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A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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When boards and pawns get replaced with dice and cards

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As I have grown older, card and dice adaptations of board games have become more of a focus for me. Part of this is because they've become more and more common. They are also an interesting exploration of game mechanics. How do you change and distill a game to adapt it? And, plus, they're handy when you have less gaming time and storage space

There are three questions I usually ask myself when I look at a card or dice adaptation.

1. Is it any good as a game?

Seriously, that's the basic question you have to ask about any game. There's plenty of criteria to apply. Is the game fun to play? Does it offer an interesting experience? Does it offer interesting decisions?

I can't tell you what makes a game good. We wouldn't have such a variety of games out there if there was a single answer. But a game has to be good for me and the folks I play with to get played more than once.

2. Does it take up less space or take less time to play?

If the card or dice version takes up less storage space, that's a plus for me. If it has a smaller footprint on the table or takes less time to set up or breakdown, that's good too. And these days, when life has me busy in a lot of other ways, a shorter playing time is also a big selling point.

Of course, as our son gets older, some of those things might not be quite so big a deal. On the other hand, having shorter, simpler versions of games to reach him will become handy.

3. Does it capture the feeling of its parent game?

Truth to tell, this isn't a deal breaker. If we enjoy playing the game and the shared name is just branding slapped over the top, I don't care. Still, it is nice when it happens. And, in some rare cases, makes me feel okay about having the card or dice version and not the board version.

A good example of a game that has stayed in my collection is Euphrates and Tigris: Contest of Kings. It is not as good a game as it's boardgame parent, Tigris and Euphrates. It also takes about as much space on the table. However, it is still a good game and it takes up a fraction of the storage space. For as often as I have ever played Tigris and Euphrates, the card version is an acceptable alternative in my collection.

Back in 2002, Hasbro put out card versions of several classic games.
These versions of Battleship and The Game of Life are still in my collection and I'd much rather play them than the originals.

In most cases, there is a tradeoff when a game or at least the theme is taken into a new medium. Sometimes, you lose more than you gain. However, at least for me, it's at least worth looking into.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Sep 22, 2016 11:59 pm
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Something Global: gaming via tweeting or just tweeting?

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In Something Global, you play an ape rising up against humanity in rebellion in pretend and tweet about it in real life. Your success as an ape rebel depends on how many favorites you get.

This officially blows my mind. Mostly because I don't tweet and I don't understand that environment very well. I'm assuming that favorite works the same way as likes do in Facebook and I barely even use that.

Seriously, I've pretty much described the game it's entirety in the first paragraph.

I have looked at and played some odd games. Microscope is about building a timeline and I've played it via email. Lexicon is a writing game about building your own fictional wiki. Happy Birthday, Robot has you tell a story literally one sentence at a time.

But Something Global feels like it crosses a I line for me. After all, isn't the idea of tweeting to get people to read whatever you posted and to give you some kind of thumbs up for it? Something Global sounds like doing normal tweeting behavior and coaches it in the terms of a bunch of apes doing it.

Am I looking at a game or social commentary? Is Something Global a game or an experiment or satire? (Okay, it can easily be all three but which one was the designer's primary goal?)

Something Global is part of the Indie Mixtape Megamix, a big collection of tiny little RPGs. The vast majority of them, while minimalist, are clearly designed to be played. I have to wonder if Something Global was designed simply to be observed.
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Thu Sep 22, 2016 2:22 am
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A clearinghouse of closing thoughts on auctions

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I hadn't planned on spending about six blogs almost in a row writing about auction games. Still, it was fun and I decided to make a clearinghouse of closing thoughts.

Games I Missed

While making an exhaustive exploration of auction games would have been beyond the scope of my blog (and would have gotten boring and tedious, quite frankly), there are some kind of glaring omissions.

I focused a lot in Reiner Knizia's auction games but I skipped both Dream Factory and Amun-Re. That's because my couple plays of Amun-Re were over ten years ago and I don't remember if well and I've never played Dream Factory. I do really want to play it some day.

I also haven't played High Bid, which was 3M's entry into the auction world back in the 60s. I don't know how well it would hold up but I view 3M as a big part of the development of modern board games so I feel like I should try it.

I know it has the interesting element of selling back items to raise capital but there's a good chance you might not get the full value. Realistic but potentially frustrating.

One auction game I do want to examine in the future is Vegas Showdown. It didn't get nearly enough love from its first published but it is a really good game that combines auctions, resource management and tile laying.

War of the Fillers

One of the things that got me started on the whole auction kick was a desire to compare For Sale and High Society. They are both auction games that take about fifteen minutes to play, which means fill a similar slot in gaming.

For Sale has often been called the king of the fillers but I have actually gotten more use out of High Society.

A key difference is that For Sale is an unusually forgiving auction game while High Society is as forgiving as the Mafia. So I think that High Society is better for 'hardcore', 'serious' gamers while For Sale is ideal for a more general, family audience.

So, I got a lot of play out of High Society with my old crew but, when our son gets older, For Sale will probably become the new champion.

The Future of Pure Auction Games

There are a lot of games that use auctions as one element, like Power Grid. However, it feels the heyday of games that had auctions as their one big thing was back in the 90s and early 00s. Auction games still come out, the Speicherstadt came out in 2010 and GEM came out in 2015, but it feels like they're no longer a going concern.

I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to find out that I just don't know about them and that there are a whole bunch of good auction games that of come out in the last five years that I'm just ignorant of.

Even if that's not the case (really, prove me wrong), I don't think that auctions are a dead genre. I bet there are some amazing innovations that haven't been created yet, primary auction games that will be really amazing after they get invented.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Sep 20, 2016 6:39 pm
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The Mysterious Package Company keeps the mysteries coming

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The Mysterious Package Company is having itself another Kickstarter.

I have never been a customer of the Mysterious Package Company. Instead, I got to be something far better. I got to be a recipient!

One of my favorite stories by Gilbert K. Chesterton that doesn't involve Father Brown is the Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown (who isn't related to the good priest, as far as I know) The title character finds himself in the middle of a pulp plot and it turns out he was mixed up with the subscriber of an adventure service that hires actors and such to let people live a story.

The Mysterious Package Company performs this service via post. Which is a heck of a lot more reasonable a business model than renting houses and filling them with actors and props.

My experience with them started when I got a crumpled letter in the mail marked up like it had been in the dead letters office for years. I noticed immediately that it made several references to the works of Robert W. Chambers.

My immediate conclusion was that one of my friends from the Midwest had started a game of De Profundis, the Lovecraftian RPG of letter writing horror. Yes, that's a real thing. So I fired off a crumpled and stained letter to the person who I thought most likely to have started the game, using a lot of elements from Chambers' works. Confusion ensued.

When an actual package arrived, I felt like things had gone above and beyond with people could easily get away with with the desktop publishing. A little bit of research later, I found out about the Mysterious Package Company.

I intentionally did not find out what else I might expect in the story that I found myself in. But now I knew what kind of ride I was in for. And being the dark until that point had been a lot of fun.

Telling a story through letters and newspaper clippings and the like is an age old method. It makes senses, piecing together events through different artifacts. It might not be as visceral as actually walking into a haunted house but looking at real photographs and yellowed news clippings is still more of a gut-level experience than reading a book or watching a movie.

And the Mysterious Package Company does a dandy job delivering that. And the last package is always guaranteed to be a doozy.

Getting packages from the Mysterious Package Company was quite an experience. And the journey of finding out not only what the story was but what the heck was going on was an adventure. I'm glad they're apparently doing well and stretching their wings with another Kickstarter.
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Fri Sep 16, 2016 10:47 pm
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A highly uninformed view of Medici

Lowell Kempf
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Since I've already written about Modern Art and Ra, I really feel like I should cover Medici. After all, it is the third game in Reiner Knizia's auction trilogy.

My problem is I've only played the game twice face to face. Almost all of my experience with the game is on the iPad against the AIs, which really doesn't give me a good sense of the game.

(I am not big on playing against computers but I think they are particularly weak in auction games or negotiation games. I am just a human elitist in that regard.)

However, there is no denying that Medici is an important part of Knizia's auction games and auction games in general. And since I have had at least a little bit of experience with it, I am prepared to say something. Just take it with an even smaller grain of salt than usual

Modern Art is defined by having a wide variety of auctions and dynamic market values. Ra is defined by having a push-your-luck element and an intricate network of scoring elements. Medici is defined by being a pure as the driven snow auctions. Even High Society, with its special tiles and poorest loses rule, is more watered down than Medici.

You could argue that Medici does have elements of push-your-luck and set collection. But, unlike Ra where those are their own chunk of the gameplay, Medici just uses those elements to facilitate auctions and evaluate them.

The story in Medici is that you are all Renaissance merchants trying to earn the most cash through buying low and selling high on your shipments. But even by the standards of Euro games, the theme in Medici is pretty thin. You strip away all the art and replace the goods with colors and you'd barely affect the gameplay experience.

Medici is played out in three rounds where each player will be collecting five tiles or shipping five lots of goods. The tiles come with two different pieces of information on them. There will be one of five different goods and have a number ranging from zero to five, not counting a gold tile that has a ten on it.

On your turn, you choose one to three tiles to flip over for auction. You can't flip over more than you have empty spots for. Then, there's a once around auction with the person who flipped the tiles going last. You bid straight up points. When everyone has five tiles, it's time to score them up.

You earn points based on two things. The total value of your tiles, er, shipment, and the number of each type of good you've shipped throughout the entire game. There's a first place, second place, etc. And each place is a set amount of points, with ties dividing the points. You also get a bonus if you get to the top of the goods track.

And, of course, who ever has the most points at the end wins.

I have to make a special note about player counts. You blindly discard tiles with the fewer the players meaning the more tiles go bye bye. And more scoring positions get added for more players.

Medici has been around since 1995, over twenty years. It's gone out of print in a regular basis but it always swings back around and comes back into print. Folks keep on loving it. It might not be a juggernaut Catan but it's no flash in the pan.

So, this is my uneducated, haven't-played-Medici-enough guess as to why: the economy of the game is so brutally tight. The return on your investments is set and that's the only way you have to get points.

Other games have money equals points but they usually have other ways of earning money. Auctioning off paintings in Modern Art, for instance. In Medici, even a small overbid can be catastrophic. Sometimes, you can get ahead by paying as little as possible but that can sink you if that's all you do, unless you are very lucky and the other players play very badly.

In short, I think Medici works by taking the auction and honing it to a razor's edge. That might be too sharp for some folks. Too sharp for me some of be time, to be honest. But I can see why the gameplay is so strong.

Huh. I see a card game version is coming out. Looks like, just like the Modern Art card game, the auctions have been removed. That worked surprisingly well with Modern Art, with the use of special abilities and the changing values market. With Medici, that leaves a fairly simple push-your-luck element and a fairly simple set collection element. I don't know if that's enough and it definitely seems like it should be a much lighter, less brutal game.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Sep 16, 2016 3:49 pm
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You knew I had to write about Ra

Lowell Kempf
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Ra is one of my favorite Knizia games, as well as my favorite auction game. It has stood the test of time, not just for me, but with the hobby on a whole. I believe it's a game that will still be getting played and published twenty years from now.

While it is primarily an auction game, Ra also incorporates push your luck and set collection as mechanics. Knizia blended those three elements together into a tightly knit whole, with each element supporting the others.

Here's the game in a nutshell: players take turns either pulling tiles out of a bag or calling an auction for the tiles that have been pulled out. The kicker is the Ra tiles. Drawing enough of them will and the round with no one getting any more tiles.

The variety of tiles in Ra is greater than I can easily summarize. And they all score or lost points in different ways. It's easily the most complex part of the game and the hardest part to teach. Of note are the disaster tiles, which will actually make you lose other tiles.

And the last element I want to make sure I mention as the sun tokens, which are what you use for bidding. They limit how much you can bid and you can only use one at a time. This helps prevent people wildly overbidding and also limits how many auctions you can win on each round.

Oh, since I haven't actually bothered mentioning the theme before now, I figure that I should cover it. The game is set in ancient Egypt and each round is supposed to be an epoch. It actually works rather well, since you are developing technologies and fostering Pharaohs and building monuments and things like that. I mean, the game has been re-themed for gangsters but I feel that the theme of the tiles does marry well with the idea of the passing of ages. Plus, cool Egyptian art.

Now that I've given a very brief thumbnail sketch of Ra, leaving out details like automatic auctions when you pull a Ra time, why do I think it is such an awesome game?i

The push-your-luck element is strong enough that Knizia used similar mechanics as entire games, like Cheeky Monkey. It adds a lot of fun and tension to the game. Every that only one person has bidding tokens and is pulling tiles to try and get s great haul, it seems that everyone else starts chanting Ra, Ra, Ra.

But that push your luck element is countered by the diversity and complexity of the tiles. Different tiles will be worth different amounts of points to different players. Understanding both what you will get out of a given lot of tiles and what other people will get is very important.

There's a strong tactical level to Ra, about dealing with what tiles come out. If certain tiles don't come out, you can't plan your game around them. But the game is also very strategic as well. You need to have a good sense of how the tiles will score as well as what's still in the bag. In the long run, a global understanding of the game situation will trump any given lot.

Ultimately, that's what makes Ra such a strong game. The push-your-luck element creates a lot of constant tension and makes it possible to have a lucky break or an unlucky fall. But the complexity of the tiles makes having a global understanding of the game very strong. The better player should win Ra but they have to work at it.

The diversity of the tiles and the luck of the draw also gives Ra a lot of replay value. You can't play the game on autopilot or try and follow the same formula every time. You have to react to what Ra gives you and build your plans around that.

Ra came out in 1999 and, while it has gone out of print, it seems to reliably always come back into print. The core mechanics of the game are simple to explain but the game has some serious depth, as well as a truckload of fun and replay value. I consider it to be a definite classic.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Sep 15, 2016 8:48 pm
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A mental exercise about worker placement

Lowell Kempf
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While discussing Mint Works, a worker placement micro game, the question came up: what game do you use to introduce worker placement as a mechanic?

Realistically, the answer is whatever game you understand well enough to be able to comfortably and comprehensively teach. Your ability to teach the game matters the most.

Agricola wasn't on my short list of entry-level worker placement games yet I and other folks I've known have had great success with it as someone's first worker placement game, even when not using the simpler family-level rules. And Agricola has a reputation for not being an entry-level game. Perhaps falsely. After all, the theme helps make the game accessible since everyone knows what you do on a farm.

But, this mental exercise is about picking games that are what games we think would be easy for folks to pick up. My shortlist ended up being Lords of Waterdeep, Sticky Fingers and Stone Age. Since it's popular mechanic, I am going to bet there are many good candidates that I have never played or even heard of.

Sticky Fingers is one of the simpler worker placement games I've played and I do like it quite a bit. But it doesn't involve engine building per se, which I think is an important part of the worker placement experience. Lords of Waterdeep, a game I've come to appreciate the more I play it, has the opposite problem. The engine building is more subtle and complex than I thought at first.

Stone Age ended up being the game I thought would be the best game to introduce worker placement to people who think that's another name for temp agencies. It is relatively simple but very dynamic. And, while the engine building just invokes adding people, tools and agriculture to your tribe, it's still engine building.

It doesn't hurt that it's a game that I still enjoy playing. My personal introduction to worker placement was Pillars of the Earth, a game that I still think is a strong design but I grew tired enough of that I eventually got rid of it.

Of course, this is all just a mental exercise. When it comes to actually doing introducing people to worker placement, what really matters is what games you actually have access to and enjoy enough that teaching them will be fun for everyone.
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Wed Sep 14, 2016 5:25 pm
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High Society is a quick but brutal little auction game

Lowell Kempf
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It took me a number of years to find a copy of Reiner Knizia's High Society. I had read about it almost since I first discovered Boardgame Geek and designer games but it had been out of print in the US when I first started looking for it.

High Society was one of Knizia's earlier games, back when he was primarily known for auction games. At one point, it was even considered part of his 'auction trilogy' with Medici and Modern Art, until Ra kicked it out. Maybe it's part of a second trilogy with Dream Factory and Amen-Re Regardless, it's always been well regarded.

When Gryphon Games reprinted it, I immediately snatched it up. And then it sat on the shelf for quite a while. Part of it was that I had so many games at that point it was hard to work it into rotation. Part of it was that it was it was a quick, light game when my gaming group was all about big, heavy games. And part of that was whether or not it could live up to its reputation.

Eventually, I forced my group to play High Society. And it was an instant hit and went into regular rotation. It helped that I was past my try-new-game every session phase and more focused on getting replay value out of the good games.

The elevator pitch for High Society is that you are a bunch of the idle rich, trying to buy more status symbols than everyone else. However, if you spend too much money, you'll lose the status of being rich and the game.

Mechanically, you all start out with the same amount of money and a series of tiles gets flipped over and auctioned off. Most of them are positive points but some of them are special or even negative points. Four of them are red and when the fourth one shows up, the game ends immediately.

Before you figure out who has the most points, you figure out who has the least money. That person is out. If there is a tie, everybody is out.

And that's the wrinkle that turns High Society from an auction game that you would never remember to a tight, brutal, little game that really makes you say 'let's play that again.' It's simple rule but it makes the entire game so much edgier.

High Society is a quick, simple game. It doesn't have the weight or length of most Knizia's other great auction games. However, it lacks a lot of tense, tough auctions into the fifteen minutes it takes to play. It took me a while to find and play it but it turned out to be worth it.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Sep 13, 2016 8:47 pm
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Mint Works - minimalism at work

Lowell Kempf
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The Kickstarter for Mint Works is almost at an end and it's been funded well and above the goal. Enough that a number of stretch goals have been met. When a game is that small, even a little bit extra can be a big expansion.

I've kept my eye on Mint Works ever since I first saw it as part of a PnP contest. I've been interested in micro games pretty much since I got into board games but Mint Works manages to be something different from other micro games I've seen.

It does that just by being a worker placement game and a pretty straight foward one at that. The actions are pretty simple. Get more workers, get building plans, building buildings from plans. Whoever gets seven points in buildings first wins.

The original version of the game consisted of two pages of cards, plus whatever tokens you used for workers. I know the Kickstarter version will have more cards but we are still talking tiny. Smaller than any other worker placement game I've come across.

One difference from most worker placement games I've seen is that you don't get your workers back. They as effectively currency and you need to get more through a very limited income or actions or buildings. Still, since everyone is competing for a limited pool of actions so the basic mechanic of worker placement holds true.

The placeholder for simplest worker placement game for me used to be Sticky Fingers. That's a game where you play rival thieves and you have to gather up tools, use those tools to steal stuff and then fence the stuff off for money which is called points in the game.

And I do like Sticky Fingers. While it is simple, it has enough tension and complexity to keep it interesting. However, what it is not is an engine builder. The board is effectively the engine and you are fighting to use it the most efficiently.

Mint Works is in the running to be my new simplest worker placement game. It is honestly simpler and it is a worker placement game. And, as a micro game, it feels a different role as far as gaming needs are concerned.

And, unlike Sticky Fingers, Mint Works is an engine builder. The powers of the buildings give you are awfully simple but they are there. You definitely have to build up your infrastructure as well as going for points.,What I am uncertain of is how strong it's replay value is. The Kickstarter version, with more cards, does add promise for replay.

Mint Works is definitely a fascinating work of minimalism.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Sep 12, 2016 9:25 pm
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Why For Sale is a classic

Lowell Kempf
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For Sale is one of those games that is a definitive classic. It came out in 1997 and it's given the world almost twenty years of solid gaming since then.

For Sale is a game about the gentle art of flipping houses. In the first half of the game, you are buying houses, preferably as cheap as possible. In the second half, you sell those houses, preferably for a lot.

The game consists of two decks of cards, houses and checks, and a stack of coins. The houses have a numeric value from one to thirty while the checks range from zero to fifteen. My copy, at least, has pretty goofy houses, ranging from a cardboard box to a space station. I'm willing to bet there are editions where the coins are cards too.

Everyone gets a starting pot of coins, which you'll use for bidding in the first phase. You deal out houses equal to the number of players and then the bidding starts. You go round and round the table, with folks either raising or passing. If you pass, you give the bank half your bid (which could be zero) and take the cheapest house that's left. Only the winner pays their full amount but they get the highest value house.

After you run out of houses, you start the second phase. Selling those houses. Deal out checks equal to the number of players. Everyone secretly chooses a house and simultaneously reveals them. Checks then get handed out in order of house value. You know, highest value gets the highest check. Remember, some of them as worth zero so you can get hosed.

After all the checks get auctioned off, you count up the value of your checks and whatever coins you have left from the first part. Whoever has the most money wins!

Obviously, For Sale is an auction game (and by Dora's, not Knizia! That always surprised me) but it's a gentle one. Every round, everyone gets a card, no matter what. And, if you're lucky and/or patient, even that lousy cardboard box might be worth something.

At the same time, the game rewards good judgement. You have to know when to pass, when to unload your junk houses and when to pull out your high value homes. No one gets buried but good play wins the day.

It's that combination of simple, easy to understand rules with forgiving auctions and meaningful decisions that has made For Sale a classic.

I have heard For Sale called the king of fillers, meaning it's a game that takes less than a half hour and can be used to fill in the time around longer games. The word filler often gets a lot of flack, although less since Love Letter inspired waves of micro games. Personally, life with a toddler makes games like that a real gift. And For Sale takes the fifteen minutes it takes to play and makes them a real fun gaming experience.

I haven't played For Sale as much as I have wanted to. It came into my collection when I was trying out new games constantly and it got lost in the shuffle. Despite that, I remember how it was always fun with every group I played it with. A lot of the games I played from that period in my gaming life have left my collection but For Sale is a game I'm going to hang onto.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Sep 12, 2016 2:02 pm
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