Ground Floor

I played Ground Floor for the first time last night, with 5 players.  It took forever-- at least 4 hours.  At that length, I need to be having a thoroughly engrossing game experience.  There are very few games that I think justify that length: Through the Ages and Die Macher are the only ones that come to mind (though admittedly, I'm biased towards the shorter end of the spectrum). Ground Floor is not in their league.  This is a game that desperately needs to come in at-or-below the 90 minute mark.

Quick overview: This is a worker placement game where you have two parallel currencies (money and "information") to manage.  Everyone starts with the titular ground floor of their own corporate skyscraper, allowing them to take various actions that gain currencies inefficiently but immediately and at no currency cost.  Players can also spend currency to send workers (abstracted as "time" rather than people, but don't let that fool you) to one of the subsystems on the central board, where they can obtain currencies more efficiently, but delayed until later.  Players can also compete for turn order here, or build additional floors of their building.  Floors will remind you of buildings in Puerto Rico, in that each confers victory points and either a special ability or an end-game bonus.  Each floor a player builds is more expensive than the last, so you need more currency as the game progresses.  When someone builds their fifth floor, or after nine game turns, the game ends.

Artistically, the game is gorgeous.  The blueprint motif is thematic, and the thick cardboard tiles are cut at an angle to match the oblique blueprint perspective on players' mats.  It's a top-notch job production-wise.

Mechanically, everything works.  There's tension in how the currencies interact.  You gain money and information in different ways, so you can't just focus on one angle.  Being first in the turn order grants priority in selling goods, choosing building upgrades, and picking a popularity bonus each turn, so ignoring it is perilous.  All the upgrades and floors are useful.  It all hangs together.

So where's the problem?  Two places.  First, this is what Brian Bankler has called a fixed fun game:

More players means less fun.  Usually, it's because you sit around during other players' turns. So the game takes the same amount of time, but you get to do less. The fun dilutes.

Having more players in Ground Floor does not make the proceedings more interesting.  Some areas of the game may be more competitive, but that competition does not ratchet up the tension or enjoyment appreciably-- certainly not enough to compensate for the extra playing / waiting time.

The second problem is with workers.  You start with four, and get new ones in batches of three.  Some actions require multiple workers to perform, but the vast majority of these don't come into play until at least turn 5.  By that time, most players will have at least ten workers, which means ten times around the table to get them all into play.  This slows the pace of the game waaaaaaaay down.  I can't think of any other worker placement games that ramp up your worker supply so aggressively, and Ground Floor shows why that's such a bad idea.

Overstaying its welcome aside, my other problem with Ground Floor is that it fails to rise above its theme.  Copycat is a similar game of worker placement with a similarly dry theme, but the game engages on a mechanical level.  Turns move quickly, giving me a sense of progression as my deck morphs and more powerful cards appear for purchase.  There's a palpable sense of things ramping up and reaching a crescendo, and the game propels itself forward.  Ground Floor plods in comparison.  Each turn feels very much like the one before it, and each of the individual mechanics feels small and unremarkable.  Compare this to Trajan, a game with at least as many subsystems but all of them more interesting than those in Ground Floor (Trajan's problem is that these subsystems are too disjointed and the resulting game feels too long as a result, but the subsystems operate at a higher level than in Ground Floor and some, like the mancala wheel, are clever enough to warrant revisiting in another game).

I could be convinced to try the game again with three players, but I would be doing so with a nail on the coffin lid and my hammer poised to drive it home.  I don't see any future with the game for me.  These days, a game has to offer something new to keep my attention.  It has to fill a vacant niche in my collection, or displace something already there.  It has to be bionic-- better, stronger, faster.  Ground Floor falls six million dollars short.
Comments (5) | last by solde moncler, Oct 19, 9:57 PM

One Game a Month

They say that writers write.  It stands to reason that game designers design games.  I haven't been doing a lot of that lately, so I've decided to hop aboard the One Game a Month train for 2013 as a way to kick myself in the pants and get projects off my to do list and onto the done list.

It's pretty amazing how such a simple mental trick can pay off.

Oddly, rather than developing any of the concepts that have been kicking around my back burner, I've started working on a new concept that may wind up cannibalizing one from the to do list.  It's a dungeon-crawler that takes inspiration from a genre of game I've enjoyed on the iPad.  I sketched out an outline last night, and I've got multiple mechanics that I haven't seen before in other games, which is always exciting, because I'm not sure if they'll work!  Trying to figure out how to playtest as quickly as possible, given that games of this type require lots of cards with stats and special effects.  Getting to something reasonable in a month will be a challenge, but it feels great to start making stuff again.


Comments (4) | last by mont blanc fountain pens, Oct 19, 8:37 AM

Mystery Hunt 2013

The first round of the Hunt can be found here, and the rest of the Hunt here.

There's a lot of chatter about this year's MIT Mystery Hunt, which was the longest one on record at 73 hours.  They usually begin on Friday morning and wrap up on Sunday afternoon after the coin has been found.  This year, the coin wasn't found until Monday afternoon, and even then only after aggressive hinting, wholesale distribution of puzzle answers, and reduction of endgame requirements.  This has led to much hand-wringing about the Hunt being broken and despondent posts from Hunt organizers who are taking the outcome and backlash very hard.


If you've never run a puzzle event like this, you may not realize the toll it takes on the organizers.  People who put Hunts together pour their hearts and souls into it.  They give up not only all of their free time for the year leading up to the event, but they sacrifice other things to create more free time they can throw onto the Hunt pyre as well.  It takes an enormous toll on friendships, families, work-- every aspect of your life.

I absolutely understand the depth of sacrifice involved in stepping up to make a Hunt happen.  And that understanding makes it all the more painful when fundamental decisions at the core of the event seem predestined to undermine all that work by making players unhappy.  And it all comes back to one thing: make it fun.

As an event creator, you're not there to show how clever you are.  You're not there to outwit the players.  You're not, I'd argue, even there to make things fair.  You're there to make things fun for the hundreds of people who are trusting you with their leisure time (and in some cases vacation time, plane fares, hotel fees, etc).  When you sign up to run an event like this, you're agreeing to provide fun.

A problem is that fun is not absolute.  There's no Unified Fun Theory that satisfies everyone.  A physical obstacle course might be tremendous fun for some people and loathsome to others.  Some people like manipulating numbers, while others like manipulating words.  Some people like to stand hip-deep in running water holding a pole for hours at a time, others like aligning pixels to be just right.  Nobody's going to get everything right for everybody.  So you need to try to maximize the fun for the most people.  Which means you make some assumptions, put some stakes in the ground, and try to hew to those guiding principles as you create your event.

And if those principles turn out to be wrong... your event's in trouble.

This happened with Puzzle Hunt 123.  I still believe there's a viable model in having teams self-sort into competitive or recreational divisions.  The impact of that division was too stark in 123-- an all-or-nothing switch that made people feel like pulling it was crying uncle and dropping out of the competition.  We did that because if you can get unlimited hints-- even answers to puzzles-- how do you score things fairly?  How can you maintain a competition when anyone can decide to just get all the answers at will?  We prioritized fairness.  Our players prioritized competition.  The feeling of contending for something, of jockeying for position on the leaderboards, was an essential element of the fun for them.  Without it, they had no motivation.  Had we thrown fairness to the winds and just moved teams from one leaderboard to another, instead of dropping them from the leaderboard entirely, I think teams would have been perfectly fine with that.  So what if there would have been no way to tell the difference between a team that solved a puzzle on their own and one that got hinted all the way through it?  The teams' own pride at wanting to solve without hints would probably have provided all the regulation we needed.  Maybe we could have reduced the value of a puzzle a token amount for taking a hint.  There were any number of things we could have done.  But our assumption-- that people wanted to see puzzles and be unblocked more than they wanted to compete-- was wrong.  People wanted both.  And since we weren't aligned with our players, our event had trouble.

The Hunt this year was too hard.  That manifested in many ways.  There were too many puzzles to solve in the time allotted.  The puzzles got unlocked too quickly, by a failsafe timer rather than team achievement, so that teams were flooded with puzzles (making it hard to focus on what you had).  Many puzzles went one, two, or a few dozen steps too far, overstaying their welcome.

Here's an example of the latter case.  The idea of a fractal wordsearch is interesting.  Solving it through one or two levels is fun.  Solving it through three or four is pushing it.  Going WAY beyond that, beyond even the ability of most computers to solve the problem in the allotted time without superior programming skill, it going way beyond the fun.  There were probably a few people at the Hunt for whom writing an efficient fractal wordsearch solver was an enormously fun challenge.  But I think it's reasonable to assume that such a person won't be found on many teams, and therefore many teams won't find that puzzle fun.  Moreover, teams will probably expend quite a bit of work on the puzzle before getting to the point where they realize the need for a programming solution, and abandoning all of that work is a bitter pill.  Including such a puzzle in the hunt, therefore, sets your players up for unhappiness and un-fun.

Another puzzle consisted, in its entirety, of 263 MP3 files.  It's hard for me to imagine that listening to 263 MP3 files-- even at only a few seconds each-- sounds like fun to anyone.

The difficulty problem is foreseeable and solvable.  It usually requires a trusted editor (or editorial board) empowered to make decisions about whether or not something makes it to the final event, and a team that agrees to trust their judgement (or at least abide by their decisions).  That's a very difficult thing in a volunteer event.  People get disappointed or disgruntled.  Egos get bruised.  But if it's done in the best interest of the event, it's the right thing to do.  At the end of the day, if you're running the event to serve your own ego, you're there for the wrong reason.  It's not about you.  It's about your players.

I think the principle that wasn't aligned with players here was that the Hunt had to be longer and not end as early as it did last year (late Saturday night).  But I'm not sure that's true.  If the Hunt continues even after the coin is found, giving more teams the chance to see all the goodness, then you actually want an event that ends earlier for the top teams so that other teams-- slower, smaller teams-- still have a chance to finish.  Worrying overmuch about length means you're focused on a small percentage of your players.  There's no cap on team size.  If a team finishes too early for their taste, that's not the organizers' fault-- it's the team's problem.  If winning is most important to you, join a big team that races to the end.  If puzzling into Sunday is more important to you, join a smaller team.  The event can hardly be expected to gracefully scale up along with the sizes of the teams.  That just isn't tenable long-term.  Players have to take some responsibility themselves and self-organize into teams that align with their interests.  Don't join a team of 150 people and then complain that the event ended too soon.

Comments (4) | last by mont blanc ballpoint pens, Oct 20, 10:30 AM

What's on Your iPad?

In the past 3 months, aside from playing through the campaign of Halo 4, I haven't held a game controller once.  The holiday season is always busy with lots of traveling, preparing for traveling, recovering from traveling, and moaning about all the traveling, and dedicated console time is rare.  Honestly, though, I haven't missed it, because the iPad has ably filled the gap, and with mostly free content.  I thought I'd share a quick rundown of some of the games that have filled my spare moments lately.  All are free unless otherwise noted.  Many of the non-free apps I got for free anyway by adding them to AppShopper and pouncing when they temporarily dropped to free for a day or two, which is a common practice on the App Store.

Asynchronous Play:
  • SongPop: Available on most major platforms now including Facebook.  The latest update on iPad tanked performance, making it painful to play right now, but identifying song clips is still fun.
  • You Don't Know Jack: The Facebook game brought to the iPad.  Brilliantly done.  A daily addiction.
  • Letterpress: Reported on previously.
Card Games:
  • Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013: The most I've spent for any app ($9.99, + $4.99 for the expansion-- haven't yet bought the next two deck packs, but probably will), but also probably the app I've played the most.  Well worth it-- a truly fantastic rendition of the game.
  • Fairway Solitaire: Loved it on the PC, and it's a perfect fit for the iPad.  The iOS version (also on iPhone) is completely redesigned from the one on the PC, with a modified structure, new challenges, etc.  Try it free, then buy the full version for a pittance.
  • Lost Cities: The system of goals held my interest longer than expected.  To better fit the mobile attention span, each game is only one round instead of three.  Very nicely done.  Not free, and at $3.99 I'd say it's overpriced, but worth it if you can catch it on sale.
  • SolForge: This is only a preview of a demo, with a limited card set and no extraneous features, but it's already slick and polished and does a great job of proving the promise of the underlying system.  I'm fully prepared to fall down this rabbit hole when the full game is released.
Trivia:
  • Logos QuizName the brand that matches the (sometimes Photoshopped) logos.  Oddly addictive, with plenty of logos to keep you busy.
  • Badly Drawn Faces: Identify the pre-drawn, cartooned faces as they're scribbled in for you piecemeal.  Has that potato chip quality and is a surprisingly good group game-- first to touch the screen gets to ID the face for a point.
Board Games:
  • Le Havre: A 2+ hour game that compresses to... well, still at least 30 minutes for me, even against AI opponents, but none of that time is spent waiting-- it's all game.  Excellent version of the board game that keeps me engaged even though the AI isn't as strong as I'd like.  $4.99.
Abstracts:
  • Drop7: I prefer the original Flash game, Chain Factor, but this simpler mobile version is still elegant and addictive.
  • Orbital HD: The snazzier mobile version of Flash game Gimme Friction Baby, which won the Casual Games Design Competition on jayisgames.com.  Try the original for free, and if you like the underlying gameplay, you'll love Orbital.
Word:
  • QatQi: I've wanted to write a standalone post about this game for a while now, but held off because I keep hoping in vain that the creator will change his monetization model.  Create words crossword-style to explore hidden chambers in search of gold coins and big points.  The game is brilliantly designed, from the visuals to the soundscape.  It packs in lots of great data-crunching and rewards replay.  But... charging users to use Undo makes it impossible to play properly without forking over cash.  That might not be so bad, except that to really enjoy the game, I think you need to be able to Undo your move with reckless abandon.  And when each one essentially costs you money, that's difficult.  You get a batch of undos for free, so it's still well worth checking out.  And if he ever offers one reasonable price for unlimited undo, I'll jump on it in a heartbeat.  In a way I'm glad he hasn't, because otherwise this would be an all-encompassing obsession.
  • Wordament: Boggle against the internet.  Played the hell out of this on Windows Phone, but it's actually even better on iOS-- smoother, with more consistent, reliable, and less laggy feedback.
RPG:  (this category encompasses any game with RPG elements, many of which might also be listed in other genres)
  • Solomon's Keep / Solomon's Boneyard: Dual-stick run-around-and-kill-monsters games.  The first is a dungeon crawl with an ending, the second is an endless arena where you're trying to survive as long as possible.  Both are well executed and scratch that Diablo itch.
  • Dungeon Raid: The ability to level up between games, unlock new classes, and customize your skills makes for a compelling variation on the match-3 genre.  $1.99, with a free "lite" version available.
  • 10,000,000: A different match-3 mechanic than Dungeon Raid, with a very different feel and a nifty real-time component that amps up the tension.  $1.99
  • King Cashing: An RPG slot machine.  Unexpectedly fun.  $1.99, with a free "lite" version available.

Tower Defense:
  • Kingdom Rush HD: Ok, this is cheating a little since I haven't played this in a while, but I played it heavily for a long time and will undoubtedly go back to it soon.  The only tower defense game you need.  Impeccably executed.  $2.99
Endless Run:
  • Extreme Road Trip 2: Use tilt or button controls to do aerial flips and land intact, earning turbo and traveling as far as possible. The goals system takes a page from the Jetpack Joyride playbook, with coins to pick up, upgrades to buy, and friend records to beat providing replay incentives.
  • Punch Quest: Frenetic runner with lots of punching and 16-bit graphics.  Imagine a Castlevania where you're always moving to the right, quickly.  
Misc:
  • Flick Home Run HD: By all rights I should disdain this game, which after all requires the same single action-- swiping to hit a ball-- over and over again.  But I find it oddly compelling.  I'm using the iPhone version instead of the iPad one, since I got it while it was free.  $.99
  • Puzzle Craft: Named one of the best apps of 2012 by Apple, this is a very well-execute game that I spent quite a bit of time with before concluding it was a hollow, joyless experience.  The core mechanic is identical to Dungeon Raid, but with a kind of Farmville crafting and building layer on top of it that I ultimately found unsatisfying, but YMMV.
  • Spectromancer HD: I'm not sure if this is an RPG, card game, board game, or what-- but I loved it on the PC, and it's a perfect fit for the iPad.  $3.99 and well worth it.

Comments (6) | last by montblanc meisterstuck, Oct 14, 4:55 PM

Fresh as Today's Headlines

Dikembe Mutombo's 4 1/2 Weeks to Save the World is genius.

A series of 4 episodic arcade games each created in just one week based on something from that week's news, the game feels like an entirely new art form, the newsgame.  But it's news by way of The Daily Show, because it's hilarious.  The quality of the games themselves are quite impressive given the insanely short development schedule, but it's the very funny cutscenes that really make the game shine.  If this is what product placement of the future looks like, I'll take a dozen.

You can read more about how this product got made here,  But do that later.  Go play now.
Comments (3) | last by moncler paris, Oct 19, 10:01 PM

Misfits

Remember when Heroes first came on the air, and everyone was abuzz with the show's realistic take on superpowers?  Before the writers had a collective aneurysm and everything went to hell?

Misfits is the show Heroes hadn't the balls to be.

The British show revolves around a group of young people serving out community service for various antisocial behaviors.  A freak storm gives them-- along with various other people in town-- strange powers, and the show revolves around their attempts to deal with the consequences.  What's great about it is that none of these people are saints.  There is no Peter Petrelli, Claire Bennett, Matt Parkman, or Hiro Nakamura.  There's no global conspiracy.  No "save the cheerleader, save the world."  The show isn't concerned about the societal ramifications of superpowers entering the world.  It's squarely focused on these five characters, every one of whom is flawed.  Some deeply so. 

Alisha is a fabulously attractive girl who knows she's hot and derives much of her sense of self-worth from the resulting sense of superiority-- until the storm distorts that attraction by making any man who touches her instantly devolve into a sex-crazed wannabe rapist hungering for her flesh while reviling her verbally.  Simon is withdrawn and repressed, avoiding eye contact and uncomfortable with all social interaction, but with an intensity burning beneath the surface that seems barely contained-- the kind of fellow you expect to have a psychotic break at any moment.

The standout character, however, is Nathan-- a selfish, outspoken, foul-mouthed smart aleck with no shame or sense of propriety.  He feels completely new and unique on television, a modern anti-hero you find yourself rooting for and against at the same time.  He's the kind of guy about whom you'd say, "He's a dick, but he's our dick."  Robert Sheehan is clearly the breakout star of the show.  He gets all the best lines and steals every scene he's in.

The first series of the show was solid, establishing the characters, their powers, and the rules of the road.  The second series, however, was simply fantastic-- terrific stories, great writing, and fabulous performances as the cast really found the nuance in their characters.  The development in Iwon Rheon's Simon was particularly great to watch, as the biggest misfit of them all found a place to grow.

I understand Nathan's gone for series 3, as in fact all the original cast is by the end of that season, so I'm a little nervous about continuing past this point.  The first two series have been deeply satisfying, with the kind of rough edges and non-mainstream point of view usually sanded away by Hollywood (yay, Britain!).  I'm hoping the wheels don't fly off the cart in season 3.

If you haven't discovered Misfits yet, however, you've got some great stuff ahead of you.
Comments (2) | last by mont blanc fountain pen uk, Oct 16, 12:43 PM

The Big Con

In the past month I've attended two board game conventions-- Seattle-based Sasquatch and Dallas-based BGG.CON.  On the surface they might seem like two very similar offerings, since both were multi-day events at hotel ballrooms where attendees played board games from morning to night.  Both had special events-- a game show, a puzzle hunt, the Artemis starship simulator-- and both ran from Wednesday through Sunday.  At both events, I'm an invited guest and sing for my supper in the form of a game show event that I run on Saturday night.  But the cons are quite different, and the difference comes down to a matter of scale and priority.

BGG.CON had about 2000 attendees this year, a dramatic increase over last year's 1200.  Sasquatch had only about 80.  At Sasquatch, all the hot games from Essen make their first local appearance, and while older games are also available the focus is really on trying out the new goodies.  The hotness is also in evidence at BGG.CON where an entire room is devoted to nothing but the new, but a library of over 4000 games is also available for everyone to use.  The result is that as you walk around the ballroom, you see everything from newly punched sprues to dust-covered boxes.

At BGG.CON, I never manage to actually play very much.  This year, I got in 3 games of Suburbia (the only Essen game I'm certain to buy) and one each of CopyCat, Urbania, Tichu, Cheeky Monkey, Fleet, Tweeet, Unexpected Treasures, and City Tycoon.  That's over a span of about 4 days.  I suspect if you surveyed the 2,000 attendees, you'd find that my record is among the lowest of all-- even worse than some people who only showed up for a day.  How can I be there for so long and play so little?  Playing games really isn't why I'm at BGG.CON.  First and foremost, I'm there to host the game show.  That means some of my time is spent going over preparations, setting up the room, coordinating with the staff, and so forth-- not to mention running the show itself, which this year involved three back-to-back-to-back shows from 8 PM to almost 2 AM.  A bunch of my time was spent outside of the hotel on dining expeditions.  BBQ is a priority for me when I'm in Dallas, since you really can't get it in Seattle, and this year's discovery of the Pecan Lodge was a delight.  It was so good, I went there for lunch two days in a row (the brisket and pulled pork were fantastic, but the Hot Mess was why I'll go back again next year).  Most of these trips this year were made with friends, but often I go with people I barely even know, and that conviviality is one of the highlights of the experience for me.  There's something great about strangers in a strange town going out to dinner together.  The rest of my time is spent hanging out with friends I generally only see at this event.  If we manage to play some games at the same time, so much the better-- but I'm just as happy to kick back and flap our gums for a spell.  Some of my favorite times at BGG.CON have been the late-night chats with staffers like Jon and Lanie Theys, the kinds of chats that make you wish they all lived in Seattle instead of a few thousand miles away.

Sasquatch is a completely different story.  I know almost everyone at Sasquatch, so whatever game I wind up in, there's a foundation of familiarity and relaxed camaraderie.  I'm happy to play with just about anyone.  Finding a group isn't a problem.  Games are therefore the focus of the event.  The chance to hang out with someone doesn't compete with the chance to get in another game of New Greatness.  I'm there to play.  Meals and snacks are included as part of the event, which has a profound positive effect.  You don't need to figure out when and where to go for food-- it just comes to you, and you barely have to leave the game table to take advantage.  The smaller and more intimate setting ironically made it easier for me to get into a game, which meant I played more games at Sasquatch.

If I know you and you want to get in on the Sasquatch action, drop me a note-- the event is invitation only, but invitations are pretty freely extended.  In addition to the main event in late October, there are four free game days throughout the year.  The next one is 1/26, then there's another in May, and again in August.
Comments (6) | last by mont blanc fountain pen, Oct 20, 10:31 AM

Get Ready to Jaunt!

Be still my adolescent heart-- the CW is remaking The Tomorrow People.

I adored this show as a child, when this British cult series was broadcast stateside via Nickelodeon.  It was a somewhat less angsty take on the X-Men, with the next step in human evolution beginning to emerge with teenagers manifesting mental powers-- notably telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation ("jaunting").  Somehow-- I don't think it was ever explained-- they were in contact with a Galactic Federation and acted as ambassadors of Earth (because more "evolved" teenagers are clearly better suited to the job than adult diplomats).  Oh, and something about their evolved nature rendered them incapable of violence.  The effects were horrible, even by 70's Doctor Who standards.  Some of the actors were very difficult to understand.  Characters were dropped between seasons with nary a goodbye.  But I couldn't get enough of it.

It was remade in the 90's with the original creator's involvement, but I've never seen those shows.  Since this will be on the CW, we can assume it will be filled with beautiful young people and bear virtually no resemblance to the essence of the original.  But Smallville had redeeming qualities, Arrow isn't completely horrible, and Supernatural has been mostly terrific.  So who knows, maybe they'll get it right...
Comments (8) | last by moncler outlet, Oct 17, 9:33 PM

Graffiti For Sale

My name spoonerizes well, and someday my international import/export business will be operate under the Cedar Parrot imprint.  But I've always thought that there weren't any good anagrams of my name.  They're good letters, but there are too many copies of them.  With three Rs and three Ts, the tongue starts to twist pretty quickly.  I was never able to make much headway.

I never got around to asking the internet.

Anagram solvers have been around since the internet crawled out of the primordial digital ooze, and I've used them for other things, but for some reason I never fed them my name until today.  Turns out there's at least one anagram that isn't random gibberish.  How awesome would it be to make a career change and get the following business cards printed up:

PETER SARRETT: STREET ART REP

Banksy, call me.
Comments (4) | last by montblanc meisterstuck, Oct 14, 4:52 PM

Alphagames

A-Z of videogames.  How many can you name?

 
Comments (5) | last by doudoune moncler, Oct 19, 9:59 PM

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