those resources seem a bit meaningless.

Agricola may have the opposite problem. Thematically, the accumulation of resources makes less sense - how come I can't get stone at the beginning of the game? Why does more wood/clay/stone appear every turn? However, the application of those resources to your VP engine (farm) works very well thematically - grain and vegetables grow in the field, animals breed as long as you have space to keep them, etc.

As a result, in Agricola you can really feel like you are building something, whereas in Stone Age, it feels more like you are just accumulating points, which are meaningless outside of themselves (it is not unique in that of course).

Your mileage may of course vary.
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John Clark
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megasycophant wrote:
Being short a few food is no biggie, since I can feed them wood/stone/clay/gold?


I've never had a big problem with this - I think of it as simply trading your wood etc for food with another tribe. It should rarely happen because its always to your disadvantage to do it.

megasycophant wrote:

On the pregnancy/honeymoon hut/time scale issue, I would say Stone Age falls short here as well -- I can make a baby (in I assume nine months), and this requires two people for the duration; meanwhile, the rest of my tribe spent the entire time panning for gold?


Yes, this is a problem. Agricola probably gets it closer to reality with only one person 'occupied' with having the baby, although I am sure that medieval farming women would have been working in the farm within a short time after giving birth! My youngest son always finds the love shack a bit icky, so he rationalises it by saying that its a mother and the midwife who go into the hut to have the baby!
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ronglass wrote:
I do not get this sort of "enjoyment" from Stone Age so do no longer play it, though the few games we did had lots of Barbara Bach/Ringo Starr humor.

Zugzug.
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ackmondual
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With SA vs Agricola, I'm also sure more newbies appreciate SA more since it has dice. Some groups just go "ga-ga" over them. It can give some games the impression that they're more casual than they appear.
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ryudoowaru wrote:
First of all, great summarization! You hit a lot of the major points of both comparison and contention between the two games.

In my opinion, the main difference between the two of them is intensity. As you said, Agricola is a "brain-burner," Stone Age not so much. Not that it's fluffy, but Agricola requires a lot more of both long-term planning and quick-thinking reorg when a player earlier in the order takes the one spot you really needed this turn. (I have often heard my roommate mutter under his breath "OK, then, on to Plan Q...")


I think you and John have pretty much summed up the core of Agricola.

I like Stone Age but can't help but feel its is a little bit too light because its more tactical. In Agricola, however, the need to continually revise your planned action sequences everytime someone takes a resource just felt like hard work. Its especially annoying if you get to midgame and realise that you've got almost no chance of winning.

I felt a bit the same about Caylus but it didn't seem as acute. Maybe because the dependency of strategies on resource availability wasn't as tight, and if someone grabbed a resource you could also benefit if you owned the relevant building. Or maybe because Caylus was more deterministic, I'm not sure.

Aside from the tedious plan churn, I think everything else about Agricola was very good. In fact, I was disappointed that I didn't like it because its popular and has many game mechanics that I otherwise enjoy.
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Bryan Maxwell
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Nice review. For what it's worth, I like Stone Age but love Agricola.
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John Clark
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ndru wrote:
In Agricola, however, the need to continually revise your planned action sequences everytime someone takes a resource just felt like hard work. Its especially annoying if you get to midgame and realise that you've got almost no chance of winning.


Hi Andrew - good to hear from you! I forgot to mention your point here and I agree very strongly with it: in Agricola you can know that you are out of the running pretty early on, which is a killer for newbies.

Stone Age and Power Grid are two examples of very clever games which seem to conceal to newbies how bad they are going until the very end. In Power Grid this is because of the late game surge which catches the newbie by surprise and in Stone Age the concealed cards can result in a lot of points which completely change the leader. However, in Agricola you know, even during the very first game, that you are way behind after just a few rounds and the rest of the game is simply going through the motions - it IS really annoying.

What this means is that Agricola needs to played by a group of similar experience with the game. In Stone Age and Power Grid, the newbie will lose but will have more fun because it won't be so obvious - a kind of wilful ignorance to the fact that you know you will lose. In Agricola you know you will lose after the first half hour and the game rubs your nose in it for the next hour. That stinks.

(I've added this stuff in the original post now ...)
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Steve Duff
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Yuglooc wrote:
johnclark wrote:
In Stone Age everyone can get brick on a turn.

Not quite. Even in a best case scenario, all but one player will getr a chance at any given good. For instance, in the four player game, only three players can get brick (even if there are spots remaining after the third player places his/her workers).


That's not right either, actually. First of all, there is no player restriction in the four player game, it's simply the seven spots maximum. The first person could fill the seven spots all by himself gaining a monopoly, or all four players could be present by placing only 1 or 2 workers.

Only in the 2 or 3 player game are the four resource spots limited to "player count - 1".
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Brian Forsythe
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johnclark wrote:
My youngest son always finds the love shack a bit icky, so he rationalises it by saying that its a mother and the midwife who go into the hut to have the baby!

My youngest son (11 years at the time) immediately dubbed it the "honeymoon hut".
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Avri Balofsky
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megasycophant wrote:
johnclark wrote:
My youngest son always finds the love shack a bit icky, so he rationalises it by saying that its a mother and the midwife who go into the hut to have the baby!

My youngest son (11 years at the time) immediately dubbed it the "honeymoon hut".


It's the Lightningdome (as opposed to the Thunderdome).
2 Go In. 3 Come Out.
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Steve Duff
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Reish Galuta wrote:
It's the Lightningdome (as opposed to the Thunderdome).
2 Go In. 3 Come Out.


That's hilarious. Literally the last page I was at when I clicked Next Subscription item was http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/4165454#4165454

I had to go back and check that it wasn't you posting there.
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Trevor Schadt
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megasycophant wrote:
johnclark wrote:
My youngest son always finds the love shack a bit icky, so he rationalises it by saying that its a mother and the midwife who go into the hut to have the baby!

My youngest son (11 years at the time) immediately dubbed it the "honeymoon hut".


I christened the one in my copy the "snuu-snuu hut." (Futurama fans in the audience will get that one.) Alas, my best friends, with whom I play the game on a regular basis, have a 6-year-old daughter who is entirely too precocious, intelligent, and observant for my own good. blush Add that to her mother's seeming inability to remember the name of the game and refer to it as "the 'snuu-snuu hut' game," and, well, those of you who have experience with 6-year-olds know where this story is headed... whistle
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johnclark wrote:
I agree that Agricola is, by most objective standards of boardgame design, a better game than Stone Age.

Well I do agree with most of what you wrote, except for this. What are these objective standards? I do not think the cards are balanced in Agricola; you pointed out a severe lack of theme integration regarding the time frame, and once again the cards make often no sense at all theme wise.
I think theme integration is an important objective standard of game design, especially in a game where the theme is supposed to be strong.
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