RePlay FX 2017: Retro Gaming in Pittsburgh (Review)

For its third year running, the Burgh’s retro gaming convention, RePlay FX, has marshaled an impressive army of the coin-op monoliths of arcades past—there are so many of these sizable and venerated artifacts of video gaming, in fact, that this year I was reminded of the moai statues of Easter Island. And unlike other nerdy gatherings, RePlay FX has Easter Island’s je ne sais quoi of being that rare bird in the convention circuit, having its own truly unique ambiance, and offering a one of a kind experience. There are dozens upon dozens of comic cons and gaming cons that are very similar to each other, but there’s only one RePlay FX.

While RePlay FX bears some resemblance to the arcades of decades past, the emphasis here is less on the arcade experience—though you buy a ticket at the door, all the coin op games are set to free play—and more on the culture and aesthetic of these vintage games, as if some time-traveling liberator arrived in the eighties, set all the video games free, and gave them a ride in his Tardis to a place where people would appreciate them more than twenty-five cents at a time. Moreover, in addition to the rows of coin-op arcade games and pinball machines, there are consoles vintage and current, musical acts, seminars (i.e. panels), and tabletop gaming.

While the inaugural RePlay FX won me over right out of the gate, and each year since then has simply added to the awesome, my experience of it this year was much different, because on Friday, my wife and I were able to attend kid-free. So while on Thursday and Saturday we gamed in the family-friendly way that we had at prior RePlays, Friday was a chance to take in one and a half concerts and play the games we wanted to play.

Nothing speaks to the ongoing development of RePlay Fx more than the evolution of Thursday attendance. While in 2015, Thursday was like a ghost town, in 2017 there were a good number of attendees, so that I had to wait for a game once or twice. That there still wasn’t a ton of congestion means that Thursday is still a great day for crossing things off of your convention to-do list. Attendance increases every year, so that if you’re reading this in 2020 it may no longer be true, but if you’re looking at attending the 2018 RePlay, I would definitely plan on going down your game checklist, hitting any vendors, and demoing tabletop games on Thursday, when the competition is lighter.

Our Thursday was epic, marked by a ton of coin-op play, including Ms. Pac-Man, Burger Time, Gauntlet, Gauntlet Legacy, Asteroids, Crazy Taxi, The Simpsons, Donkey Kong, Joust, Joust: Survival of the Fittest, Donkey Kong Jr. Missile Command, Tron, Tempest, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

Thursday was the day I discovered I can no longer walk past Tempest without playing it, an unspoken law that remained in effect during the convention. Of all the games listed above, I played Tempest the highest number of times and Ms. Pac-Man for the longest duration. While I’m no Ms. Pac-Man pro, I can often get past Act III on one life, and I was on my A game during Replay FX 2018. The game in which I showed the most improvement, though, was Burger Time, which I have never taken seriously, and for which I found a new appreciation this year. Not unlike Ms. Pac-Man, in Burger Time you can fake out the fatal food’s programming; when I realized this, Burger Time became more strategic, and I played it as many times at RePlay FX as I have my entire life. Also, the soundtrack is really catchy.

Magical Truck Adventure gave us a cardio burn and that mid-day convention push we needed. If you’re not familiar with this Japanese arcade game, you can find pictures of Magical Truck Adventure through this link to last year’s RePlay FX review. Suffice to say that MTA is a really fun game, especially when your co-pilot’s moves are coordinated with yours, and its best feature is that you feel more energized after you play.

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After our arcade fix and a snack, we decided to demo a tabletop game. RePlay FX’s tabletop area is staffed by volunteers from the local gaming / co-work association, Looking for Group, so that if you want to learn a game, and/or want an extra player when they’re not demoing for someone else, LfG’s volunteers, identifiable by the leis they wear, are happy to help.

Tiny Epic games were already on my radar, not only because they’ve been spamming my e-mail, but because they’re really committed to the “tiny epic” concept, as illustrated by its many iterations: Tiny Epic Galaxies, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Tiny Epic Defenders, Tiny Epic Quest, and Tiny Epic Western, the one that we learned.

The Tiny Epic premise is that of pocket games as potent as big box games, and Tiny Epic Western delivered by mashing-up a worker placement game with three card poker. While the insertion of poker enlivens the Wild West theme, it is also an unusually effective game mechanism, so that I was only reminded by its similarities to other worker placement games for a few minutes before I became fascinated by its own unique dynamics.

Judging by the volunteers that helped us this year and last, Looking for Group‘s demo staff are excellent facilitators that add to the value of RePlay FX. The tabletop gaming area was always bustling with gamers, which makes me excited for the future evolution of RePlay’s tabletop gaming. My concluding paragraphs mention ways that RePlay FX 2018 and beyond may expand in scale, and while I hope the RePlay FX formula stays the same, my fingers are also crossed for more tabletop gaming.

We also played a lot of video games on Friday, especially longer ones like Gauntlet that are hard to play with kids in tow. This was nice, but the real highlight of our kid-free Friday was Super Thrash Bros, an outstanding band that came all the way from South Jersey to the Burgh to drop some sweet sets, the coolest of which was their rendition of Donkey Kong Country. If Super Thrash Bros is coming to your local convention, you should definitely forego any other events to take in their act.

While we were only able to catch some of the Triforce Quartet, we were already fans, being familiar from last year’s RePlay FX and from their musical contributions on YouTube. As I’m a gaming nerd, a soundtrack nerd, and a classical music nerd, they hit a lot of my sweet spots. You may already know them from their 2014 interpretations of Super Smash Bros and The Legend of Zelda as these pop up occasionally in YouTube recommendations for those search terms. Triforce Quartet’s gift to the world is taking the already epic soundtracks of some of the best video games and letting that grandeur linger on classical strings. If Nintendo ever does that often-rumored The Legend of Zelda live action movie, it would be harder for them to do better than Triforce Quartet’s interpretation for a classical-styled soundtrack.

Saturday morning was a redux of Thursday, although my daughter and I first played Japanese arcade games, such as Pang Pang Paradise, in which you have to throw actual plastic balls–not unlike Chuck E Cheese ball pit balls in size, shape and lightness–at the touch screen a few feet in front of you; and, Future Tom Tom, which inserts your image into the game via a video camera, so that we could see what we would look like if we ever got into Furry fandom. The more that I play these awesome Japanese imports, the more that I wish someone would open an arcade in Pittsburgh with nothing but Japanese coin-op games. Each one of them seems to be its own separate experience, unlike the video games I played as a youth, which were all variations on shooting, racing, or levelling.

Since we’ve been working our way through Star Trek: The Original Series, it was nice to find the Star Trek simulator so that she could sit in the captain’s chair and kill Klingons. Eventually, we made our way over to Looking for Group’s LAN gaming area, so that she could play a variety of their PC games.  

Earlier in July, RePlay FX announced the welcome news that the convention had locked in three more years for the show at the David L Lawrence Convention Center. On Friday morning, I talked with RePlay FX’s Fred Cochran about some of the factors that went into this, as well as some potentially exciting news for fans of the convention. Cochran noted that they always had a five year plan, and this was fueled by their rapid growth—15,000 attended in 2016, with sales expected to outpace that in 2017—which has made them the third largest show at the DLC. Dates are already set not only for the 2018 RePlay FX, but also for 2019 and 2020, which will take them into their sixth year. While it has not yet been finalized, he added that it is almost certain that RePlay FX will add 50,000 square feet to 2018 by adding Hall C to the already-rented Hall A & B. Let it all be true—I hope nothing but the best for the future of this convention.

RePlay FX is not only an entertaining convention, full of amusements, but the curation of the experience is very strong as well, with a dynamic theme interpreted not only in the gaming contents of the hall, but the musical entertainment, the lighting, and a light-show on the ceiling in which you can see video game art as well as logo branding.  The only other Pittsburgh con with a passion, a theme, and a mission that’s at the level of RePlay FX is Tekko, and that RePlay has crafted such a strong presence in just three short years speaks not only to there being a demand for this convention, it also speaks to the future of this convention, as it appears to resonate not only with fans of vintage games everywhere, but also the local convention goer.  I look forward to the ongoing evolution of this gaming festival.

RePlay FX provided press passes for this event. Cross-posted to


Thoughts on Splendor Online Play

Online play in the Splendor app is not yet a month old, and it appears to be, compared to other board games on mobile app stores, much healthier in terms of matching a bevy of eager players. It even seems easier to find other players than in the venerable Catan app, and it is much quicker to get the virtual table outfitted as well: from loading the app to picking your tokens takes less than a minute. Also, and most importantly, unlike all other mobile tabletop gaming apps that I own, the app forces players to stay involved by timing each player’s turn. In virtual Splendor, there are no agonizingly long three to five minute turns (although some players take an eon to realize that all they can do, if there are three short stacks, and there’s nothing they can afford or want to buy, is take three tokens or reserve a card). But if the other player’s timer does expire, congratulations! They just forfeited through being inattentive, and you won the game. This means that online Splendor, while slower than Splendor against AI, is much quicker than other games that feature online play.  However, it is still quicker than playing Splendor on a real-world tabletop, as most real-world players don’t use a timer, and there’s always that one Splendor player that takes two or three minute turns.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this rapidity of play is that you are quickly introduced to a wide variety of Splendor strategies. I just finished playing a game with a player that started the game by reserving a red jewel card from the bottom row, and from then on in, was determined not to let me have any red jewel cards on the bottom row, so that whenever one would be placed, she would reserve it. As the green deck was top heavy with red cards, this meant that her first three turns required her to reserve three red cards in a row, so that while I quickly had a card and five tokens, she had three jokers and three reserved cards after the first three turns. Unfortunately for her, the next card placed in the bottom row was also a red token card, and as she had already reserved the maximum of three cards, and I had five tokens and a card, I was better suited to buying it before she did. I’m intensely interested in seeing how this kind of color monopolization strategy might work in another game in which the luck wasn’t as lopsided, but I will probably never play this way myself. I won this game 16 points to 10.

Another player closely scrutinized my till of tokens, so that whenever I was able to buy a point-scoring card, they would reserve it. This probably throws off other players’ games, but as I have played a lot of Splendor, and I have experience in diversifying my strategy, and they can only reserve three cards at most—cards that usually turned out to be useless to them, as they were saving very different colors than I was saving—I won 17 points to 5. However, I will admit to being more annoyed by this player than any other Splendor player, although the feeling was mitigated when I realized that they were stuck with three cards that did not match their game investments, which blocked their ability both to reserve cards and to get joker tokens for the rest of the game.

More than half of the players that I have played have reserved a card from the bottom row. Folks, this is a bonehead move, and tells the person across the table that you have no idea what you’re doing. I’ll allow the exception to this to be the color monopolization strategy I mentioned above, as I have only seen it used in one virtual game and no real-world tabletop games. Color monopolization on the bottom row may very well be a bonehead move as well, but I have little experience with the strategy to say either way. If your first three moves are to reserve a red card, a brown card, and a blue card, though, you’re definitely a mook, as the bottom row cards are inexpensive and plentiful, and are best purchased with a canny economy of three token draws and using prior purchases to make it cheaper to make future buys. Good Splendor players reserve around three cards per game, and they are usually three to five point cards. Sometimes a bottom row card might be reserved towards the end game if it is the color that a player needs to attract a noble.


For instance, if I have three green, three blue, and two white cards, and I need one more white to get the noble above, and the white card that costs three brown is drawn for the bottom row, reserving it to get the joker token to add to the two brown in my till will get me three points in the following turn—as long as another player is not about to take that noble.  This is usually the only instance in which I would reserve a card from the bottom row.

There are also the kind of players that you meet in real life, such as the Splendor Gamblers that like to reserve the cheap cards in the middle and top row as an opening move, for example the four point top row cards that only cost seven tokens of one color. While I almost never do this, and only reserve cards that I might play in a round or two, and very rarely reserve compeititively (taking a winning card from another player that will also give me the joker token I need to squeeze out a big purchase), when I see a player reserve a cheap card, it tells me that they know how to play Splendor, and this game will be more challenging than most. Experienced Splendor players fall on a continuum between Splendor Gambling and Splendor Economy, and one of the main disadvantages for a Splendor Gambler is that your early strategic reserves tell the other player that you grok the game while also telegraphing your strategy several moves ahead to your opponent.  I may return to the continuum of Splendor Gamblers and Splendor Economists in a future post.

While I’ve had a lot of fun playing the online mobile version of Splendor, I would only recommend it with the caveat that if you are not playing this game on a good WiFi connection, you could find it a frustrating pastime. If you have a rocket fast internet connection (I have Xfinity, which does the trick), and only try to play it at home on that network, you will probably have a great time with online Splendor play. If you’re trying to play through a 3G or 4G connection, you stand a good chance of being disconnected from the server, which the app counts as a loss for the player being disconnected. This is such a pervasive problem that on any given time if you enter the Online section of the app, the chat stream is likely to have one or two players venting about being disconnected.

Also, I should advise players that while I have mentioned in other articles on this blog that the Splendor app fits that five to ten minute sweet spot for a mobile game, that only holds true when you’re playing against AI. When you’re playing in the Online section of the app, even considering the timer running in the background, the games take at least 50% longer, around 15 minutes with an attentive opponent. 

However, even with these two criticisms weighing in, the Splendor app is currently my favorite online tabletop gaming platform, ending a period of several months in which, when I had ten minutes to kill, I would play San Juan or Puerto Rico nearly exclusively.

You can find my review of the tabletop version of Splendor by following this link.

Splendor Board Game

Splendor on Android.

You can find Splendor on iTunes through this link.

Board of Life uses affiliate links.

Game Review: Gamewright’s Imagine (2016)

While Gamewright is a publisher of what are ostensibly family games that you can play with your kids, perhaps because many of their games aim to cultivate the mind, they have found a wider audience of all-ages that enjoy stimulating tabletop games. In this household, we’re already fans of three eminently intriguing and mentally nourishing games, not only Dragonwood, which I’ve previously reviewed, but also Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert.

Our most recent acquisition from Gamewright is Imagine, a game that dropped just this month during GenCon. It is described in its press sheet as a game that “transcends language and culture…which came to us from Japan via our French publishing partners” and allows players to “combine, overlap, and even animate the special transparent cards” in order to “convey your chosen subject without saying a word.” These are bold and ambitious promises, and Gamewright makes good on them with this curiously amusing card game.

To set up Imagine, you simply put all 61 transparent cards in a series of circles on your tabletop, so that all players can easily see them. Then you shuffle the Enigma cards, and place those and the score tokens within easy reach of everyone.

Here’s how you play one round of Imagine. On your turn, you grab an Enigma* card, which has eight different enigmas with corresponding clues. Any other player then tells you a number between one and eight to determine the enigma of that round, you provide the other players the associated clue, and then the hinting and the guessing begin. At this point, you can use any of the transparent cards, in any quantity, to communicate your hint. If no one gets it, you can build onto that hint, or you can scrap it and start over, whichever you prefer. There’s no set time limit either, and the players can decide when they’ve had enough. If no one guesses correctly, then no one scores, but if someone does grok what you’re trying to do, both that player and you get one point. Yes, Imagine rewards both good hinters and good guessers, which can encourage a quick game.

As for a more specific example of play, first take a look at a sample Enigma card:


When this card game up during a game, someone called “six,” so that my enigma was “hula hoop,” and their clue was “Sports and Leisure.”  I only needed two cards here, and the hinter and I scored after about five seconds.


No, it isn’t a perfect hint—there are only 61 transparent cards after all, so your selection of imagery is limited. I had wanted someone to call “five” so I could play these three cards as “Captain America”:


These two are probably among the easiest enigmas in the game. More than most games, Imagine has a learning curve, as while there is a limited arsenal of symbols, there are still 61 different cards to absorb.  As the Imagine “alphabet” is learned, the game will become quicker as the players will be able to rely on a more articulate memory of the cards and not play “hunt and peck” as they pore over and over again looking for cards they don’t yet know by heart. After my first time playing this game, my second thought was the hope that there will be expansion packs with additional transparent cards, as 61 shapes are not enough for some enigmas. (My first thought was that I was looking forward to introducing this to other friends that play tabletop games.)

Three to eight players can play Imagine, and I can tell you that unlike games that break down in games with a low player count (I’m looking at you, Spyfall), my wife, daughter, and I played a very satisfying three player game. Footage of our game play could have been used for a TV commercial, as there was a lot of laughing, loud banter, hilarious clues, and amusing guesses.

I really only have one criticism of Imagine.  The game rewards bad hinters and bad guessers, not just good guessers and good hinters.  However, this flaw may assist the game in securing mass appeal, as  it levels the playing field.

You see, Imagine doesn’t end until every player provides two good hints that are guessed correctly by another player. In one game, a player provided two good hints within three moves (the seventh play overall), while it took six moves (the fifteenth play over all) for the player whose second hint ended the game. The superior hinter hit the hint quota early, and would have won if the game ended then; the inefficient hinter didn’t meet the quota until eight plays later, and because the game ended at that moment, the bad hinter scored the game point with her second good hint. Hence, Imagine rewards bad hinters by letting them enjoy a prolonged game with more scoring opportunities, as well as one of the two points given out in the final scoring opportunity.

As to rewarding bad guessers, this same player, instead of using thoughtful guessing, would throw out dozens of guesses at the rate of two a second, using the “throw everything until something sticks” strategy.  This scattergun approach is as effective as you would expect, and, pragmatically speaking, more effective than thoughtful guessing when the thoughtful guesser is drawing a blank.  Twenty bad guesses have a better chance of getting a right answer than no good guesses at all.

The bad news for those that like the casual analytics of tabletop gaming, or even those that overcome the learning curve involved with grasping the language of 61 symbols in Imagine, is that their acumen will not be much of an advantage over the bad hinters and bad guessers. The good news is that if you’re bad at hinting and guessing, you may still do well at Imagine, and you even get a slight advantage in being one of the two final scorers in a game.

As Imagine not only has a strong premise, enjoyable game play, high replay value, and a level playing field, its potential audience is huge, and I expect Imagine to have strong word of mouth that will sell hundreds of thousands of copies.


*”I, Enigma” is also an anagram of Imagine, which may or may not have influenced the translators during their localization of the game.


Gamewright sent a review copy of Imagine. Board of Life uses affiliate links. Cross-posted on

Game Night: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic, and Catan: Explorers & Pirates

At some point I may backtrack to our Fourth of July Game Night, in which we played the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game for the first time, but as yesterday is fresher in my memory, and will give me a chance to bash two games for a change—one that I generally like but has become monotonous, and another that I have always disliked despite my general appreciation of its theme mash-ups—I’m jumping on that game night first.

This was our first long game night in a few weeks, and we were able to get in a good game selection that included Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic and Catan: Explorers & Pirates. We hosted for a change, and made a huge pot of potato soup with vegan cheese sauce to drizzle on top, as well as homemade rolls, and our friends brought their recent crop of homemade cider and a vegan cake. Our house isn’t as cool, so to complete the backdrop, you have to imagine the constant sound of two wall air conditioners and all of our celing fans.

First we played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which we have found enchanting since we started playing it late last year. Now that we’ve played it about eight times, the spell is starting to wear off on me, and while I still enjoy it, I’m beginning to find the placing of black tiles unrelenting, the haunt too easy to defeat, and, most importantly, it’s a co op game that doesn’t inspire co op play until the Haunt forces it. That it’s a co-op game which doesn’t inspire co-op play should be obvious to anyone else that has left a fellow player writhing in webs in order to open a different door and hopefully find an item. This happens every time the Webs Event Card is drawn in our gaming group. Many of the RPG games that Betrayal at House on the Hill is based upon (e.g. D&D and Call of Cthulhu) get criticism online for creating a style of game play humorously referred to as “murder hobo,” the definition of which you can find by clicking the preceding hyperlink, and Betrayal at House on the Hill seems to have found a more alienating formula of co op play, as even “murder hobos” work together as a group to kill the monster and grab the loot, while Betrayal encourages the group not only to split up, but to ignore the needs of the others. Betrayal at House on the Hill may have been a better game if it kept what was excised from its RPG simulation: a game master, to encourage the cohesion of the group. This may be why every time we play this game, I think of playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG.

There’s also been an unpleasant sense of deja vu that I have played something like it before, and I realized yesterday that Betrayal is just a more intelligent version of the Dungeon boardgame. Dungeon also destroyed the strongest aspect of RPGs like D&D by removing the game master from the game and requiring a style of play in which everyone is out for themselves. While in Betrayal acting independently isn’t required, but only strongly encouraged by the game dynamics, in both Dungeon and Betrayal I see a strong parallel, in that the effects of removing the game master from a RPG are similar in both. Do I find it slightly existential that in removing the authority from a RPG, there is no reason for players to be good or to act as a group? Yes, I do, but I’ll save that for another essay on the intersections of what I call Amoral RPGs (RPGs without a GM) and Existentialism.

All this said, in the face of my growing consciousness of the repetition of black tiles and the unsatisfying co op element, I did enjoy this game, and it did surprise me for once by having the Haunt (#42) win for the first time. An unlucky Haunt roll no doubt contributed to this win, as we were only 45 minutes into the game before a player rolled a 5 on eight Betrayal dice when the Haunt score was at 6. As the Haunt was revealed early in the game, we had few items and almost no useful Omens to battle the traitor, who found us easy pickings. This was gratifying to me, because after an unbroken seven-game winning record against the Haunt, I was beginning to wonder if the game was weighted too much in favor of the players.

Generally, our gaming group is pretty agreeable, and we play things that we all like, which may give you the impression that I am too nice in my Game Night summaries. The truth is, however, that I am like everybody else in the fact that I have negative opinions about some things, including a few games that we have played. This can be awkward when the game is a gift from our game-playing friends, and my wife thinks it is wonderful, so my ongoing strategy to conceal my shameful loathing of this generous gift has been to make suggestions to play better games. In fact, the best implied criticism of this game that I can make is that there are SO MANY better games that this has been successful for about seven months. Yesterday the eventual train wreck finally happened, and I found myself staring at the most underwhelming theme mash-up in recent tabletop history, Munchkin Panic. It was on my table like a vile, poisonous, beast, and as I didn’t feel Panic, but Dread at the amount of my life that it would suck away, I suggest renaming it the more apt Munchkin Dread. And, in the spirit of critical honesty, I’m going to call it Munchkin Dread not only for the rest of this review but for the rest of my life.

Why the contempt for Munchkin Dread? Basically, I consider it a crime to underwhelm, and I can’t find enough of the splendidly over-the-top hilarity of Munchkin in Munchkin Dread. Where’s the Munchkin in Munchkin Dread? I can’t find it. There’s Munchkin art crammed onto the cards, but as the card text is dull and humorless, they’re not anything like Munchkin cards. A mash-up should be a natural fusion of two games’ themes, and not a superficial dressing up of crammed content.

Additionally, I am a big fan of co-op games, the best of which create a sense of drama by making the game board mutable and untrustworthy (Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island), or by having cascading events (Pandemic). Compared to these great co op games, there is no drama and lots of tedium in the sliding of 39 monsters, and a half-dozen curses, towards your castle walls, and the presence of a Huge Rock in the bag of baddies makes me think of the myth of Sisyphus and wonder when the game will end.

These are pretty acidic criticisms, and just to be clear that Steve Jackson Games have given me some happiness in my life, from Car Wars as a teen to Gurps in college to Munchkin, Star Munchkin, and Adventure Time Munchkin in recent years. But Steve Jackson himself could not sell me on Munchkin Dread. Which is not to say that I won’t play it again, as it has three fans in our gaming group.

While in our first game, it was obvious that the honeymoon was over, and the second game was one for which I have never had any illusions at all, our third game of the night, Catan: Explorers and Pirates, already my favorite way to play Catan-the game I love to hate and hate for loving it—was such a refreshing change of pace that I felt a wave of relief. Even as I felt the wave of relief, I knew it for the cliche that it was, but that did not stop the cleanness and purity of the feeling that I was happy to be playing a seventeen point game of Catan.

Yes, we picked the longest scenario in the box, so we were using the all three of the leader boards: Pirates, Fish, and Spices. Due to time constraints and wanting to play other games, we have only played this scenario one time before this. I forgot how much space it takes up on our table. The last scenario in E&P is so immense that I don’t think it would fit on our friends’ game table without us going without drinks and snacks, and we’d have to use an end table for the game resource bank.


I went gung-ho into this game with off-board play, which I’ve mentioned before at length. To reiterate, in every version of Catan you can score points both on the board in the forms of settlements and cities or harbor settlements, and off the board in the form of other scoring opportunities, which in basic Catan are Longest Road, Longest Army, and Victory Point cards, and in Catan: Explorers and Pirates are the one to three points you can get on the Pirate, Fish, and Spice leader boards, plus the one point bonuses you can get from the Best Fisher, Best Spice Merchant, and Greatest Pirate Scourge cards. Catan: Explorers and Pirates makes it even easier to focus on off-board scoring, because you don’t have to worry so much about creating more resource-producing settlements due to the fact that when your numbers aren’t rolled you get gold.

Given an opportunity of three sidebars to focus upon, I focused on Spices, as each Spice obtained comes with an in-game bonus, and then I focused secondarily on Fish. I entered one Pirate battle just to get 1 VP off of that leader board, although from watching the other players go at them I realized just how much faster a player can climb up that board than the other leader boards. It takes six spices or six fish to get to the top of the Spice or Fish leader boards, but if you’re lucky or a good planner, you can get to the top of the Pirate board with only three battles. I may implement more Pirate raids in another game, but I will have a hard time prying myself away from the more immediate advantages of the Spices.

The most important Spice hexes to reach are the ones that give you +1 Move, as when you have both of these hexes locked down, you have a 6 Move instead of a 4, which then makes it easier for your ships to get other Spices, more Fish, and drop off crew to battle Pirates. Some players might not see that there’s much of a difference between a 4 and a 6 move, but over time it adds up so that it’s the difference between moving your ships 36 hexes over six turns instead of only 24. After those two, it’s good to have at least one of the hexes that allow you to trade a resource for a gold once a turn. As I only used three bricks in the entire game (one road, one settlement, and one settler), I used that throughout the game for the alchemical trick of changing brick into gold.

Fish require some careful planning to capitalize upon, as you have to keep an empty ship somewhere equidistant from as many Fish-producing hexes as possible in order to do well on that leader board. As two of the players rarely sent out empty ships, that meant there were only two players on the Fish board for most of the game, although another player managed to get one in on their last turn.

I won the 17 point Catan: Explorers & Pirates scenario with 9 points on the board and 8 points off the board: three harbor settlements, three settlements, three points on the Spice board, two points on the Fish board, the Best Fisher card, and the Best Spice Merchant card. For most of the game, I had only five points on the board, two harbor settlements and one settlement, as I wanted to ensure that I was getting as much gold as possible. So my weak production funneled into my strategy. Gold is more versatile and can’t be taken by the robber/pirate ship, and if I needed a resource, I simply bought one.

Overall, it was an enjoyable game night. While I had the most fun playing Catan: Explorers and Pirates, playing the other two games added to my understanding. For instance, my avoidance of Munchkin Dread had become something like a superstition in that I no longer remembered why I didn’t want to play it, and playing it yesterday made me a lot more conscious of the good reasons why I dreaded it. Additionally, heckling something distasteful can be a way of enjoying it and redeeming the wasted time. In a way, I found the game I hate a more profitable experience than the one that I love, which is no doubt a common feeling among critics. My usual tendency is to write about things that I like, but as the format of my Game Night recaps forces me to talk about all the games that we play, even the ones that I don’t like, I’m finding that I enjoy just as much writing about the bad games as the good ones. That said, I’m still a game player, not just a game reviewer, and I look forward to playing more games that I like.

Catan: Explorers & Pirates Expansion 5th Edition

Munchkin Panic

Betrayal At House On The Hill – 2nd Edition

Game Review: Rick and Morty: Total Rickall Card Game

Tabletop games that tie in with other media, like TV shows, movies, and books, have the advantage of already bringing highly meaningful content to the table before the exact theme of the game is ascertained. Unfortunately, their disadvantage often stems from the same source, in that the game developers sometimes bring their B game to a product that they know will be desired by collectors of the tie-in content, regardless of how good the game is. There is no doubt the feeling that many of these X-Files, Star Trek, and Star Wars products may remain in the shrinkwrap anyway, in order to stay cherry mint.

In the case of the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game, if collectors’ fever results in any of the print run going into acid free storage boxes, one hopes that those games will be enjoyed some centuries from now by Vulcan Starfleet cadets that then go on to have their logic corrupted by the humorous TV show on which it was based. Because, while it doesn’t quite measure up to the co-op tabletop masterpieces of Matt Leacock, the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game is a pretty satisfying co-op card game, and, better yet, the adaptation honors its source media by not only capturing the je ne sais quoi of Rick and Morty, but also the soul of a TV episode that is one of the fan favorite episodes of the show.


In “Total Rickall,” Rick locks the Smith family in their house in order to determine who is real, because an alien parasite that inserts fake memories of itself into your head, and then reproduces more parasites through flashbacks, would quickly take over the world if it was released from the premises. By the end of the episode, the Smith family has swelled to include all sorts of crazy parasites, which you can see from the episode screen cap that serves as the box art. This relatively simple science fiction premise is mined for comic moments and absurd revelations that are ultimately topped by a moment of “real” violence that closes the episode with a note of black comedy. I could go on at length about how the episode “Total Rickall” could compare favorably to comedies throughout history, whether Aristophanes, Voltaire’s Candide, or Arrested Development, but as this is a tabletop game review, we’re going to jump from here back to the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game.

First, the contents. There are three decks of cards: the Identity Deck, which contains 22 Parasite cards and 8 Real cards; the Character Deck, which contains 24 different characters from the episode, from Pencilvester to Mr. Poopybutthole to Amish Cyborg; and, the Action Deck, which contains 60 cards that usually tell you to peek at identity cards or shoot characters. There is also a “First Player Marker,” which is passed around the board from round to round, and determines which player goes first in a given round.

The Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game has two sets of rules, and they run parallel to each other from the first page on, with the Standard Mode running parallel to the Advanced Mode rules. Advanced Mode is much more satisfying than Standard Mode, which on reflection seems like basically the training wheels for Advanced Mode.

To set up Standard Mode, you remove four Parasites and two “Reals” from the Identity deck, which leaves, at most, 24 different characters to enter the game at a 75% chance of being a Parasite. Then you deal out face down onto the table a number of Identity cards equal to twice the number of players, and top each of them with a face up Character card. In this way, there are from four to ten of the comical characters from “Total Rickall” on the table at the start of the game, and the players do not know which of them is a Parasite, and which of them is a “Real.”

Each player gets three Action cards, and the first player marker goes to the person who last killed a parasite. In our first time playing this game (game night recap coming soon), this went to my wife, who swatted some mosquitoes in a recent outing. All players pick which of their three cards they would like to play, and then place it face down in front of them. Once all players have made their selection, all of the played cards are flipped at once, and then resolved in order, starting with the player that currently has the First Player Token. As players may decide to play similar cards, this can mean that the actions of preceding players can negate yours, so a general rule of thumb is that if you are playing late in the round, pick a Shoot card so that you can hopefully benefit from others’ Peek cards.

If you do shoot, and kill a parasite, it is removed from the board, and you are closer to winning; if you shoot, and kill a “real,” it is also removed from the board, but four dead “reals” mean that the players lose the game. Additionally, if you shoot a “real,” it is immediately replaced on the board by a new character. At the end of the round, regardless of whether you have shot anybody, parasite or real, another character joins the board. This means that if everyone decides to Peek at identity cards, the game just got a little harder to win. While it can be nice to know that your shots are called shots, and not wild shots, players will soon learn that with the known 75% quantity of parasites, it can be a general rule of thumb that someone, every round, has to Shoot. We could call this the “shoot or get off the pot” strategy, or SOGO for short, and no doubt some of you feel that it is applicable in other tabletop games in which indecision reigns as well.

The players can end the Standard Game at any point that 50% or more of the players feel that there are no Parasites left on the table. Any player can call for a vote by stating that all the Parasites are gone, and if he or she gets the majority to agree with him or her, then the cards are revealed. If there are any parasites, the players lose, and if they are all “Reals” the players win. Additionally, if at any time a fourth Real character is killed, the players lose the game. With only one way to win and two ways to lose, you would expect the Standard game to be hard to win, but it is actually fairly easy, which leads me to believe it is intended as training wheels in order for players to grasp the prerequisite game mechanics before attempting the Advanced game.

The Advanced game extends the indeterminacy of whether targets are Real or Parasite from the table’s center to its perimeter, in that the game’s players may now be either Real or Parasite. Remember the six Identity cards that are removed from the game in Standard Mode? The players draw from this small deck, so that with 4 Real and 2 Parasite cards, each player has a 33% chance of being a Parasite. Parasite Players win the game by trying to bring about a losing scenario, whether through ensuring that four Real characters are killed (and the fourth is killed by a Real), or through duping the other players into believing that a table with Parasites on it is free of threat. While the odds are pretty good that only one player is a Parasite, which modifies the game into a co-op game with a single threat like Spyfall or Betrayal at House on the Hill, it is possible that both Parasite cards are drawn, which means there are two different co-op games going on.

The Advanced Game allows occasional peeking at Player identities, and can end with a final Dinner Table round in which the players have the option to shoot each other to reveal the final parasite in their midst. This simulates the Dinner Table scene at the end of “Total Rickall,” in which the viewer expects to see Mr. Poopybutthole revealed as an actual parasite, only to see that the character that shoots him is revealed to be the greatest of the metaphorical parasites in the Smith family instead.

The Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game is an enjoyable game, but I do have some recommendations. My first recommendation goes out to all you Parasites in Advanced Mode who are at a loss for how to act: the best way to have fun with this is to avoid your Peek cards, unless they also require you to reshuffle Identity cards. Otherwise, your Real comrades will expect you to have good intelligence on whether those characters are Real or Parasites, and if you answer truthfully, your Parasite friend will be killed and the Real players’ win will get nearer, while if you answer deceitfully, this deception will be quickly uncovered, and your identity as a Parasite will be common knowledge. Play your shoot cards instead, and use other players’ peeks as intel to raise your chance of killing a Real from 25% without disclosing your own identity as a Parasite. For instance, while you don’t want to shoot a Real character if someone else says that they definitely are Real, if another player peeks at two characters and says “one is Real, and the other is Parasite,” the odds just rose to 50% that you have a chance to kill a Real and bring the end of the game a little closer. (Just don’t be the one to shoot the 4th Real character, because that ends the game with a loss for the shooting side.) Also, if you have a chance to shoot Reverse Giraffe, take it, as you will be able to look at another player’s Identity card, and you can mess with the rest of the players from that point on.  Moreover, if a Parasite Player does choose to play an occasional Peek card, they should invariably say that the Identity card is a Real. Here’s why. If it is a real, and you have a Parasite ally in the game, you’re revealing it to them so if they are less thoughtful in their machinations than you, they will help your agenda along; if it is a parasite, you are possibly protecting it from destruction, which will make you a winner if the players decide to make game-ending declaration that all the parasites have been destroyed. However, it can lead to another player learning your Parasite identity if they play a peek card after you, which is the reason for my advisement that your Peek cards played should be rare and strategically played. And lastly, why not try to mislead the players with a declaration yourself? Let’s say there are five cards left, and the players know that four of them are Real. If you play a Peek card, and look at the fifth card, instead of saying that the Parasite is Real as well, why not hold a vote by saying that all the Parasites are eliminated? If they agree, this means that Rick raises the blast shielding, and the Parasites take over the world. Yay team!

My other recommendation is that players should follow the suggestion in the rules that the blurbs at the bottom of the character cards should be read aloud, if only for the first few times the game is played. Not only are there important rule modifiers there that can be forgotten, but the dialogue bits help to evoke the episode that this game evinces. It makes the theme of the game a little stronger.

Overall, the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game is a fun quick game that will take your gaming group about fifteen or twenty minutes to play at most, and will be a good one to shoe in between the more epic strategy games that your group plays. It isn’t likely to either have any costly expansions or take over your gaming group, but as this is one of two games from Cryptozoic based on Rick and Morty episodes, we can expect that we’ll see more games join the Rick and Morty themed tabletop game family in the future until the possibility of a Rick and Morty themed game night becomes a real possibility.

Rick and Morty Total Rickall Cooperative Card Game

Board of Life uses affiliate links.  Cross-posted to

8 Bit Tabletop Battles: a Review of IDW’s Random Encounter

Random Encounter has a good pedigree, coming from both Jamie Keddie, one of the designers of Minecraft Console Edition, and IDW Games, which has had more hits than misses over its first few years. Previously a Kickstarter that did not meet its funding goal in 2015, Random Encounter was acquired by IDW Games, who announced in January that it would be available in April.

Random Encounter is now running late, but IDW Games has promised through their social media pages that you’ll be able to play this tabletop game very soon. As IDW was kind enough to send me a review copy of Random Encounter: Plains of the Troll King, the first in a series of Random Encounter games, I can confirm that the game has made its way through production, and if you are one of the ones that has been waiting for this since the Kickstarter, your princess is not in another castle, she’s just waiting on the distributor.

Random Encounter is materially very striking, with unique dimensions that will stand out on your shelf and box art that will appeal to fans of Minecraft, as it displays some of Random Encounter’s denizens, The Troll King, The Book Wizard, and a mushroom warrior, in an 8 bit pixellated style. Keddie, the game designer, and known for his work on Minecraft Console Edition, also drew the box art, and he navigates well the fine line between seeming derivative and creating an homage to a great work of video game art that has charmed the head space of game players of all ages. These players already enamored of Minecraft will feel right at home in Random Encounter. Yes, the aesthetic for Random Encounter might be “ready made,” but it will feel less like a cash grab and more like a rolled out welcome mat.


Inside the box you’ll find 45 Random Encounter cards, 4 Boss cards, and 4 Key cards with the same visual design sense, as well as 5 mottled green Loot dice, the rulebook, and a reference card. The rules detail how to play Random Encounter both as a two to five multiplayer game and as a solo adventure.

In standard multiplayer Random Encounter, the Boss and Key cards are not used. To start, each player places their Loot die so that the one pip faces up, and then the 45 Random Encounter cards are shuffled and dealt out until each player has nine cards, which they must then build into five different face down encounters. Additionally, the players must decide which random encounter protects his or her Loot die.

The first player selects one of their random encounters to fight another player’s. To resolve a battle, first you consult the monster’s Level Star: encounters with a Green Level Star are swapped for the opposing random encounter, which gives sneaky players a chance to take a much stronger force with some weak cards; Blue Level Stars always win, and Red Level Stars always lose, unless it is a Blue Level Star facing a Red Level Star, in which case the Red card wins. The majority of the deck is comprised of Yellow Level Stars, which add no additional effect to a battle. In a case of Yellow Level Stars vs. Yellow Level Stars, the most common kind of battle, you simply add the levels on the cards to determine, by the highest level count, which side wins. If both players tie, all cards in that play are discarded from the game.

If you have a Loot die at stake in any battle, and lose, your opponent gains one pip on his Loot die and you lose one, with a minimum of one. Additionally, after all five hands are played, the player with the most victories adds two to their Loot die. As soon as someone has a Loot of six, the game ends with that player being the winner. In a four or five handed game, this could happen in the first round, while in a two or three player game it takes at least two rounds to win.

Strategy in Random Encounter is entirely contingent on how well you plan your encounters, as well as whether you can play an occasional artful subterfuge and whether you can see through your opponents’ tricks. For instance, you might think that the two cards in front of my Loot die are powerful monsters, and bring your Blue Level Star Lord of Toads against it, only to discover that I put a Green Level Star Book Wizard and a level 1 Chicken there, and, as Green Level Stars swap cards, that would give me the victory.

If only the game didn’t hinge on that single strategic moment and maybe one more. You see, as one or two round games are the norm for Random Encounter, this means that you only have one or two chances to plan your encounters, and a few different variations on how to play them once the game begins.

Therefore, while I found the design and the game set-up appealing and with a touch of 8-bit grandeur, because there are only one or two strategic moments in a game of Random Encounter, and the game is too short to enjoy the strategic element, I’m not left with an appetite for more. As a card war game, Random Encounter is very far away from games like Dominion, Munchkin, and Dragonwood, but as an easy to learn quick game with an enjoyable and familiar artistic motif, it may be fun for the right group of players that want a game that they don’t have to take that seriously between the torture of Catan and the rest of their game night. It may also be appreciated by children that are lost in the world of Minecraft…as long as they don’t make the mistake of playing Solo Adventure mode.

I’m old enough that when I hear the words solo adventure, I’m reminded of Choose Your Own Adventure books, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery, and Dungeons and Dragons Endless Quest books, and while I found the set-up of Random Encounter‘s Solo Adventure Mode to be exciting, the game play was more Mundane Solitaire than Solo Adventure. After mixing in the Keys and the Bosses and laying out the game board in seventeen piles of cards, I found the game play to be pretty anticlimactic, as all I had to do to win was go slowly and fight every card. The ten to eleven year old crowd that has the vast digital sandbox of Minecraft to play in will probably be even more disappointed in Solo Adventure Random Encounter than I was.

And the really clever ones will say, “really Dad!?! Solitaire?”

Here are my reviews of Dragonwood, Splendor, Batman Fluxx, and Broom Service.

Random Encounter Plains of The Troll King

Or you might prefer to play this game that you might have heard of…

Here’s a friendly link to Endless Quest books.

Hey, did you know there’s an app for Steve Jackson’s Sorcery?

Cross posted on IDW Games provided the review copy.  Board of Life uses affiliate links.


The Tortoise, the Hare, and the Miser: A Review of Splendor (2014)

One of the more satisfying quick games of the last few years is Splendor, Space Cowboys’ card and chip collecting resource-management game. The theme of Splendor is that players are Renaissance gem merchants trying to acquire the most satisfying array of stones. Through manipulation of gems (symbolized by tokens) and purchased cards, players gain wealth and prestige, which is rated by Prestige Points. The first player to achieve 15 Prestige Points wins the game, and this usually occurs within 21-30 turns of the game depending on the skill and aggression of the players.


To set up Splendor, you take the game’s three decks of cards—the 40 card Level 1 Deck, the 30 card Level 2 deck, and the 20 card Level 3 deck—put them on the left hand side of the table, and then draw four cards from each deck to lay to the right of these piles. Above the card decks, you place a number of noble tiles equal to the number of players plus one; as Splendor requires a minimum of two players and a maximum of four, this means from three to five of the ten nobles are in play at any one time. Then, you set the Emerald (green), Sapphire (blue), Ruby (red), Diamond (white), and Onyx (black) tokens in piles of four for two players, five for three players, or seven for four players. Finally, you place all five Gold Joker tokens with the rest of the gem bank, regardless of how many players you have.

Players start the game with nothing. The youngest player goes first. Each turn, players can perform one single action from the following list: 1) take three tokens of different colors; 2) take two tokens of the same color, with the stipulation that you can only do this from a stack of four or more; 3) purchase a card if you have the requisite gems; or, 4) reserve a card that you cannot afford by taking that card plus one of the Gold Joker tokens. Using option 4) is the only way the player can get a Gold Joker token. You would think that getting just one token is not as good as getting three, and you’re right that you won’t get rich if you’re constantly reserving cards for Gold tokens; however, the Gold tokens can be used as any other color, so they’re more versatile than the other tokens.

To purchase a card, you simply cash in the tokens that are displayed on the card’s front.


Once you return one Diamond, three Sapphirea, and one Emerald to the bank, you can buy this card and get the permanent benefit of it as an addition to your wealth.  Because this card has an Emerald in the upper right, if I want to buy another card that requires two Diamond and two Emerald…


…I only need to use two Diamond and one Emerald token, as I now have a permanent Emerald in my bank due to previous card purchase.

A handful of cards in the Level 1 deck come with one Prestige Point when you purchase them, the Level 2 cards come with between one and three Prestige Points, and the Level 3 cards come with between three and five Prestige Points.

Sometimes you can’t buy the card you want, or, more deviously, you want to remove from play a card that you believe another player is about to buy. To reserve a card, you simply take any card and instead of playing it in front of you, you retain it in your hand, and at the same time grab a Gold Joker coin. Then, on a future turn, if you’ve earned the resources to buy the card, you can buy your reserved card instead of buying one from the table. On the other hand, you don’t ever have to buy the card. Sometimes, players reserve a card simply because they didn’t want you to have a card, or because they just wanted the Gold Joker coin.  It is also possible for players to reserve “blind” one of the cards on the tops of the stacks. I’ve never seen this done in play, although in theory it can mess with other players’ expectations, especially the strategic players that like to plan their next move by considering what your next move might be.

While the game is often won by purchasing cards that bear a prestige point value, there is another way to earn points that is sometimes seized upon by patient players as their primary method of scoring.


Meet Anne of Brittany, one of the nobles in the game. If she’s one of the five nobles in play, and at any point you have three Emeralds, three Sapphires, and Three Diamonds in card form, and not token form, only, then you have attracted the attention of this noble to your side of the table and earned her three Prestige Points. Attracting the attention of a noble is a free action that doesn’t keep you from taking your normal turn, either, although you can only attract one noble per turn. This means that if you have four Onyx cards, four Emerald cards, and three Ruby cards, and then buy a fourth Ruby, you have to pick between Henry VIII and Mary Stuart.


Next turn, if no one else has claimed the one you left behind, you can take that one too.

The nice thing about Splendor is that there are a few different winning strategies to play. I have seen players win as the Tortoise, slowly building vast arrays of cards and attracting a fleet of nobles, or as the Hare, quickly going after just the one or two colors they need to snipe a few high point cards from the top. Experienced Splendor players prefer the latter strategy, which has caused me to develop a defense against it that I have mentioned in a previous essay: the Miser’s strategy. To wit, when playing the Miser’s strategy, you simply always grab tokens when there are three tokens to grab. Always being close to ten tokens will make the Hares struggle to get the resources they need for those quick and dirty buys, especially if you’re hoarding the colors they need for top row purchases. Obviously, you still need to buy occasionally, so that you’re not forced to return tokens to the bank. But right after you make a buy, replenish those coins, even when it means you have to pass up a free card. I understand that when you have one card of each color, the temptation to pass up all the free or inexpensive cards is very great. It’s natural to want to take advantage of your investment in these cards. If you’re doing that without a defensive wall of tokens, though, you’re providing too many scoring options for your competition.

Splendor is a celebrated game: not only has it won the 2014 Golden Geek Board Game of the Year, the 2014 Golden Geek Best Family Board Game, the 2014 Meeple’s Choice, and the 2015 Nederlandse Spellenprijis Best Family Game, it has also been nominated for a slew of other prestigious awards, such as the 2014 Spiel des Jahres. Best of all, however, is this game’s word of mouth, because there are so many satisfied Splendor players.

The mark of a great game, however, is that when you’re done playing it, you feel like playing it again. This is how you’ll feel after your first game of Splendor, or your eightieth. And, you can easily play two or three games of Splendor in an hour, since the game tends to be 20-25 minutes with experienced players. The more you play, the faster you play, and not only can I see a possibility for Splendor to become so popular as to take over your game night, I can also envision Splendor clubs in the next millennium or two, just like Chess or Checkers clubs, where you’ll be able to see tabletop enthusiasts and graybeards obsessively playing a classic game that they only know out of context from its vast history.

My one criticism of Splendor will lead to a recommendation.  There is a potential for vast Splendor skill differential, just as there is in any other fast tabletop game. Easy mechanics lead not only to easy instruction and transmission of the game, but also a tendency to repeat easy strategies.  Just as there are lots of Google searches that lead to how to win chess in four moves, what is less common but gaining traction are search results that tell you how to win Splendor with a two color strategy.  This is the primary reason that I developed my Miser strategy as an equalizer, which leads to my recommendation:  when teaching Splendor to friends and family, if you insist on going for the quick two-color win that you cleverly learned online, make sure that sometime between the first game and the second, you take a few minutes and lay out a few alternative strategies and defenses.  Just as you would teach your own children not to move their King’s Pawn in a game of chess (if you’re chess uninitiated, this can lead to letting your opponent checkmate you in four moves), teach them some of the equalizing moves that will mess with a more experienced player, such as playing Miserly and hoarding a full till of tokens, or reserving a blind card so that your next moves might be less predictable to your opponent.

Overall, though, Splendor is highly entertaining and completely satisfying.  Like Catan or 7 Wonders, there can be a sense of achievement even when you don’t win, as in your loss you have left a legacy of your investments on the table in your array of cards.  The game can be quickly re-set, so that within a minute of the game’s finish, another game can be in motion.  The varying decks and noble tiles mean that each game of Splendor will have different contours than the one before it, and hence Splendor has a lot of replay value.   And on a personal note, it is one of my favorite games, right after 7 WondersPuerto Rico and Broom Service, and the version of Splendor you can find on the App Store is my favorite boardgame app.  If you’re building a library of the best modern tabletop games, Splendor should definitely be one of them.

Buy Splendor on Amazon

Buy Splendor for Android on Amazon Appstore

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