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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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I stare bemused at Can't Stop Express

Lowell Kempf
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When I saw an ad for a Kickstarter for a game called Can't Stop Express, I had to look into it. Can't Stop has been a constant part of my gaming experiences since the start. One click later and I saw at a glance that it was Solitaire Dice from Gamut of Games with a Can't Stop brand slapped on it.

My first thought was 'Really?' My second thought was 'Well, it is a dice game by Sid Sackson.' Thought number three 'And it is a pretty decent game.' The last thought in that glance was 'but do I really need a published copy?'

The game has been kicking around since 1969 and has been published in a few different forms, like Choice and Extra. I first came across the game on BSW where you could open it in a separate window as a solitaire game that I played god knows how many times when people were slow to take a turn.

As far as playing in face to face, some of my friends and I would sometimes play Solitaire Dice waiting for D&D games to start with the dice that were naturally lying around and scrap paper.

So, while it's been years since I last played, I have played Solitaire Dice a lot.

The game consists of five dice and what's basically a checklist for each player. Basically, you are tracking combinations of two six-sided dice. You also keep track of the fifth die you don't use each roll. And, the more unlikely the combination, the better the points. So, two and twelve are worth a lot more than seven.

The complications come in that you have to get five checks in a number before it's worth positive points (Kind of reminds me of Lost City) and the fifth dice serves as a timer. Eight checks after a number and that player's game ends.

Solitaire Dice is one of those games that is annoying to explain but once someone plays even a couple turns, it all clicks.

At first, branding it with Can't Stop seemed very strange to me. But, it is a dice game that involves pairing dice that's designed by Sid Sackson. And it a push-your-luck game, albeit in more of luck management style. So, it's a fair call.

I'm a bit torn about Can't Stop Express as a product. On the one hand, it's a game that I used to play a lot and I think is a really good use the bell curve of two dice. Not as good as Can't Stop but still solid. On the other hand, I've made my own scoresheets plenty of times and that was before I got into print-and-play. I don't feel the need to get what amounts to a pad of scoresheets.

However, this is probably the biggest exposure Solitaire Dice has ever had in over forty years. With the successes of games like Qwix and Rolling Japan/America, I think Can't Stop Express can grab some market share.
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Sat Feb 18, 2017 9:40 pm
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Summing up Pack O Game... so far

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I have now had a chance to play every game in the first series of the Pack O Game line. With the second series about to come out, I figured it was a good time for a personal survey of the games that are already out.

I had thought of trying to put them in some kind of best to worst order but I ended up with too many ties. The different games fit too many different niches for me to properly compare them. So, instead, I put them in their official order.

1 HUE - A simple tile laying game with the very effective design choice of having the last tile in your hand being the colors you score. Not my favorite game but it is my favorite one to introduce people to the line with. It feels like a micro game but it a very good one.

2 TKO - A boxing game built around rock-paper-scissors. TKO feels like the least innovative game in the line. This kind of ground has been covered in other games, like Pico 2. But it's saving grace is that we have fun playing it.

3 GEM - An auctions game where you collect gems for points with a tight economy of both money and gems. This is one of the best games in the series, not just a good micro game but a good game period.

4 FLY - A dexterity game about dropping a fly swatter card to collect flies. I admire that Chris Handy included a dexterity game in the series and it does have a nice scoring system. However, it is easily my least favorite game in the series. The low height doesn't make it very frenetic or exciting.

5 TAJ - A voting game where you manipulate the position of rugs, which also changes the value of colors on the rugs. This is probably the most ambitious and intricate game in the series. However, I found it too fiddly. Too much of the game was spent making sure we were following the process instead of strategy. I would be willing to try it again and see it that can be overcome.

6 LIE - It's Liars Dice with dice faces printed on the cards. Each card has two dice so you get to have some control over your pips. Here's the thing. While I think Liars Dice is better, that doesn't change that LIE is a fun, engaging game. It's a strong part of the series.

7 SHH - A cooperative word game that is played in silence. This surprised me by how tense and exciting it is. Simple rules leading to white knuckle play. So much better than unexpected.

8 BUS - A pickup and delivery game made out of thirty skinny cards. I love that this even exists but it's also a solid game that takes such advantage of the form. The elements flow together well and it's in the running with GEM as my favorite.

The concept of Micro Games changed when Love Letter proved that there was a real market for Micro Games and that they could have depth and complexity. Pack O Game steps up to that challenge well. If you have an interest in travel games or short form games or games that have a very small footprint, this is a collection well worth having in your collection.

Really, HUE, GEM, LIE, SHH and BUS are games that would have made an impact if they had been solo releases. Heck, I wonder if some of them, like SHH, would have made a bigger impact as a solo release with regular size cards.

Pack O Game has the gimmick of every game being thirty skinny cards. But that gimmick does not define the games or control what they are. In the end, a Micro Game has to stand as a game, not as a small package.

And, as is ridiculously clear, I think that most of the Pack O Game series succeeds. Five of the games are very strong. Even TKO and TAJ have their string points. Seven out of eight is a good score.

And if this was it, I'd still be impressed. But Chris Handy is adding ten more games to the series. I am really curious to see what they will be like.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Feb 18, 2017 1:11 am
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Dabbling with the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom

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We just got back from our three-year old's first trip to Disney World. Since it was his mommy and daddy's third trip, it's safe to say it won't be his last. While Disney World isn't really a lace for card or board games, we did get in one gaming experience.

Disney World's Magic Kingdom has an interactive card game called the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom that Carrie called a cross between a Disney LARP and Magic the Gathering.

Every day, you can pick up a booster pack of five cards per person near the front of the park that's included in the admission. (It's at the fire station and I have no idea if it had any function before then, other than looking pretty)

Each card is a spell, themed around a specific character. For instance, Snow White has a cleaning spell that apparently beats the heck out of bad guys with a broom. (And people have to ask why she is the least empowering princess ever?)

The story is that Hades from the Hercules movie is trying to take over, using different villains from the movies to help him. Merlin from the Sword in the Stone is trying to stop him. I'm sure James Woods willingness to voice Hades whenever asked had a lot to do with the plot.

Through out the park, there are video screens with cameras that you activate with your guest ID and hold cards up to the cameras to cast spells. At the most basic level, you are sent from site to site and flashing any card at the camera will do.

However, you can have the game set to a higher level. From what I can tell, you then get hit points, specific spells are more effective against specific villains and you can use card combos.

We just played a little at basic level but I saw one guy wandering around with a wizard hat with Mickey Ears and an elaborate leather binder of cards. So some folks take the game seriously. Frankly, that says to me that there's some heft to the game when you take it past the basic level.

And, like Magic, there is rarity to cards and you can buy booster packs. There aren't a lot of cards but most of the players do have very limited access to play. Having the game tied to the park isn't going to support a huge catalog of cards.

I doubt we will ever seriously pursue Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. I mean, you have to go to Disney World to play it and that's on the other side of country from us. However, I do think it's really neat that it exists.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 17, 2017 7:13 pm
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Let's try a 10 x 10 challenge

Lowell Kempf
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I used to set myself a goal of learning a certain number of games a year. Which was fun and I ended up learning a lot about mechanics during those years. However, it also helped encourage me to binge buy games and to only play a game once because I had another game to get to.

What some folks do instead is trying to get in repetitions of games. You know, the 10 x 10 challenge where you try and play 10 different games 10 times each. There are a lot of variations in that, including trying to play 10 different games five times each with your kids.

Frankly, since our son just turned three, I'm not going to try the family version yet. There are games that he plays but we are still working on his patients and focus.

Instead, I've decided to try doing a 10 x 10 with my old stomping grounds, Yucatá. In some ways, this doesn't quite hold to one of the basic tenants of these challenges, getting more of your own games played. However, it is still a start.

When I decided to do this, I set down a few basic rules. First of all, it had to be games that I had already played enough to have a vague idea of how to play. I'm not interested in pledging to learn the game and then play ten times, only to find out I hate it after the first couple place. Second, they cannot be games that I would be playing ten times anyway. There are games that my regular group plays on a regular basis and there are games that I regularly have going on. Those don't count.

Hopefully, by the time I am done with this, I will have stretched my knowledge of these games and gotten better at them. Of course, I also might end up hating them anyway

These are my choices:

Aronda
Atacama
Captain W. Kidd
King of Siam
Pergamon
Race
Schweinebande
The Castles of Burgundy - the Card Game
The Voyages of Marco Polo
Yucatá

It will be interesting to see how this goes. The very nature of Yucatá affects this challenge. On the one hand, I will have multiple games going on at the same time, including multiples of the same game. On the other hand, each game will take days to get played. No trying to get in ten plays in one day in the middle of December.

Let's see how this goes.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Feb 16, 2017 4:28 pm
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How Breaking the Ice led me to Shooting the Moon

Lowell Kempf
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Last year, I read and even got to play Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice, which was a revolutionary game designed for two players to play out the first three dates in a couple's relationship. I still think it is one of the best RPGs I've seen to discuss romance and relationships.

So, of course I had to read the second game in her romance trilogy, Shooting the Moon. While Breaking the Ice is about two people getting to know each other, Shooting the Moon is about that other classic romance formula, the love triangle.

From a mechanical angle, Shooting the Moon is definitely simpler than Breaking the Ice. Character creation is much simpler, which is a shame because I thought that the word association chain and the switch in Breaking the Ice are particularly brilliant.

Scenes in Shooting the Moon have a simple structure of call and response. The active player sets the scene with the opposing player offering obstacles and complications. To be perfectly honest, it's a common structure in GM free games and it works very well.

But one of Shooting the Moon's greatest strengths, as well as something really sets it apart from Breaking the Ice, is the fact that it is structured around a love triangle. That creates a very strong dynamic of conflict and competition.

One of the great strengths and weaknesses and hurdles of Breaking the Ice is that in the end goal is rather nebulous. Is the relationship going to work? No can be a perfectly satisfying and valid answer. Exploring feelings can be complicated.

But, at the start of Shooting the Moon, you create specific and concrete goals for your characters. In a two player game, you are both competing for the same love interest. Even in the three player game, with someone playing the love interest, they have their own goal.

That makes for a simpler and, to be fair, probably more shallow story. To be frank, it is also more safe. I know a lot more people who would feel comfortable with the structure of Shooting the Moon than Breaking the Ice. Truth to tell, I know more people who I would be comfortable playing Shooting the Moon with.

Romance isn't a genre that I'm terribly interested in and a genre I wouldn't have thought could work as a RPG a few years ago. Emily Karen Boss, though, has done an amazing creating innovative games about romance. Shooting the Moon is a short form game that requires no game master, just a willingness to compete for love.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Feb 15, 2017 9:30 pm
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GEM is a 'gem' of a game :P

Lowell Kempf
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I have finally played GEM, the only game in the Pack O Games series I hadn't played yet. Since it's an auction game, I had wanted to wait until I could play it with at least three players. I had high hopes for GEM and it did not disappoint.

Like all the games in the series, GEM consists of thirty skinny cards in a box the size of a pack of gum. As I already mentioned, it's an auction game. You are bidding on gems that you then have to leverage for money and points.

Each round starts out with setting out cards with gems on them, usually two gems per card. Everyone starts with three coin cards, worth one, two and three coins. Auctions are once around and you don't have to say which card you're going for.

Here's the thing. Each card has a red number and a green number on opposite ends. You get the gems with the red number, meaning they are invested. You have to pay that amount at the end of the round to turn the card to be green number, now they are leveraged. Then you can use the gems for bidding and only leveraged cards are worth points in the end. In the last round, you do get the card already leveraged. At the start of each round, you get your coins back but if you spent a gem card in a bid, it has to be leveraged again.

Leveraged, by the way, apparently means borrowing money based on the value of a property. So, if I understand it right, you're actually going deeper and deeper into debt as the game goes on.

You get one point per gem, two points to you share a majority in a type of gem and three points if you have the sole majority in a type of gem. Most points wins.

When I heard other players swearing at the start of the last round, I knew the game was good.

What really makes GEM work is the scoring. The extra points for majorities is a big deal, a game determining deal. And there are few enough of each type that one stone can make or break a set. Which means that the auctions can turn into a real fight.

I have been concerned that it would be too easy for players to go bankrupt or fall behind. And the economy of the game is tight. But the way the coins reset themselves and the fact that you have to pay to leverage the gems makes it very hard for someone to just run away with the game.

In general, I believe that the Pack O Game series does a great job exploring and expanding the micro game. Over the last few years, designers have been pushing past the idea that a micro game has to be a simple filler and creating games that have more depth and weight.

GEM might do the best job of this out of all the games in the first set of Pack O Game. It feels like a 'full-sized' game, one that would see regular rotation on a game night.

I went into GEM with high hopes but I was prepared to be disappointed. Instead, GEM was even better than I hoped.

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com

Edit: it was pointed out to me that I mixed up the leveraged and invested states of the gems as terms. (I was still playing the game right, just using the wrong words) So, instead of borrowing more and more money so you're going deeper and deeper into debt, you're actually paying off your debt.
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Wed Feb 15, 2017 5:16 pm
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How SHH surprised me

Lowell Kempf
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I have to admit that I went into SHH with very low expectations. It is part of Pack O Game, a series of micro games that I have been very impressed by. However, it is a cooperative game and a word game, both genres that I am relatively indifferent to. There are games in both categories that I love, like Pandemic, Hanabi, Scrabble or Buy Word. But I don't go out of my way for them.

However, the second series of Pack O Game is coming out and I want to be a completist and play all of the first set. So when we had an out-of-state visitor who really loves cooperative games, I figured that it was the perfect opportunity to play SHH.

(Spoiler: it was very good!)

Like every game in the series, SHH is made up of 30 cards that are at third the width of the normal playing cards. So you end up with the tidy little box the size of a pack of gum. Twenty six of the cards show the letters of the alphabet while the other four are pass cards.

I have to pause a note that these are the prettiest cards in the entire series. Each one, in addition to showing the letter, has a bright and colorful photograph of something that starts with that letter. They really are nice looking.

Gameplay is very simple. The object of the game is to make words, one letter at a time, scoring points for every letter you successfully
use in a word. But, during the entire game, no one is allowed to say anything.

You set aside the vowel cards. They are double-sided and you place the side that has plus one facedown. Then, you do you out all twenty-one consonants to the players. And everyone gets one pass card. Now you are ready to play.

On your turn, you can do one of three things. Add a letter from your hand or one of the vowels. Flip your pass card over and skip your turn. Score the current word and start a new word.

Score a word, you put your thumb up, since you aren't allowed to talk. If everyone else puts their thumb up too, you score the word. The reason why someone would give a thumb down is if they think it isn't a real word. That's when you get the dictionary. If the word is scored, all of the consonants are put to one side has points. The vowels are put back in their row and, if the word was at least five letters long, you flip them over so they are worth a point.

The game ends when either you run out of consonants, hopefully scoring the last word at the same time, or if a word can't be scored because it isn't. A real word.. You get one point for every constant successfully used and one point for every vowel they got flipped. Thus, the highest score you can possibly get is twenty six points.

As I already spoiled, I was surprised at how good SHH was. It doesn't take any time at all to play, particularly if you mess up and can't spell a word early. However, there is a lot of tension in the game.

The silence is keyed to the game. If you could just talk, there wouldn't be a game. But since you have to be silent, there is a lot of desperation in the game and it is really exciting when you successfully make a word.

And SHH has a very tight economy of letters. There is only one of each letter in the game and you will only use each consonant once. That makes for a brutally tight game.

Don't get me wrong. I knew from just reading the words that SHH would work as a game, as long as people didn't cheat about words being real. What I didn't expect was how much excitement and fun the game will turn out to be.

Pack O Game continues to surprise me and prove to be one of the best purchases I've made in the last couple years. The last game I have to play from the original series is GEM and I have high expectations for that.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 3, 2017 8:28 pm
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A visitor gives us a chance for some micro games

Lowell Kempf
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We are having a couple of out-of-town friends visit us, actually overlapping. And, while most of the time will be spent seeing sites and having quality toddler time, a little bit of gaming is going to creep in.

On the second night of Greg's visit, our toddler obligingly fell asleep early so we were able to get in a decent selection of micro games.

SHH, part of the Pack O Game series, is a silent cooperative game where you build words one letter at a time. You can only use each vowel once per word and each consonant once per game.

I have to admit had low expectations for the game. And I really wanted to get it played because I want to play all the games in the first series of Pack O Games before the second one comes out. But, while I do have some I really like, cooperative games and word games really aren't a big focus for me. But we ended up having a lot of fun with it. There was a lot of tension in it and we played it a second time, where we totally bombed.

I then pulled out HUE, a tile-laying game that is my usual game to introduce people to Pack O Games. It is very fast and simple but the simple twist of getting all your hand at the start of the game and your last card being which colors you score makes it very solid. As usual, it went very well.

We ended with my homemade copy of Cunning Folk, which is like Coup for two to four players with just nine cards. Lots of lying and bluffing. Don't get me wrong, it is not as good as Coup. But the fact that it plays down to two and still gives me that feeling makes it a keeper. We got in two games of that and called it a night.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 3, 2017 5:41 pm
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My past life with Palatinus

Lowell Kempf
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While it's not the end-all, be-all of my measure of a game, interesting decisions and how many you get to make is something I often consider and I think it is a big part of how engaged I am with a game and how much I am truly participating.

Palatinus, which I consider to be a hidden gem, is a game that used to be one of my yard sticks for this sort of thing. It practically fits the model of a filler. I think we had games that lasted fifteen minutes. Very tight board, lots of interaction and conflict, bluffing and mind games. A lot going on in a small space and in a short time.

The theme, which is undeniably wafer thin, is about the founding of Rome. Basically, you are fighting over the seven hills of Rome. I guess whoever wins gets to control the future of Rome and the Roman empire.

The seven hills are made up of seven modular tiles, forming a hexagon board with one tile in the center. Each tile is a ring of six hexes around a center hex, with the ring being the spaces for tile placement. This creates a ton a of variety for set up.

Players take placing tokens on the board. Farmers score based on blue spring spaces and empty spaces. Merchants score based on the player tokens around them. Soldiers will either capture the farmers or the merchants around them, whichever group is bigger for points. But if they are the same size, the soldiers run away.

But there are a whole bunch of twists.

Some tokens have a wolf on one side, meaning what you're really placing a secret until scoring. And you only score after every token is placed, which means the whole game builds up to one big explosion at the end.

And you resolve each hill one at a time but tokens' areas of influence can overlap. A soldier might capture someone before their hill is scored. And a merchant might score a soldier and get captured by him later. The hills are marked A through G and you score them in that order.

Oh, just to make things more complex, each hill has a scoring token of three to six. The points that the players' tokens don't count towards their final score, just towards getting those tokens.

Palatinus is a very interesting game, albeit one with some issues. Not flaws or problems, just plenty of things that make folks not enjoy it.

It's a very dry game and not super intuitive. Check that. It is almost brutally non-intuitive. It doesn't help that all the conflict only gets resolved at the end with the game being very unforgiving of poor choices. If you like to learn as you go along, Palatinis will frustrate you. It's definitely not for everyone.

But it impressed me, back in the day, for how many tough and downright nasty decisions it crammed in. It is a head cracker of a game, a puzzle and a slugfest all at the same time. And in a time frame that's shorter than a lot of lighter games.

These days, in the post-Love Letter world, that isn't quite so amazing. But it was a big deal for me and some of my friends. Sometime, I will have to revisit Palatinus. With the right group of coarse and in the right mood. Some games don't stand the test of time. It will be interesting to find out if Palatinus is one of them.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Feb 2, 2017 5:12 am
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Thinking about the forty five minute space

Lowell Kempf
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Something that has really happened to me over the last few years is that I have become much more of a causal gamer than a heavy gamer. By that, I really mean I have gotten more into casual games rather than heavy games. These days, forty-five minutes is a meaty game.

This is a really a combination of a small child in my life and moving away from where my gaming circles lived. (To this day, I'm not sure if that's a remotely bad thing. It has let me focus on being a parent.) I doubt this is a forever thing but I hope that I remember the lessons I learn from this time.

It has also helped my interest in micro games and print-and-play but that's a long series of blogs in and of themselves. Heck, the rich variety of good games that that a half hour to forty-five minutes is fodder for tons of blogs.

Truth to tell, some of the basic building blocks of the modern hobby fit that time frame. Carcassonne with no expansions, Ticket to Ride, Bohnanza, Ra, Dominion all come to mind. Heck, back when I was playing Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico on a regular basis, we'd usually polish off a game in less than an hour. (Twenty minutes is the shortest I've ever seen a game of Catan but the winner's dice were on fire like a star exploding.)

One of the big lessons I have relearned is that a game that fits into this time frame can have just about any mechanic, have a solid theme and be full of interesting decisions and tension.

To be fair, while I've been using the term casual game to describe a shorter time frame, some of the games that fit into this time frame aren't necessarily light or simple. Some of them can involve some serious play.

There are actually games that fit into an even shorter time frame that are still surprisingly heavy. While I'm not a big fan of TAJ, a five to ten minute game about adjusting the prices of rugs, it has a surprising the intricate framework. And that is just the first example that comes to mind.

However, I do think that the game taking at least a half hour as a certain degree of heft to the experience. Playing a game that lasts around forty five minutes feels like I've really taken the time to play a game. Had a meal instead of just a snack.

In actuality, the number of solid games that fit into this time frame means that if I never get back into games that takes hours to play, I would still have a very rich and varied gaming life

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Feb 2, 2017 5:05 am
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