Board game design, Los Buenos

A very early prototype
For longer than I’d really care to admit I’ve been working on my game: Los Buenos (previously called Voluntarios). The game is working well and the core mechanics are all fleshed out. The thing I’m now thinking about is what kind of content I’d like the game to have. Specifically, the game allows for different buildings to be built. What should these buildings do exactly?

A bit of background

As I’ll be using my own game-under-construction as an example, let me give a very quick introduction.

Players are trying to rebuild a village after an earthquake. And as it’s a tight-knit community, you’re not just in it for yourself, you’re trying to be helpful to the others. In fact, being helpful gives you karma points, which determine the winner of the game.

During your turn you will be placing workers to gather resources (construction material and money). Resources and workers are placed on construction sites, to construct the buildings depicted. The twist of the game is that placing your workers on someone else’s construction site gains you karma. The initiator of the construction however will get the benefits of the building (once it is finished).

My current dilemma: What should buildings do once they are finished?

Content – first thoughts

The easiest thing to do is to have buildings give karma as well. It makes reasonable sense: Having a house or shop (re)built benefits the community and as such should give karma.

It is however also a bit bland… Every building would be the same except for the amount of construction required and the amount of karma it garners.

On the other hand, it does keep the game nice and simple. But is that what I want? Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to have a deep and complex game? I’m sure these buildings could be used as parts for an in-game engine; allowing for efficient resource swapping. Or perhaps they could be used to in some way make life for your opponents more difficult (build Mayor’s office to collect taxes from the other players?)?

Maybe something in between? Not so simple, but not super intricate either.

The questions is, how do you decide between these options? Deep games are good, but so are simple games. What’s a designer to do?

What’s your vision?

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
This is the first game I sank a serious amount of time into. I never really had a very clear idea of where I wanted to go with it and as such it has evolved through at least 4 very distinct phases – different games almost.

After thinking about it (and more importantly trying many things out), I’ve come to some ideas about what I want the game to be like:

  • The core is about helping other players, but in such a way that you’re benefitting more yourself
  • The game plays fairly quickly (10 minutes per player) and I want to keep it at about that level
  • Depth mostly comes from player interactions – any way of building upon that is appreciated
  • Player interactions should not be negative – getting in the way is fine, forcing your “help” upon someone else is fine, but direct attacks are not fine
  • From vision to choices

    The vision above gives direction to what kind of content choices I might make.

    Helping other players: Giving only karma for finishing a building doesn’t work against this, but it doesn’t work with it either.

    In many games buildings do something: Create resources or hinder your opponent. This could very well add something to my game as well.

    It then makes sense to allow buildings to be “activated” by placing a worker. In most games only the “owner” of a building benefits from it, but here it would be interesting to allow any player to activate a building. This should of course give something to the owner as well. That still doesn’t say what a building should do exactly, but it gives some direction at least.

    The game should be fairly quick: This would imply that the game shouldn’t be made much more complex. Thus, heavy engine building is probably better left behind. Some form of light engine building might still work, but that might go against the previous idea; engines usually work for the player building them, not so much for the entire group.

    Depth from player interactions: This would also imply that it would be good for players to be able to make use of each other’s’ buildings.

    Player interactions should not be negative: This follows mostly from the choices above as well. It does mean no “taxing others”, but I think I’m happy to live with that 🙂

    Content – second try

    The conclusion from the previous paragraph is that buildings should be useable by other players for some benefit, while also giving benefits to the “owner”.

    Benefits can come in a number of forms. The simplest form would be to increase resources:

    • Karma
    • Construction resources (materials and money)
    • Workers
    • Construction sites to work on

    Thus, a building could create some form of resource. And to stay in the spirit of things, a worker should be placed to actually produce those resources. The player who places the worker should get the resources.

    For this the two “basic” resources of the game, building materials and money, make perfect sense; they are meant to be scarce and thus there would be an incentive to produce more of them through buildings (see this post for more on incentives in board games). After all, it would be pretty boring if the buildings didn’t actually get used.

    Karma also makes sense, as that would be the goal resource. However, it goes a bit against the idea of “helping others” to gain karma by doing something that doesn’t really benefit anybody else.

    Producing workers might be possible, but it seems a bit strange to place a worker to produce a worker. Maybe if you placed 2 workers…? But what exactly would be the building that would allow for that?! Then again, it would be quite interesting if two different players could produce a worker together… This is something to consider further.

    Another, simpler option is to have a building give a worker when it is finished. That however would mean it wouldn’t have any actions that other players could make use of. It’s of course not strictly necessary to have an action space, but it does fit the vision well.

    The latest prototype – version 50!
    Getting a new construction site to work on also can make perfect sense. However, there is already a mechanism for that. And having construction sites be scarce could seriously slow down the game and would move back to something I tried before: Making spaces for workers scarce (read more about that idea here. Spoiler, it didn’t work that well). I’ll not try this one for now.

    When a building has an action space, the owner of the building should also gain something. One possibility is to gain some of the same resources that the player who placed a worker got. So for example a building could produce money both for the owner of the building and for the person taking the action. Another option is to have it give some karma.

    The karma option seems like the better one. It’s simpler and it’s more in the spirit of the game: Be helpful (by creating a building others want to use) and get rewarded with karma when others actually do.

    Final choices

    What is definitely going in is buildings that produce resources when workers are placed and that give the owner some karma. With two types of resources (building materials and money) this gives two different types of buildings.

    Having a building produce workers by placing workers seems like a very interesting idea and is something I’m going to try out. I’m not entirely sure about the exact mechanism, but I’m sure I can figure something out. This gives a third type of building.

    Finally the I’ll have some buildings which only give karma when constructed. This to keep the game simple and not create too many spaces for workers.

    Closing thoughts

    Having a vision for your game can help to make design choices. Here I showcase it using content choices, but it can be equally helpful for other types of design choices.

    I came by my vision long after I started working on the game. I do believe that this was one of the reasons I had to back-track many times; without a vision I had no way of pre-selecting which design options to peruse, so I had to pursue them all.

    The wise lesson here is to create the vision before getting too deep into a design – something I’ll definitely be doing next time!

    Further reading

    For more reading about the vision of your game see this post.

    I also have a number of posts which tell you more about specific design issues for Los Buenos (then: Voluntarios):
    General introduction
    An example of using scarcity in board games
    Strategy in board games
    Creating interesting choices

    About the author

    Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

    Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

    And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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Board game design

Some time back I wrote an article about scarcity in board games. The premise was that board games revolve around resources (in many different variants) and that scarcity of (some of) those resources creates interesting choices.

What is scarce becomes valuable
In this post I want to go into an example of this, based on Voluntarios (volunteers in Spanish), the game I’m working on. Specifically I want to go into a somewhat novel form of scarcity: The scarcity of space.

A first scarcity of space

In Voluntarios you’re at the head of a group of volunteers (workers) and you have those volunteers do work (in a slight twist on worker-placement, the details of which I won’t bother you with) on reconstructing a village after an earthquake.

There are two types of workers: Experts and Normal workers. Most of the work that needs to be done is “normal” work, but there is also some work that can only be done by Experts. Experts can do the work of Normal workers, but it costs the player a Karma (= victory) point when doing so (because when you’re an expert, you don’t want to do simple menial work, now do you?!). And of course Normal workers can’t do Expert work.

The number of spaces where Expert work needs to be done will ebb and flow through the game, but on average there are slightly fewer spaces than the number of Expert workers available. This means that there is an incentive to “get rid” of Expert workers as soon as an Expert space becomes available. This then creates an interesting decision, where a player needs to decide between placing an Expert or doing something else that might be more useful to do, but with the risk (or even certainty) of losing a point when the Expert is forced to do Normal work.

Expert spaces are created through buildings that can be worked on by all players, but where the player controlling the building will get the benefits when it’s finished. However, making such spaces available generally does not mean that a player can take advantage of them (by placing an Expert) immediately. Thus, there is a choice between making Expert spaces available (which will go toward finishing a building a player controls) and waiting for someone else to do it so that an Expert worker can be placed.

A second scarcity of space

A prototype construction project – with space for 1 Expert (green) and 2 Normal workers (blue)
One of the advantages that finished buildings can have is that they give the controlling player an additional worker. This means that the number of workers increases throughout the game. The total number of spaces for workers however goes down as much as it goes up, meaning that there can be moments where there are more workers than spaces to place them.

Of course, letting things go to waste is well, a waste. Therefore there is a mechanic that players lose points when they have unused workers left at the end of a round.

The result is that players need to think very carefully on whether they want to control buildings that give additional workers; they may be beneficial, but when space runs out they are very much a burden. This then creates interesting strategical choices on whether to invest in more workers or to go for other types of buildings.

And it’s not a stand-alone choice, it very much depends on what the other players are doing as well; if everybody else is investing in other buildings, then having a few more workers of your own means you’ll still be able to place them without too much trouble.

The good, the bad and the unexpected

One of the two types of space scarcity works like a charm. The other has some… Side effects.

Can you guess which one is which?

Well no worry, I’m going to tell you!

(No) space: The final frontier!

When there is not enough space for all workers the result is that all possible worker spaces get filled and thus that all associated actions are taken. A number of those actions benefit not just the player taking them, but other players as well (think of role selection, but through placing a worker instead of taking a card). For any given action there are only two options: I take the action or someone else takes the action.

This is actually quite a bit less interesting than what happens for most games: I take the action, someone else takes the action or the action doesn’t happen.

When all actions are taken there is still jostling for getting the actions that you really want, but there is no tension about which actions exactly will have happened when the round has ended.

Worse, when there are limited spaces at some point players are “forced” to place workers in spaces they aren’t really interested in or even worse, would actively prefer not to take. Technically they have the choice of not placing a worker, but if the downside is high (which it was in my game) then it’s not really a choice at all. And thus this mechanic took away player agency and resulted in a lot of frustration

Bad choice of space scarcity! And thus “too little space for all workers” will be taken care of in the next iteration.

Without space everybody can hear you scream!

What do you mean that space can be scarce?!
The other option for making space scarce, jostling for positions for Expert workers, however works well. It indeed creates a sense of urgency about “having to get rid of” your Expert workers.

So why does this work but scarcity of space for all workers doesn’t?

The fundamental difference I feel is that Expert-space-scarcity doesn’t take away options. An Expert worker can be used for any space, though at a penalty. You’d like to avoid that penalty, and so you’ll work towards that, but you don’t have to. This gives the player control.

For the full-space-scarcity on the other hand at some point it becomes clear how many spaces there and thus for how many workers you’re going to have to take a penalty. There are some actions you can take to increase spaces during a turn, but they help everybody (almost) equally and thus do not really give a sense of control.

Salvage space?

So full-space-scarcity is a bad idea.

But…

I like the idea, as it is novel and actually goes against the idea of so many games that “more workers is better”. So might there be a way to salvage the mechanic?

What if this scarcity generally doesn’t happen, but only shows up every once and awhile? Like in 1/5th of all the rounds?

Would that be enough to force players to take it into account when choosing how many workers to go for? Or will it happen “at random” and frustrate players just as much as when it happens regularly? Perhaps if players are veterans they would learn to plan for this, but for rookies it could still be a big downer? Would it be bad enough that the rookies never turn into veterans?

I haven’t fully given up on the idea, so who knows how and where this might show up?

Closing thoughts

Scarcity is one of the fundamental building blocks of board games – something has to be scarce for there to be any competition.

In this post I gave two very concrete examples of scarcity, one that worked and another that didn’t. The fact that I used the somewhat unusual scarcity-of-space hopefully doesn’t detract from the lessons that can be taken from this.

The most important of these I feel is that when working with scarcity, allow your players to work with it, instead of simply having it forced upon them. In this sense there is a similarity to randomness: Forcing players to live with (the outcomes of) randomness is tedious, but once you give them some control after the randomness has happened, the game becomes a whole lot more interesting.

I hope that after reading this you’ll take a look at where the scarcities are in your own game and how your players get to handle these.

Further reading

For more on Voluntarios, read this post which uses Voluntarios as an example for strategy in board games, or this post in which I realized Voluntarios had too few interesting decisions.

And here is the original post on scarcity.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Insights are scarce so help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design, Strategy

Introduction

Our strategy: Run as hard at the other guys as we possibly can!
Our strategy: Run as hard at the other guys as we possibly can!
“Upgrade my production and go for that huge end-game scoring, or ignore upgrading and take a few points every turn?

There are board-games that rely solely on tactics: Finding the best play for this turn and not really caring about the next. Most games however have at least some sense of strategy: A path you chose and that you follow for the rest (or part of) the game and where you make choices to maximize the outcome of that path.

Interesting games allow multiple strategies to victory.

In this post I want to look into “general” strategies, ones that can be found in a plethora of games.

The goal of this is to help you as a board-game designer incorporate (more) strategies that are relevant and interesting in your board-game. Hopefully it will even serve as inspiration to even more strategies that are not mentioned here (if you do find any, do let me know?!)

What is a strategy?

A strategy in the context of board-games is a high-level choice on how you will (could) play (a part of) the game. This choice is then “executed” through all of the moves you make whilst actually playing the game.

A strategy can be for the entire game (“I’ll do everything to maximize bonus scoring at the end of each round”), or only for part (“I’ll first increase my number of workers, then I’ll see what I can do”).

Strategies can be stand-alone or overlapping (“I’ll increase my workers so that I have lots of actions and I’ll also go for everything that gives a bonus for many workers”).

It’s possible to start a game with a strategy in mind, or to have it form during the game (“I seem to have gotten more workers than anybody else, how about I capitalize on that?”)

General strategies in board-games

In the following sub-sections I’ll describe a number of “general” strategies for board-games. These should be possible for many different (types of) games, but certainly not for all!

Resource optimization

My resources can beat up your resources!
My resources can beat up your resources!
If you have more stuff than the opponent then eventually you will kick their ass.

The core of this strategy is to increase the amount of resources available to you (whatever they might be in the game – see this post on resources in board-games for more). Resources give options and generally with more options you have more flexibility, either to thwart your opponent or to orchestrate your own victory.

Resource optimization works well with “synergy” strategies, discussed below.

“Control” strategies can be an effective counter to this strategy.

Action maximization

Action maximization is a specific form of resource optimization – specifically, you are optimization the number of actions you can take in a turn.

Worker placement games are the poster child for action-based games. In many worker placement games increasing the number of workers is a very effective strategy as each worker should pay for itself, with a bit to spare.

“Actions” are one of the most general resources that you can have, as they can generally be converted into anything.

In Agricola it’s generally a good idea to work towards increasing your family size as quickly as possible as those extra actions are game winners.

Synergy

In a synergy strategy you try to find combinations of resources (cards, board spaces, tiles, tokens, etc.) that when combined give an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Combos

The first version of “synergy” is the “combo”: Two or more effects that when combined produce something that is stronger than the two effects taken separately.

A combo can be very simple and obvious (“3 points for every worker” + “Get an additional worker” is a simple yet effective combo), or it can be deep and intricate.

Combos are generally associated with a certain level of randomness of “getting” the combo. For example in a deck-building game you can have the right cards in your deck but chance still needs to get them into your hand at the same time. When getting combinations is less random it usually becomes a case of engine-building (see below).

Dominion allows for many card combinations that give strong effects together; a deck built of Villages and Smithies will allow you to draw your entire deck almost every turn.

Engine building

That should win the game for sure!
That should win the game for sure!
An engine is a “consistent combo”, a combination of game elements that allow the player to increase (certain) resources with regularity.

Engines are usually based on a positive feedback mechanism (see this post for more on feedback in board-games), where a some resources are fed in, to be returned with interest.

In many so-called “Euro” games, the building of your engine is the most important aspect of the game.

Engines need time to start paying back sufficiently to “pay back” the resources they cost to set up initially. They are sometimes also susceptible to “disruption” in the form of another player taking control of a required resource (see the “control” strategies below).

Powergrid is an exercise in building an engine, where combining elements gives more money, which then can be used to buy more power plants, connections, etc.

Risk – reward

Many games have randomness incorporated, meaning that there are risks to be taken. This can be from hoping to draw the right card at the right moment, to full blown “gambling” games.

There is a skill in assessing possibilities, but taking risks in itself is not something you are skilled at or not. As such a game where the only difference in strategies is based on levels of risk taking will have a winner determined by luck, not ability.

High risk – high reward

Wherever there is randomness there is risk. And where there is risk, there should be a reward. One strategy then can be to take high risks, in the hopes for high rewards.

By its very nature this is a strategy that is far from certain to pay off; it can leave the player far behind without much chance of recovering.

On the other hand, taking extra risk can allow a player that is just a bit behind take the lead (but get even further behind as well of course).

Poker is a good example of a game that allows for both high and low risk strategies: Only play on a great hand, forgoing many plays, or bluff with a hand full of garbage.

Low risk – low reward

I'll see your village and raise you a city! Oh, wrong game...
I’ll see your village and raise you a city! Oh, wrong game…
The opposite of the high risk – high reward is the low risk – low reward strategy. Here you try to keep variance down to a minimum, instead opting to score a limited but certain number of points every turn, making sure nothing goes wrong, whilst hoping that the opponent makes a mistake or runs out of luck.

Control

A final broad strategy is by “taking control”. It is about denying your opponent(s) choices or forcing them go down a path they’re not particularly interested in going in.

Assassination

Player elimination is frowned upon in modern gaming, but it is still present in some games. “Killing” the opponent is the ultimate way of controlling them; out of the game means no options at all.

Even if it’s not possible (or desired) to completely eliminate a player, bringing them enough to their knees can mean that you don’t need to worry about them for the rest of the game.

Being the one brought low however is not a very satisfying experience – there is a reason many games nowadays shy away from player elimination. Be careful when this is a viable strategy in your board-game!

In Risk players can attack each other, to the point of extinction. Many missions however don’t call for the full elimination of a player, but bringing a neighbor down can certainly make your life easier.

Offensive action

By going on the offensive I can force my opponent to defend herself, even though she would much rather be building up her engine.

Taking offensive action means that your opponent is limited in choices – defense has has to come first. This can result in an interesting cat-and-mouse game, where the offensive player needs to try to keep the other on the defense (and thus is limited himself as well!) while the defensive player tries to break through and gain back the initiative.

Continuously checking the king in Chess forces the opponent to do something about it, severely limiting what moves they take.

The rush

No time to talk, got to win the game!
No time to talk, got to win the game!
Games end (see this post on some of the consequences of this). If there is a non-fixed ending condition you can work towards that end, before your opponent “gets going”.

This can be a particularly effective strategy against engines and combos, as they generally spend the early game setting up (and not working towards “victory”), leaving them with few points when that early end is triggered.

Citadels generally takes a fair number of turns. It’s however possible to build only cheap buildings, finishing the game well before anybody else is close to 8 buildings, winning on bonus points.

Monopolist

All board-games use multiple resources (see this post for more on resources in board-games) and generally they are all important for certain aspects.

If you are able to gain control over one or more of the essential resources (a monopoly) then the opponent is forced to deal with you to get what she needs, or find alternative (and probably expensive) means.

An example comes from the game of Monopoly, where it’s a viable strategy to build as many houses as possible and never upgrade to hotels, denying opponents the use of houses (and subsequent upgrades to hotels).

Closing thoughts

There are board-games without strategy. In Bohnanza or Carcasonne you are so dependent on what cards / tiles come up that it’s generally only possible to react tactically. Thus, it’s not necessary to have strategies in your game.

For longer games however allowing for multiple strategies significantly increases the space of things that players can explore and with that the replay value. In a good game each strategy is worth investigating and perfecting, meaning that many games need to be played before it is shelved.

In the sections above I’ve tried to give a number of possible high-level strategies. Not every game needs all of these, in fact I would strongly recommend against trying to incorporate them all. But the list can serve as inspiration for what you could try to incorporate.

It is also not the case that each high-level strategy can be implemented only once. There are multiple ways to creating synergy between your game elements. A monopoly can be acquired on any resource. And with multiple ways of ending the game, there are multiple possibilities to rush.

Feedback please!

The best strategy for learning is by asking for feedback, s, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design, Strategy, Tactics

Introduction

A recent version of Voluntarios
A recent version of Voluntarios
The other day I was at the London Playtest Meetup, having just finished a test-game of Voluntarios. One of the players was pretty positive, but the other had this pensive look on his face: “It’s really hard to put my finger on it, but something is missing…”

This echoed my own feelings, so we discussed further, trying to find out what that “it” was. And after a few minutes we got it:

There were no interesting decisions that needed to be made!

In the game you pick a project and though they are cosmetically all different, they’re all fundamentally the same. And you’d have to gather resources, but one way or another, you’d get what you need. Sure, you could do things more or less efficient, but that was about it…

This of course is a very serious design flaw and so it needs to be fixed. But how?!?

Time to think deeply about what “interesting choices” in board-games are.

What is not interesting

To start out, let’s look at what are choices that are not interesting to make.

The obvious choice

You could have a hundred choices, but if one of them is so obviously the best one, then the other 99 might as well not exist.

In Voluntarios you lose points for having resources left at the end of a round. This means that spending any leftover resources becomes very obvious, even if it doesn’t gain you anything. You could not spend them, but that would just be silly.

The non-choice

Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here...
Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here…
“I can take that wood now, or I can take it later.”

Technically this is a choice, but the result of the two options is exactly the same and thus it is not an interesting choice.

Stated as above it’s pretty clear that this is not an interesting choice, but what I’ve found in Voluntarios that such a non-choice can be hidden somewhat: “I can take the wood now, but then Sarah will take the coins so I’ll have to pay in reputation to get my coin. Or I could take the coin now, but most likely Max will have grabbed the last wood, so I’m down some reputation to get that…” Again the result is exactly the same, but you’ve done quite some mental work to figure that out. Brainpower wasted (analysis paralysis!), without any real gain.

Another example of this is the Voluntarios projects mentioned, which do not fundamentally differ from each other.

The scripted choice

One choice can lead to others that you have to make.

In Voluntarios you pick a project and then you have to gather the resources to finish that project. Get that wood, or you’re simply not progressing (or worse, moving backwards). The one choice (of project) very much dictates which further choices you will be making.

Interesting choices

In the above there are some examples of what are not interesting choices.

What do all of these have in common?

They are all easy choices to make!

That is not to say there is not a lot of thinking done before: You need to analyze what the impact of each choice is. But once that impact is done, it’s clear which choice you should make. It’s the obvious one. Or the scripted one. Or it doesn’t matter because all options give the same result.

This should make it clear what makes for an interesting choice: One that is hard!

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Board game design, In-game economics

Introduction

You only miss something once it becomes scarce
You only miss something once it becomes scarce
In a number of previous posts I’ve been discussing “in-game economics”, using ideas from economics to gain further insight into what makes board-games “tick”.

In this post I’ll delve into the idea of “scarcity” (of in-game resources) and what this means for your games.

Quick recap: Value

In this post I wrote about the value of in-game resources. The basic idea was that the value of a resource (for more on in-game resources, please read this post) could be expressed in how much it helps a player to win the game. Especially when “winning” is based on a numerical value (e.g. “victory points”) this can give a common “currency” in which the value of all resources can be expressed.

If all resources are plentiful, this idea works marvels. But what if resources are not plentiful?

An example of scarcity

Imagine a game of Catan in which the sixes and eights are on forests, while meadows have only the 2, 12, 3s and 11s. There most likely will be a great surplus of wood, while sheep will be in very short supply.

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