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Taifho (Traverse)

Title: Taifho (Traverse)
Designer: Michael Kuby, John Miller
Year: 1987

Before I delve deeper into explaining this particular board game, I shall have to comment on a terminological conundrum concerning the game’s title. My Swedish version of the game is called Taifho and is presented as some sort of ancient Japanese game (it does not have the feel of one, but it is apparent that that is what the graphic designers aimed for. This games seem analogous to another 1987 board game called Traverse. I suspect that these games are in fact one and the same, so I will treat them as such.

The is reminiscent of Chinese Checkers in that it presents the problem of moving a number of playing pieces across the board, from the nest on one side, to an opponents nest on the other. The goal of the opponent is of course to do likewise. However, in contrast to Chinese Checkers, there are five different pieces which move in five distinct was (circles move in all directions, squares only longitudinally or latitudinally, rhombi ony diagonally and triangles move forward diagonally or straight backwards). The rules of jumping pieces are akin to those of Chinese Checkers, but also involve the possibility to jump longer distances if circumstances are favourable.

This game is entertaining in that it is fairly easy to learn and in that the basic concepts works fairly well. By this I mean that the game play is challenging and that there are no serious flaws. In fact, there is only one major setback that I can think about, and that is the setup. Since the pieces have individual character and each player is free to place pieces according to his or her will at the outset of the game, this is not only time consuming, it is also essential far winning.

Preferably, rules ought to be included to preclude this, such as having fixed setups, using the setup from the end of last game or making a small game out of the setup it self (for instance by forcing all players to have pieces in a similar fashion, letting players take turn placing one piece each).

As I have already said, this is a good game, especially for four players. The reason why I am not giving it more than four is that the game is not very good for two players and I generally like games without a fixed number of players (Carcassonne incidentally comes to mind). Still, this is a good game which I am satisfied to own.

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Title: Blokus
Designer: Bernard Tavitian
Year: 2000

It is fairly unusual for me to review games, regardless of if they are board games or computer games. It has happened before, but only a couple of times in the past four years or so. I do not know if this is something I will continue doing, but right now I feel like writing about Blokus (page on BoardGameGeek), so that is what I will do.

Blokus is a fairly straightforward game for four players. The first impression is one of dazzling colours and a nice feeling of the playing pieces (the effect is diminished somewhat because of low quality plastics). They are shaped a bit like Tetris blocks, but with more variety and difference in sizes, and the goal of the game is to place as many as possible on the board. One is only allowed to play so that a piece is diagonally adjacent to one’s other pieces already played and each player starts in a corner, working his or her way towards the middle. What ensues is a battle over the board concerning who will claim the best position and be able to play the largest amount of pieces as space gradually vanishes.

At first, there does not seem to be much to this game, but after only a few rounds, fairly complex strategies can be sensed below the surface. I am not saying that I am close to understanding how Blokus works, but I can feel depth and possibilities. This is the kind of game where each and every play presents a multitude of possibilities and the player has to evaluate which is the best. Except for the very end of the game, there are no fixed or guaranteed plays, so the input of player skill is fairly large through the game. Also, there is no luck involved.

A hitch is that the game really needs four players to work properly. There are two- and three-player variants, but they are not as good as the four player one. However, I can still recommend Blokus. It is fairly easy to learn and fun to play from the first round. And sparkling colours are nice.

Addendum: I have now played this game a lot more than when I wrote this review. It is indeed a great game and I have decided to upgrade the grade to four and a half snails, which makes it an official recommendation. The only hitch is that it requires two or four players. If you are curious, you can try the game online for free at the Blokus website.

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This article is meant to lay the groundwork for how to master the board game Carcassonne (Wikipedia). I do not intend to explain the rules of the game and I assume that the reader is familiar with the basic mechanics of the rules. If need be, I will of course refer to a specific rule to prove a point. Over the years, we have tried various rule sets and different expansions, and we have finally settled on playing with first edition rules and only one expansion, Inns & Cathedrals. Even though some specific parts of this article will pertain only to games using that particular setup, most strategies are valid for other combinations as well (even for games in general).

I am making two assumptions for the majority of this guide, which both are crucial. Firstly, I assume that there are five players, and secondly I assume that the goal of the game is to get a good a rank as possible (as opposed to getting as many points as possible). I will explain why I have made these assumptions later, but just take my word for that they are very important for the strategy of the game. Most of what I say is relevant for all games anyway, but I have provided a special part discussing number of players and why the goal of the game has to be determined in advance and what consequences the choice entails.

That being said, who am I to lecture about how to play Carcassonne? No one, really. I have never participated in a competition, but I have played the game several times a week for a couple of years together with friends who are as analytic and interested in games as I am. Even if I am confident that we are pretty close to mastering the game, I write this mostly because I want to focus and clear my own mind. If someone happens to find it interesting or rewarding in any way, that is a significant bonus, but it is not what makes me write in the first place.

Please note that even if I have originated many of the ideas in this article, I am indebted to my friends. Without them, I would never have played the game as much as I have and I would never have reached the conclusions presented here. So credit where credit is due.

Table of contents
Repeated luck is called skill
Shared joy is double joy
Importance of relative points
When to play a follower
When to use the big follower
Number of players
Playing for position
Playing when losing
Playing the fields

Repeated luck is called skill
When playing Carcassonne for the first time, it feels much like throwing dice; sometimes one gets the desired tiles, but most often not, and the winner is determined by chance. As is the case in all games involving any kind of luck, the quintessential idea is to maximise the probability of a positive result and minimise that of a negative one. Very few tiles played in Carcassonne are trivial or without meaning (seldom more than one or two during an entire game). Positive things include helping oneself and disrupting one’s opponents. Negative things include disruption of one’s own play and helping opponents. Therefore, strive to play each piece so that it achieves both positive aspects at once, or, if that is not possible, at least one of them, prioritising helping oneself over causing damage to an opponent. The best play is a piece which helps oneself and, at the same time, is bad for someone else (preferably more than one opponent).

A rule of thumb in this spirit is that you should always have several different projects to develop that require different kinds of tiles (thus maximising the chance that the next tile is useful). Try to have at least one road and one city being built all times and avoid having two projects which require the same kind of tile to be completed. There number of ways to master luck in Carcassonne is paramount to my desire to describe them, but let me just leave it at saying that most of them will come gradually with experience.

Conclusively, the most desired skill in Carcassonne (and most other games) is to be able to maximise each play so that it leads to the goal of winning the game. Even if rotating the piece in a certain direction will only give you very slight advantage, doing so will in the long run build up your chances of winning tremendously. Recognising how to do this for every piece takes a lot of experience and analysis, but I consider it the most important skill needed to win.

Shared joy is double joy
In any game of more that two players, there is an effect which has to be employed in order to win. If you do not, you will lose to players who do. Fortunately, it is rather simple. Assuming five players, let us consider the following two theoretical examples.

• The five players build one city each, using three tiles with no shield. Each gains six points in absolute terms, but zero points relatively (since all the players earn the same amount of points, the game is left unchanged by the cities, bar the possibility to gain more points on the field adjacent to them).

• Three of these players cooperate, building one large city instead, and they will then earn eighteen points each (using the same tiles). The two players left out still only get six points for their completed individual cities.

Compare the result between these two. As mentioned, the effect on the game in the first case is non-existent, save for the effect on the fields. In the second case, however, three players remain unchanged relative to each other (same as for the first case), but have gained twelve points over the other two. Again barring the effect on the fields, this leads to the conclusion that shared joy is indeed doubled joy. Whenever possible, strive to cooperate with other players to maximise your own (and their) points.

In practice, this means that you have to devise ways by which to gain access to cities and roads being built. It requires experience to recognise some of the more creative ways of doing this, but simply placing a tile and a follower so that you need only one more to have joined the city is most often enough. Note that you shall not use the large follower for this purpose, since you will then be building the project on your own. The idea is to cooperate so that your tiles and another player’s tiles both add to both of your scores.

Consider a city being built jointly by two players and the third player has the option to sneak in as described in the previous paragraph. Assuming that it is early in the game, the two players building the city will not wait for a means to exclude the third player (since they have adopted the principle of shared joy, they realise that even if the third player gains more than they do, they still win out compared to the two left, which leaves a net positive effect for them). Perhaps they will not themselves play the tile than joins their city with the third player’s, since it might be bad to waste a tile that the third player will play anyway later on. Now to the point: If the third player would have put his big follower instead of a small one in order to share, the two other players would have done everything in their power to prevent him from joining them. This is extremely important, since playing the big follower is often a terrible mistake which will lose you points and possibly the game. The big follower has its use, but it is not to steal moderately large cities at the outset of the game.

Thus, in Carcassonne it is vitally important to cooperate as much as possible. If you are the only one doing this, you will win every single time you play (I am talking out of personal experience here). Finally, when everyone has realised that this is the case, a new skill is needed to know when the stakes are high enough that one ought not to cooperate, but more on that later.

Importance of relative points
I would like to make a statement that, when stated, might seem obvious, but which very few players follow. The absolute number of points amassed in a game is irrelevant; it is the relative number of points that matters. In other words, the important thing is how many points you have compared to you opponents. Carcassonne (and many other games) is won by having more points than your opponents, regardless of how many points one actually has! The most valuable application of this insight is that points do not have a fixed value. Scoring two points against opponent A might be much better than scoring a hundred points against opponent B (albeit a somewhat extreme example).

In the early stages of the game, it is never clear who will come out ahead, so this idea of relevant points is not crucial. Instead, strive to maximise your own points regardless of the opponents. As the game progresses, identify which players threaten your position or which players you have the chance to beat and focus on gaining points towards them. Sometimes it is necessary to realise that it is highly unlikely to beat a certain player and put him or he out of your mind entirely.

Example: Towards the end of a three-player game, Angus is in the lead with 140 points, having left Morn and Nick far behind with 40 and 60 points respectively. There is one 14-piece road with an inn, currently shared between Morn and Nick. Morn has the option to finish it on her turn, giving herself and Nick 30 points. Assuming that the rest of the board is fairly neutral, she should always play somewhere else, even if it brings only a single point. The reason for this is that she can never catch up with Angus anyway (being 100 points behind), which means that points against him is worth nothing. Since she shares the road with Nick, finishing it would give her a total of zero points relative to him. Therefore, any other play is preferable, even if brings only a single point towards Nick.

When to play a follower
As I have already mentioned, followers should be played in such a way as to maximise the possibility that tiles are useful. However, even if you do this, you will repeatedly run into the problem of whether to play follower or not, especially when you have only a few. It is difficult to say anything in general about this, except:

• Never deploy your last follower if you do not get one back the same turn

Even if you have played wisely and can use many kinds of tiles to build on you various projects, there is still the possibility that it will take several turns for you to regain a follower (if you have not played wisely, it might be disastrous to play the last follower). Some of the tiles you will be playing in the meantime will generate no points at all. Compare this to a trickle of points (two or three each turn from small roads or towns), and you will see that deploying your last follower will have to earn you a lot of points to be worth it (cloisters are never worth it, but huge cities or fields towards the end of the game might be).

Of course, I have deliberately over-emphasised the importance of not deploying the last follower. There are situations when you should play the last follower, but the situation is still very awkward.

When to use the big follower
There are exceptions to the rule of single joy is doubled joy when you actually want to play the big follower (or two small on two separate tiles) in order to establish single ascendancy in an area. There are three things to take into consideration.

• In some games, there are pivotal projects which will determine the outcome of the game (a huge city or a field with, say, ten adjacent towns). If you have the option to grab all those points for yourself, you will win the game if you do and then sharing is not an option. Use the big follower and hope that no one else will be able to.

• If all the players are conscious about the principle of shared joy, situations can arise when all players share a certain project except for yourself (in certain cases, it is only necessary with three others already into the project). In these cases, joining in and sharing will only give you relative points in that they will not leap ahead of you when the finish the project, so playing a small follower will probably result in you being excluded or the project never being finished. Sometimes, this might be sufficient for your needs if you need the big follower elsewhere, but if you can, try to grab all the points for yourself.

• Bear in mind that you have to use the big follower sometime during the game. It might be wise not to deploy it too early (due to the risk of it being trapped), but not using it at all or using it at the end when a single follower would have sufficed, means that you have made a mistake somewhere along the way. When there is opportunity to play the big follower, ask yourself this question: is there a reasonable chance that there will be a better opportunity later? If yes, keep the big follower. If no, go ahead and use it.

Number of players
As promised in the introduction, we have now gained enough knowledge of the game to understand why the number of players is so crucial. I will make the claim that playing with five players is very different from playing with four, so it goes without saying that a two player game is entirely different from a six player one. Fortunately, the variations follow a single rule which I will try to explain.

As we have seen, there is a delicate balance between grabbing and sharing in Carcassonne, and this is shifted by the number of players. Let us take the extreme opposite of what I have been describing hitherto, namely playing a two-player game. In such a game, there is no sharing at all, since gaining a point for yourself is exactly equal to removing a point from your opponent. A game like this is not very interesting to play, but I do believe it is extremely useful as a tool to understand the concept of relative points.

As the number of players grows, the importance of sharing increases and the amount of grabbing decreases. I have played several hundreds of games with four or five players and they are very different, which is perhaps most notable when it comes to deploying the big follower. In a five-player game, it is alright to share a project between three players most of the time. In a four-player game, this is not true, which leads to a dramatical increase in big-follower deployments and much more grabbing in general. Playing six players will almost remove the importance of the big follower all together, except for the endgame.

Playing for positions
Another assumption I made in the introduction was that of playing for position rather than points. This simply means that the only important thing is where you place in the game, regardless of how many points you have. After careful consideration, I am certain that this way of playing is much more interesting than playing for points. Why?

Because when playing for position, what the other players do becomes much more important. If playing for points, your sole consideration is always to calculate how to maximise your own points regardless of the position of your opponents, but when playing for position, the importance of relative points has to be taken into account. This requires more skill and makes the game more complex and varying. Also, this is the way most tournaments are run.

If you do not think this question matters, have a look at the example in Relative points, which would be very different indeed should they play for points rather than position.

Playing when losing
The strategy employed when winning is very different from that used when losing. When you have many points, focus on increasing your lead steadily and avoid risking points or grabbing for too much. This ought to be fairly obvious.

When losing, the opposite is true. If you know that you are going to lose, you can stop playing cautiously and instead invest in high-risk projects. Another important point, which is true for all games, is that sometimes you have to assume that a certain tile will be played. Let me use an example to explain:

Example: Morn has almost zero points, except for a huge amount of points locked up in a city that requires a single tile (of which there is only one left) to finish. She should then play as if that tile is granted. Why? Because if the tile is never played, how she plays will not matter; she will lose anyway. If it is played, however, her decisions will matter greatly, because she is then in touch with the others again.

So, in certain cases, you have to assume that certain things will happen. If you lose if they do not, assume that they do, and play accordingly.

Playing the fields
Knowing how and when to go for a field is perhaps the most demanding part of Carcassonne, something that is extremely hard to calculate and heavily based on experience. It is also tremendously important. Even if there is no straightforward strategy, there are some things to keep in mind:

• Keep your eyes peeled for fields which are about to be completely closed (by this I mean that no further followers can be played on them) and if they contain two or more towns, consider trying to get them before it is too late.

• If a field seems to develop into a pivotal project (that will determine the outcome of the game), decide if you stand a chance or not, and act accordingly. It is sometimes profitable to focus on something else entirely, although you have almost given up the possibility to place first; just make sure that only one opponent dominates the field.

• As chips in poker, a follower deployed on a field is irretrievable and should not be taken into account when considering to play another. In other words, do not make the mistake of thinking that you have to play another one, because otherwise the ones you played earlier are worthless.

Towards the end of the game, at least one important (or pivotal) field has usually emerged, and these can be used to your advantage even if you have no chance of attaining them. The absolutely worst case possible is when all your opponents share a pivotal field (say ten towns), which will lose you the game unless you have earned forty points towards each opponent earlier, which is not very likely. However, the other players know that it is next to pointless sharing forty points with all players but one (see the section about when to use the big follower) and will do their best to get another follower onto the field to ascertain dominance. By helping this player to accomplish this, you gain forty points against three opponents without even deploying a single follower! If s/he has a follower which can be connected to the pivotal field, play a tile to help the player in and thus help yourself back into the game.

The end of a Carcassonne game is somewhat different from the rest, because it requires a shift from a long-term perspective to a short-term one. Also, since the possible ramifications of each play are diminished as play progresses, the possibility to calculate probabilities increases. Again, there are some things to keep in mind; I will give you three rules of thumb:

• Keep count of how many tiles there are left so that you do not have unused followers at the end of the game

• When you know how many tiles there are and how many followers you have left to play, calculate when they give you the maximum number of points

• For the last few tiles, mentally move the tile around the board and see where it gives you the most points, because often there are possibilities you have missed

I will also provide some hands-on tips:

• Finish two-point towns at the edge of the board and place your follower on the field, which will give you four points

• Finish other people’s towns to earn four points from the field thus created, provided that you are sure of either being beaten by or beating them regardless of the points they gain from the completed town

• Play on outlying fields, even if the towns are already dominated by someone else, because your play might tip the balance to your advantage

• Having no way of giving yourself points, destroy other people’s points by playing an inn or a cathedral on other people’s projects, or placing a tile in such a way that an unclaimed city becomes unattainable

• Look at the scoring board and identify your main opponent (s/he who will place closest to you when the game is over) and concentrate on gaining points towards this player; ignore everybody else

This concludes my guide to the basics of Carcassonne strategy. Note that I use the word “basic”, because there is much I have not covered here. Furthermore, you will need a lot of hand-on experience to master the game, since theoretically describing in detail how to play is impossible. By following these general guidelines I have described, I think that most intelligent players can go further and figure out new ways of applying them. As is the case with all basic strategy, there are times when you have to deviate from them in order to win, but before you do that, make sure that you understand why.

If you have suggestions for further articles, questions about this one, or just general feedback, feel free to post a comment!

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Titel: The Player of Games
Författare: Iain M. Banks
Utgivningsår: 1988
Recenserad: 2007-04-24
Status: I bokhyllan

Spel är ett fenomen som genomsyrar mitt liv på många sätt. Det är inte bara det att jag tycker om att spela spel, utan jag skapar dem gärna själv, diskuterar och teoretiserar kring dem. Därför torde Iain M. Banks bok tilltala mig i allra högsta grad, vilket den också gör. Den handlar om spelaren Gurgeh som av olika anledningar hamnar på en resa till imperiet Azad. Han är utskickad för att förstå och lära sig det otroligt komplexa spel som är själva hjärtat i imperiet. Det genomsyrar alla nivåer av samhället och är det mest fulländade spelet som går att tänka sig. Naturligtvis är det inte en enkel sak för honom att på några år sätta sig in i spelet och tävla mot de som levt med det sedan födseln. Situationen förbättras inte heller av att syftet med resan kanske inte är så klart som det borde vara.

The Player of Games är bra skriven, väl sammanhållen och på det hela taget ett bra hantverk. Temat i boken framförs på ett bra sätt och jag har egentligen ingenting att klaga på av det som står i själva boken. Dock tycker jag att den är lite grund. Personligheterna tilltalar mig inte vidare (de är inte heller speciellt viktiga, så det är förmodligen ett medvetet drag av författaren) och jag tror inte att jag kommer att minnas så mycket av boken förutom just grundhandlingen. Det jag tycker är bäst är samhället Gurgeh kommer ifrån, vilket är något genomgående för många av Banks böcker. I parentes måste jag också nämna att det är svårt att tycka illa om en bok som har ett enormt rymdskepp med namnet ”So much for subtlety”.

Efter att ha läst två böcker av Iain M. Banks (se min recension av The Algebraist) känner jag att han på något sätt kan bättre. Böckerna har potential att bli riktigt bra och även om The Player of Games nådde längre än The Algebraist, når han ändå inte riktigt ända fram. Eftersom jag ändå har känslan av att han kan få till det, kommer jag förmodligen att ge honom en chans till i framtiden.

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Markörernas magi

Jag älskar spelmarkörer och pjäser av olika slag. Ibland är det så att jag längtar efter att få spela ett spel bara för att det har så jäkla sköna pjäser eller markörer. Nu talar jag inte om Warhammer eller någon form av figurspel, utan vanliga, hederliga markörer och pjäser. För att ta några exempel:

IceHouse. Första gången jag hade spelat det ville jag köpa det bara för att pjäserna var så mysiga att ha att göra med. De hade fina färger. De var pyramidformade. De gick att stapla på varandra. Jag var såld. Efter ett tag gick det över, men jag gillar fortfarande de pjäserna skarpt.

Glaspärlor – just det, från IKEA. Går att använda till en mängd spel för poängräkning och annat. Jag älskar dem. De blänker, har fina färger och känns bra att skyffla omkring. De går inte att trava snyggt, vilket är en nackdel, men jag gillar dem ändå.

Poker chips. Jag handlade en del idag för att använda till andra spel. De är sådana där i keramik och de är så grymt sköna att ha att göra med. Jag vill spela något, vad som helst, bara jag får använda mina fina marker.

Internet kommer ALDRIG att ersätta brädspel, i alla fall inte för mig. Känner någon igen sig eller är jag bara allmänt rubbad? Hur ska riktigt sexiga spelpjäser se ut? Vad framkallar den där mysfaktorn jag försöker beskriva? Är Snigel verkligen helt rubbad?

PS. Ni behöver inte svara på den sista frågan, för det är ganska uppenbart vad svaret är. Det är svaret på de andra som kan tänkas vara intressant. DS.

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I fredags fick jag den efterlängtade försändelsen från USA: IceHouse pjäserna! Icehouse är ett finurligt koncept som går ut på att sälja spelpjäser (finns bild på deras sida) och sedan förse de som köpte dem med en hel hög bra spel alldeles gratis online! Mycket bra, för det finns över hundra spel och de jag har testat hittills har varierat i kvalitet från bra till mycket bra.

Trots det har jag inte hunnit spela så mycket under de dagar som har gått, men en del har det blivit. Favoriter sedan tidigare var Vulcano, Zendo och IceTowers och de håller sig fortfarande. En ny favorit är IceHouse, men jag har inte spelat det mer än några gånger och bara känt lite på det. På fredag ska vi till Alvas bror Kalle som fyller år och vi tänkte komma dit lite tidigare och spela.

Det för mig in på andra delen av rubriken, släkterna. Den här veckan har varit fylld med saker att göra på kvällarna och jobb på dagarna. Igår fyllde Alvas styvpappa år, idag ska vi till min syster och hennes man, i morgon ska jag till Björn och planera rollspel, på fredag fyller som sagt Kalle år och på lördag fyller min syster år samtidigt som vi ska hitta på något med lite kompisar. Det är rätt fullt med andra ord och inte så mycket tid att skriva här. Jag lever och mår bra i alla fall och jag slutar på jobbet på fredag och är ledig hela nästa vecka! Om inte annat ses vi då :)

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Då var det dags att skingra röken lite granna. De senaste dagarna har jag varit smått lyrisk och skrattat för mig själv och berättat för alla som vill lyssna och några till om en spelidé jag har. Inspirationen kom från nyheterna om dopingskandalerna inom den italienska fotbollen. Jag tänkte att det vore roligt att spela fotboll om man förväntade droga och dopa spelarna så mycket det gick.

Spelet har nu färdiga grundregler och om jag inte går och lägger mig nu på stubben är det troligt att jag hinner få ut en första version av spelet. Annars lär det dröja till helgen. Spelet handlar om att satsa på rätt typer av spelar, bygga upp ett bra lag och sedan göra mål; så mycket andra regler finns det inte (på planen, alltså).

Det är nog inget spel för er som inte tycker om när man driver med allvarliga saker, för när en 250 cm lång och 150 kg tung cyborg tacklar en Knatte på tio bast, då blir det inte mycket kvar. Utöver detta finns det en mängd utrustning, olika typer av anabola steroider, spelaruppgraderingar och matchdroger, allt för att få in bollen i motståndarens mål.

Det finns också en viss metaplott, det gäller att ha en manager som attraherar sponsorer. Detta göra han om han har många bilar, älskarinnor eller stort palats. Att cykla, vara gift med sin kusin för att det ska se bra ut eller fortfarande bo hemma, det är ingen höjdare, men vi börjar alla någonstans. Sådär, nu kommer alla som läser det här sova dåligt om nätterna och drömmarna kommer vara fyllda av längtan efter detta hett eftertraktade spel!

Men frukta icke! Snigeln ska se till att få material till sin kära läsarkrets så snart det bara går, allra senast i helgen. Innan dess är det dock dags för student för rätt många av mina yngre kompisar, så jag lägger in en liten brasklapp där. Jag har en del annat hemligt på gång, men det tror jag att jag spar på ett tag till :)

PS. NAFL står för National Augmented Football League och jag väntade med avsikt till det bittra slutet innan jag gav iväg den godbiten, allt för att göra läsningen mer spännande! DS.

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