One of the few good things to result from my recent computer woes was that my unplanned-for break from blogging allowed me to spend some time (thanks to my wife's computer) visiting a number of my favorite wargaming sites. Of special interest to me during these visits were the board game forums at Consimworld that deal with "classic" titles: particularly very old games like STALINGRAD and AFRIKA KORPS. And yes, although it may come as a surprise to many of my readers, both the STALINGRAD and AFRIKA KORPS forums continue to be surprisingly active, with a fairly steady stream of new contributions coming in regularly from both experienced and not-so-experienced voices, alike. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the reason for this post. One of the discussions that particularly caught my attention was one that was initiated by a series of questions from several different neophyte STALINGRAD players seeking the forum community's general views as to the most effective German and Russian strategies for winning the game. This piece, along with others that that I hope to post under the 'STALINGRAD NOTEBOOK' rubric in the future, is an expansion on some of the comments that I first offered on Consimworld's STALINGRAD forum in answer to these questions. Moreover, given that the early game turns of STALINGRAD are largely shaped by the defensive choices of the Soviet player, I have decided that a short discussion on how expert views on the problems and goals of the Russian defense have evolved over time might be the perfect place to begin my series of essays on this venerable old Avalon Hill "classic"; I hope that you, my readers, agree.

A Brief Look Back at the Evolution of Russian Defensive Play in 'STALINGRAD'

Avalon Hill published STALINGRAD almost five decades ago, in 1963; however, unlike most of their other games from the same period — such as D-DAY and AFRIKA KORPS — Charles Roberts' treatment of the Russo-German War (Tom Shaw and Lindsley Schutz, although generally given design credit, actually developed the game) received a surprising amount — given that this was still the very early days of wargaming — of uncharitable criticism from history-minded gamers right from the beginning. And while no one that I know has any idea whether these complaints ever had any effect on anyone in Baltimore, it is instructive to note that Avalon Hill did not get around to offering even a few minor tweaks to the STALINGRAD game rules until 1974. This means, in short, that the STALINGRAD we play today is virtually unchanged from the version that first appeared over forty-eight years ago: a testament, I suspect, more to Tom Shaw's stubbornness than to the "ageless" quality of the game's design.

Today, the game still has a small but dedicated following, even its most fervent fans will admit that STALINGRAD has more than its share of quirks. Nonetheless, since I have already dealt with many of the main characteristics of the Shaw-Schutz design in previous posts (see links below), I will not launch into a full-blown description of the game and its various foibles here; suffice it to say that STALINGRAD — viewed purely as a historical simulation — suffered from three serious defects: first, the Orders of Battle were either grossly inaccurate (in the case of the Axis), or pure fantasy (in the case of the Russians); second, the game's combat system (because of the absence of "overruns") made break throughs virtually impossible; and third, the weather rules, unbelievable though it may sound, penalized the Russians (particularly during the critical first winter) far more than the Axis. Needless-to-say, given its numerous conceptual flaws, STALINGRAD was — even in the eyes of most of its fans — a complete failure as a vehicle for modeling the first two years of the Russo-German War. The game did, however, have two things going for it: for starters, STALINGRAD was the only commercial board game on the Eastern Front available in the years immediately following its release; and (perhaps even more importantly) it was, judged purely as game, an exceedingly interesting puzzle, particularly when viewed from the perspective of the Axis player. This last is important because it largely explains the game's ongoing appeal (even today) to a small, but loyal group of STALINGRAD aficionados, this in spite of the veritable tsunami of better-crafted, more historically-plausible East Front games that have been published since STALINGRAD first saw print, oh so many years ago. And there is something else: this first commercial game on the conflict in Russia during World War II, like the other early Avalon Hill titles, also trails in its wake a huge body of written lore; and I have a sneaking suspicion that this wealth of game literature has probably been a factor in convincing at least a few young gamers to fly against popular prejudice and to give this venerable, if somewhat antiquated, old "classic" a try. It may be a lousy historical simulation, but — in my view, at least — it is still a fascinating game. That being said, and having catalogued STALINGRAD'S most obvious faults, I will finally let go (for the time being, at least) of any further general discussion of the game and turn my attention, instead, to a brief consideration of the conduct of the Russian defense in STALINGRAD, and of its gradual evolution over time.

The Shaw-Schutz "Bash Finland" Paradigm

When it comes to most games nowadays, players who are new to a game typically develop their initial ideas about defensive arrangements using a mix of guesswork and intuition, and then refine them over time through trial and error. Such, however, was not precisely the case with Shaw's and Schutz' final treatment of the Russian Front. Instead, STALINGRAD differed from most other early Avalon Hill titles — D-DAY probably being the most notable exception — in that the game's developers included a suggested opening set-up for the defending (Russian) player. This Russian set-up, although riddled with weaknesses, was a welcome starting point for most freshly-minted Red Army commanders, myself included, because it allowed neophyte players to move quickly from the rules into the actual play of the game. In short, for most new players, it helped shorten the game's "learning curve" substantially. As might be expected, of course, most players — once they had gained some familiarity with the flow and tempo of the game — quickly abandoned the "suggested" Avalon Hill defense in favor of their own preferred starting set-ups. In my own case, by the time I had completed my second face-to-face match as the Russians, I had already begun to think about ways to improve the standard AH defense; and, in this, I was certainly not alone. In fact, as time went on, there soon seemed to be as many different Soviet starting set-ups as there were individual players.

Not surprisingly, some of the Russian openings that emerged during this period turned out to be a bit eccentric: Tom Oleson (for reasons I am still not clear on to this day) liked to set up one of his two 7-10-4s between the Finns and Leningrad prior to play; even more unorthodox was the Russian strategy of one of the Roberts boys (I can't remember which one) who dispensed with the idea of the strategic defensive completely and opted instead to immediately hurl the Red Army straight into the teeth of the Wehrmacht in a do-or-die effort to capture Warsaw during the first few turns of the game. The Oleson defense inevitably elicited a surprised — alright, stupefied — look from his German adversaries; the "On to Warsaw" strategy, on the other hand, tended to provoke a look of horrified disbelief on the part of Roberts' opponents, particularly if the first few rounds of Russian attacks went well. Other players, as might be expected, took slightly different approaches to defending the sacred (cardboard) soil of Holy Russia: some Soviet commanders attempted to bait their German opponent into committing too much Axis armor in Rumania (see Gary Gygax' "Southern Gambit" for an example of this approach); other wily Russians laid enticing traps near Brest-Litovsk in the hopes of setting-up surrounded counterattacks against an overly aggressive foe (e.g., George Phillies and the "MIT Group"). However, in spite of their oftentimes notable differences, what virtually all of these different Russian defenses had in common was a strategic distribution of forces that hearkened back to the old AH "suggested" Russian set-up. That is: a relatively brittle "crust" defense on the main front which, in turn, made it possible for the Red Army to mass a powerful attacking force (usually eight to ten rifle and tank corps) adjacent to the Finnish border. The appeal of this aggressive/passive Russian strategy was obvious: by attacking and eliminating the isolated Axis units in the northern enclave during the first few game turns, the Soviets could permanently eliminate the backdoor threat to Leningrad and still wind things up in Finland in time to shift their recently-victorious units west before the Germans succeeded in gaining a lot of ground against the main army. The logic of the "Finland First" Russian approach (at least during the sixties and early seventies) seemed inescapable: it wasn't particularly elegant, but it worked; and for most players, that was enough.

"Something Wicked (or at least Unexpected) this Way Comes"

Briefing Soviet soldiers.
Of course, just because something is popular doesn't mean that it is universally accepted. Such was the case with the Russian "Bash the Finns" opening: it may have been widely-accepted, but there were, starting in the 1970s, a few devious STALINGRAD players who, dissatisfied with the status quo, were already beginning to reexamine the central tenets underlying the "standard" Russian defense with an eye towards overhauling it completely. The product of their efforts, when it ultimately appeared, represented a radically different approach to the defense of the Motherland. Many of these new defensive arrangements differed from each other in some of their particulars, but their similarities far outweighed their differences; and by the mid-seventies, the diabolical fruits of this band of paradigm-shifting "deconstructionists" had begun to show up in PBM and tournament play. The "Hyper-Modern" Russian defense (in all its many permutations) had been born.

For many players, the first encounter with this new Russian strategy was a bit of a shock; but whether in a PBM match, or face-to-face in a casual game or in a wargame tournament, based on my personal experience, it tended to be memorable. In my case, I first encountered a version of the then brand-new Hyper-Modern defense sometime in the 1970s while competing in a small weekend "classics" tournament; and ironically enough, I ran into it almost as soon as I signed in with the tournament organizers and drew my opening round opponent. My first match, as might be expected given the gist of this story, was in STALINGRAD. Because both I and my opponent wanted to play the Russians (what are the chances?), sides were rolled for: I got the Axis. Since my adversary needed a few minutes to set up his units, I got up from the table and drifted over to visit with some of the other tournament attendees. When I returned to the table a few minutes later, I received a nasty surprise which, while not quite as gut-wrenching as my first encounter with the Roberts "Red Army Captures Warsaw" strategy, was pretty unnerving, nonetheless. In essence, what I saw when I resumed my seat was that my opponent, instead of massing an overwhelming force against the Finns, had stripped the Finnish Front of all but four corps; every other unit in the Red Army was manning the Polish and Romanian borders. Although I wasn't completely clear what the long-term effects of my adversary's set-up would be; I was certain of one thing: the effects wouldn't be trivial. This statement, I suspect will make a lot of sense to any grognards reading this piece; for inexperienced players, however, probably not so much. So to actually illustrate why all this is important, I think it would probably be helpful to digress briefly and shift our focus(momentarily)to a consideration of the strategic situation confronting the German player just prior to the start of the game.

German cavalry, World War II.
For those readers who are either unfamiliar with STALINGRAD or are a little rusty when it comes to the rules, the Russians begin the game with thirty-four units totalling 220 defense factors; the Germans, for their part, start with fifty-nine units totalling 247 attack factors. On the May 1942 game turn, the Axis player receives six additional units (worth 18 attack factors) for a grand total of 265 factors. These totals, however, are somewhat misleading, particularly during the first few game turns, when the front is both narrowly constricted and segmented. The segmented aspect of the front comes from the fact that, prior to the start of play, the Axis player must allocate forces to three separate and initially completely independent battlefield sectors: Finland, which starts with 14 factors, but which will usually be reinforced to a maximum of 22 factors; Rumania, which will usually require an Axis investment of at least 68 attack factors; and the main(Polish) front, which, after the afore-mentioned force allocations to Finland and Rumania, will have only 157 attack factors (give-or-take) remaining with which to assault the main Russian line during those game turns when the Red Army is at its strongest. Different STALINGRAD players may quibble about the above values, but, on the whole, I think that they are generally representative of expert play. Thus, if only because of simple arithmetic, the effect on the Russian defense of an additional four to six corps immediately becomes obvious: German attack strength (taking into account the units that will likely be immobilized along the Hungarian border on the first game turn) will total approximately 217 factors; facing this Axis hoard, however, will be a formidable force of 195 Russian defense factors. Even worse, on turn one, almost all of the Soviet units will, because of terrain, be doubled on defense. Whatever the long-term advantages might be to the Axis of maintaining a presence in Finland, the fact remains that a twenty-two factor edge in combat power is considerably smaller than the 40-60+ factor advantage that the Germans typically enjoy when facing the "Bash Finland" Russian set-up. Needless-to-say, these values are not, from the standpoint of the German player, particularly encouraging. Unfortunately, the numbers are not the only reason for the German player to be concerned. Certainly, the narrowing of the Axis combat power advantage on the main front is bad enough, but it is not the only (or even the primary)   obstacle placed in the path of Axis offensive operations by the Hyper-Modern defense: in reality, the challenge posed by this alternative to the old "Finland First" opening is not how many extra units the Russians have on the Polish and Romanian borders, but where precisely those units are deployed that really makes this opening a serious test of the German commander's skill. In fact, it is the "don't give an inch" aggressiveness that characterizes the Hyper-Modern defense, probably more than any other feature, that really sets it apart from virtually every other Russian opening set-up that I have ever encountered. Thus, it should probably come as no surprise to my readers that as soon as I sat down and began to study my long-ago STALINGRAD tournament foe's unorthodox defensive arrangements, I was immediately struck by the sheer "in-your-face" psychological pressure created by the Russian dispositions. Certainly, I was dismayed by what I saw confronting my "at start" forces; secretly, however, I was also very impressed by the message that the opening sought to convey.

The "Nuts and Bolts" of the Hyper-Modern Defense

Russian mixed column.
It's been a long time, but I think that I was half converted to the new Russian set-up before either I or my opponent had moved a single piece. Looking back, what was both most interesting and most troubling to me — and I suspect would be for most other German players in my position — was that my Russian opponent had pushed his front line forward to occupy terrain that, under ordinary circumstances, I would have expected to be uncontested. The audacious Russian occupation of three hexes, in particular, struck me as being the most problematic to my first turn operations: U18, CC14, and LL14. Each hex presented its own unique set of challenges. U18, for example, could be attacked at reasonably good odds, but really required a soak-off if the attack was to gain any ground. CC14 was not nearly so cut and dried: it could be attacked at low-odds, or it could be — assuming I was prepared to risk both heavy soak-off losses and an immediate and powerful counterattack — attacked at higher odds with a guarantee that at least one German panzer unit would be adjacent to Brest-Litovsk at the end of the German player turn (but which would almost certainly be gone by the end of the Russian player turn). This was actually a real quandary because, when it came to CC14, the one option that I felt was not feasible was for me to ignore the Russian outpost altogether: as long as the Red Army occupied CC14, any Russians defending behind the northern end of the San River would be doubled on defense. Then there was the Russian stack on LL14. At the best of times, the Romanian front is typically a problem for the Axis player. The Hyper-Modern defense just makes the German problems more difficult. The Russian garrison in LL14 can be attacked from one hex at low-odds, or from two hexes at higher odds; the problem with the second attack is the very large soak-off investment that is required. The Axis could well win the battle, but because of crippling losses, leave the Soviet position in the far south virtually undamaged and, even worse, all but immune to follow-up attacks until forces from the Polish and Romanian fronts linked up. As I looked for weaknesses in the Soviet position, I quickly noticed another feature of my opponent's set-up that I had initially missed: besides the absence of "low-hanging fruit" (I estimated that I really had a good chance of destroying only one 2-3-6 and, depending on my stomach for soak-off losses, one or two 4-6-4s), there were virtually no attractive low-odds attacks available against traditional first turn targets like S18 or Brest-Litovsk. The longer I looked at the map, the more I liked(perhaps, envied is a better word) my adversary's defensive arrangements. In all my years playing STALINGRAD, I had never before run into anything quite like the set-up in front of me; two things, however, were already clear to me: I loved the new approach to the Russian defense; and I couldn't wait to spring it on one of my regular opponents as soon as I got home!

German planes bound to bomb Soviet cities, June, 1941.
Since this is not an "After Action Report", I will not bore my readers with a detailed account of my first outing against my opponent's Hyper-Modern strategy, except to note that, although I ultimately captured Leningrad and Moscow(with a lucky one-to-one and two-to-one, respectively), I never got anywhere near Stalingrad. As for the rest of the tournament, it is pretty much a blur. The one thing that I took away, and the one thing that really made the whole experience worthwhile for me was that I had been, for the first time, treated to a completely new way of playing the Russian defense. And although I had a long return drive when the tournament broke-up Sunday afternoon, I broke my STALINGRAD game out just as soon as I got home and had unpacked. That first night, tired as I was, I began to experiment with my own version of the Hyper-Modern defense. This process of experimentation, once begun, would continue, off and on, for several years; but by 1978 I finally settled on the Russian defense that suited me best. I have used the same set-up, virtually without alteration, ever since; and, although I cannot claim that it is the very best of the many versions of the Hyper-Modern defense, it has always worked for me.

A Few Final Thoughts

Having read this far, I am sure that there are any number of grognards who are saying to themselves (quite rightly, I might add): "Hey, wait a minute, I and my friends were using Russian set-ups very similar, in many of their basic elements, to the Hyper-Modern approach long before the mid-seventies!" And they would be right, up to a point. However, what really sets the Hyper-Modern defense apart from all other types of Soviet openings is that it combines the maximum possible concentration of Soviet rifle strength along the Polish and Romanian borders along with an ultra-aggressive forward placement of the Russian starting line. It is this "in your face" deployment that I believe, more than any other single factor, ultimately separates the Hyper-Modern Russian player from all of his many competitors.

Although this point should be obvious, it is nonetheless probably worthwhile pointing out that the Hyper-Modern defense, whatever its strengths is not going to appeal to every STALINGRAD player. Every gamer is an individual, and because a player's choice of a defensive set-up is influenced, not only by his skill level and experience, but also by his preferred style of play, the Hyper-Modern defense is just not going to appeal to everybody. Moreover, while the Hyper-Modern has become steadily more popular with experienced players over the years, there are more than a few STALINGRAD experts (Tom Baruth and the Bakulski brothers come immediately to mind)  who have tended to stick with the traditional "Bash Finland First" strategy when playing the Russians, in spite of the increasing popularity of the newer, more aggressive style of opening. In the end, of course, it all comes down to personal taste; however, speaking for myself, I have used the newer, more aggressive defense for over thirty years now and, in all that time, I have never seen any reason to discard it in favor of another approach. Anything is possible, but somehow, based on the hundreds of STALINGRAD games that I have played during those many years, I don't really think that I ever will.

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Or Why Does Bad Luck Always Seem to Come in Threes?

Based on my recent posts, I suspect that some of my regular readers are beginning to wonder why, if my computer problems have at last been resolved, I have been so slow to resume my usual pace of blogging. The answer to this question, I'm afraid, is that (proving, I suppose, that there really is no fool like an old fool) I suffered a major bout of heat exhaustion several weeks ago, and I am only now beginning to regain both my mental and physical stamina. Looking back, I am still amazed that, having spent decades working under the blazing Arizona sun, I could have allowed myself to succumb to such an easily preventable malady.

My health problems actually started when, having time on my hands during the period when my computer was down, I decided to embark on several outdoor projects that I had hitherto been postponing. The fact that it was high summer did not, wrongly it turned out, concern me because I had spent much of my adult life working outdoors in the Arizona heat. It turns out, however, that I am no longer the same man who a half decade ago tramped around the center of a sand arena for hours at a time (in tall black field boots and cavalry twill breeches, no less) six or seven days a week with only a baseball cap for protection from the sun. In those days my student riders might wilt after a half hour or so of instruction and their horses might begin to blow, but I considered myself virtually impervious to the heat. No longer; and, although I really should have known better, the fatigue and other problems that began to manifest themselves after a day or two working outdoors, I wrongly chalked up to old age; so naturally, I soldiered on. Fortunately, my long-suffering wife — who was unaware of my stupidity because she works during the day — became alarmed at the mysterious deterioration in my physical condition and finally sat me down (I was getting increasingly wobbly, as the days passed) and checked my blood pressure and heart rate. To make a long story short, her intervention undoubtedly saved me from a trip to the emergency room; it also, for better or worse, marked the permanent end of my outdoor summer projects.

So where does this leave "Map and Counters"? The good news, such as it is, is that the lethargy and lack of concentration that followed on the heels of my brush with heat stroke have both slowly begun to fade with time. I am still not operating at 100%, but I can, at last, sit at the computer and actually compose for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch. That being said, I am hopeful that it won't be too much longer before I can resume my old pace when it comes to blogging. There are, as I have already noted previously, still a lot of old and new wargaming topics that I am eager to cover; now that I am at last feeling better, I hope to finally begin publishing some of this fresh material in the near future.
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Thoughts About "DonCons" Past, Present, and Future

This past Sunday, August 7th, was the final day of the 2011 WBC Convention; and, I confess that a wave of nostalgia washed over me as I watched the minutes slowly tick by on Sunday morning. Assuming this year's convention followed the same course as those of the recent past, I knew that things would probably limp along to a close for the last die-hard attendees by about noon. In my mind's eye I could see the main gaming areas, no longer teaming with attendees, but with a few isolated pockets of players here and there still surrounded by the signs, "kiosks", and other paraphernalia left over from the convention. By mid-morning, of course, the hotel staff would begin the process of tearing down and stacking the banquet tables and chairs that had, only hours before, been the focus of days of intense gaming activity. A few players, I was sure, would hang on to the absolute bitter end: I well know the urgency felt by many of those last few convention holdouts as they desperately tried to get in just one more game before packing up and beginning their individual journeys home. I know all this, in spite of the fact that I was unable to attend this year's gathering in Lancaster, because my own convention-going experiences have all followed pretty much the same general pattern over the years: exultation and excitement upon first arriving at the convention site; but then followed by a gradual and inexorable (day-by-day) slide into an unshakable funk by the morning of the last day. The experiences of other wargamers may vary (particularly for those who attend more than one or two conventions a year), but that is the way it has always been for me; and I really don't expect it to change.

Before there can be a last day for a convention, of course, there must also be a first. And the first day of a well-run wargame convention is one of those few happy experiences that, at least for me, never diminishes in its excitement no matter how many times it is repeated. In that sense, I suppose, the first emotional response that I get upon arriving at a convention site is more than a bit like the anticipation that Christmas morning holds for children; the difference is that, as the years have passed, holidays mean less and less to me, but the thrill of walking into the hosting site's lobby and seeing the other gamers (friends and strangers, alike) queueing up to register just never loses its appeal. I personally hate crowds; but this is perhaps the only crowd that I actually enjoy mixing with. In any case, after check-in is completed, there follows the rapid trek to one's hotel room; the hurried unpacking of clothes and games; and then, most satisfying of all, the short but intense internal debate as to which games to bring along, and which to leave behind, before dashing off to the gaming areas. Even for an old grognard like me, it just doesn't get any better than that!

My old friend, Greg Smith plays Afrika Korps.
Nowadays, most tournament-style conventions, besides being longer (which is good), tend to schedule many of their most important events on the last few days (usually Friday and Saturday) of their tournament calendars; from an organizational standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Nonetheless, it is invariably the first few days of a convention, and not the climactic last few, that I tend to enjoy the most. During those hectic first hours, there are lots of things to do and yet no real pressure to actually get anything specific done. Thus, there is ample time to try new games, to renew old wargaming bonds, to play that neglected onetime favorite that has been gathering dust for years; and, at the end of each busy and (hopefully) enjoyable day, to celebrate one's wins and losses with a convivial drink or two in the hotel bar with both old and new wargaming friends. As one old wargaming friend (and a fellow Vietnam vet) once observed: "Wargame conventions are a lot like R&R trips, but without any of the latter's language issues or manic debauchery."

Vince Meconi and Andy Choptiany play War at Sea.
From mid-week on, things begin to pick up their pace. For old line tournament "sharks" like me, this is the period during which we tend to "pull out the stops" in an effort to gain a quarter-finals slot in one or more of our tournaments of choice. This is also usually the last chance for a player to change course and enter a new event if things haven't panned out in one or more of our various specialties. For my own part, I usually try to gain one of the play-off slots in WATERLOO and AFRIKA KORPS; however, if time permits, I also usually try to compete (at least for the first couple of rounds) in the WAR AT SEA tournament. And, of course, there are always those conventions in which things simply don't work out as planned. Speaking for myself, in more than a few instances, I can remember sitting down to games as diverse as ATTACK SUB, BREAKOUT: NORMANDY, CIRCUS MAXIMUS, and VICTORY IN THE PACIFIC after being knocked-out of my first-choice tournaments during the early qualifying rounds. I guess, when it comes to my own tournament gaming, I tend to do what the lyrics from the old Pop standard suggest: "If you can't be with the one you love; love the one you're with."

Don Greenwood, the
WBC Convention Organizer.
When the last day of a really enjoyable convention finally arrives, it is always (for me, at least) a real "downer". Some of this, I suspect, derives from the tedious necessity of packing up, checking out of one's hotel room, and of confirming final travel arrangements for the impending trip home. Part of the cause of this last-minute case of melancholy, however, comes from the realization that the convention's remaining life can now be counted in minutes and hours, and no longer in days. To return to my earlier "Christmas" analogy: The last few hours of a convention remind me of that time on Christmas Day, after all the presents have been exchanged and opened, when it is finally time to clear away the wrapping paper and other jumble from under the tree -- a task that inevitably reminds everyone present that another Christmas morning has come and then too speedily gone. On the bright side, for me at least, is the knowledge that this momentary bout of depression always passes quickly; and by the time I board the train for Philadelphia (many attendees, myself included, fly into Philadelphia and then take the train to Lancaster) I inevitably find my mood lifting as I begin to plan for my return the following year. And happily, for those gamers who were able to attend this year's convention, and even for those, like me, who were not, there's always the promise of next year.
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