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Masters of Go-Stop

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During our walks in the hills of Busan, we frequently see groups of hikers taking a break in a pavilion, drinking soju and playing Go-Stop, a betting game which uses small plastic flower cards. Once, we hovered around and watched for a bit — the players were too engrossed in the action to even notice our presence. The game looked fun, and later that day we bought our own deck.


Go-Stop is a Korean game which uses Japanese flower cards (called Hwatu in Korean), which are made of hard plastic and represent the seasons of the year. Four cards for each month, for 48 cards total. You can pick up a deck of flower cards at any convenience store for a couple bucks; they’re just as ubiquitous here as western-style decks are in the US or Europe.

The game is easy to learn, and we quickly became addicted to it (if you’re interested, a set of rules can be found on Pagat.com). Go-Stop is a fishing and matching game played between two or three people — you slap down a January card on another January card and collect the points. And I do mean “slap down”. It’s standard practice to hold the card you’re playing high above your head, then slam it down onto the table, to produce a satisfying smacking sound.

We’ve become pretty adept at the game — once you learn which cards belong to which month, it’s easy. Recently, we even dared to pull out the cards at a bar. Within minutes, we had attracted a set of on-lookers: our waiter and the couple at the neighboring table, apparently amused by the waeguks playing Go-Stop. All were very generous with advice, and though the waiter didn’t approve of my slapping style (apparently, not forceful enough) I think we acquitted ourselves rather well.

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July 29, 2012 at 8:29 am Comments (2)

The Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony

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As we were saying goodbye, the instructor continued to praise our skills. “You did so very good! Very talented at pouring tea, the traditional Korean way!” We sheepishly accepted her acclaim, but I knew what she was really thinking. “Get these clumsy oafs out of my sight, so that I can finally start laughing my ass off!”


The Tea Ceremony Experience is offered for free, three times a day (except Fridays and Mondays), in the Busan Museum’s Cultural Center. Our instructor, who was geared up in a hanbok (a traditional Korean dress), motioned for us to take seats in front of trays on the ground. Sitting Indian-style doesn’t present a problem for me, but Jürgen’s 6’6″ frame and lanky legs always require a couple minutes of painful twisting. The instructor looked on patiently while he arranged his body into the correct position. “Clearly”, she must have been thinking, “this lesson will present more of a challenge than usual”.

For the next twenty minutes we learned the procedure of a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Every movement is completed very particularly, from raising the napkin off the tea set and folding it, to pouring the water into the teapot. We were expected to be very calm, very exact; our instructor told us that the whole process is a form of meditation. While pouring and drinking the tea, you remain silent and still, concentrating on nothing but the simple tasks at hand, trying to complete them as perfectly as possible.

After three rounds, we were almost able to complete the ceremony without a mistake: grabbing the cup with the wrong hand, pouring out too much water, or laying the napkin on the floor upside-down. Our instructor was pleased enough, and after the torturous spectacle of watching Jürgen disentangle his legs and stand up, we said our goodbyes. I doubt I’ll be working a tea ritual into my daily schedule, but I can certainly appreciate the moment of collected quiet that it provides. And the tea wasn’t bad, either.

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July 27, 2012 at 1:56 am Comments (4)

South Korea’s Troubling Quest for Beauty

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Lasik Eye Surgery in Korea

I doubt there’s a reflective surface anywhere in South Korea that hasn’t, at some point in its life, served as a makeshift mirror for somebody checking makeup, fixing hair, or fretting about wrinkles. We’ve never seen people so obsessed with outward appearance as Koreans. It borders on the obsessive and is so widespread, so constant, that it’s begun to worry us.

Plastic Surgery Korea

You watch kids on the subway. Many of the girls are carrying a silver hand mirror, which they’re constantly staring into. Those without mirrors, boys and girls alike, are studying themselves in the reflection of the window. You see people retouching photos of themselves on their smart phones, using digital tools which eliminate imperfections or whiten their skin.

At first, you’ll smirk. “Damn Korea, you vain!” But eventually you realize that it’s not really vanity. There’s nothing conceited or prideful about the obsessive mirror-gazing. Rather, there’s a sense of anxiety. These kids mostly seem nervous; desperate to appear as perfectly put together as possible. You start to wonder who they’re trying to please.

Then you notice the advertisements for plastic surgery plastered all over the train. You study the before and after pictures, then look around the car again. Across from you, there’s a twenty-something with her eye patched, and a girl hidden behind a face-mask and sunglasses. Very few Asians are born with so-called “double eyelids”, but most of the girls on the train have them. You look at the jawlines, and realize how many have angular, almost Western features, as opposed to the roundness usually associated with Korean faces.

Plastic surgery has reached a saturation level in South Korea that seems unthinkable in the US or Europe. Here, having your face surgically enhanced isn’t at all embarrassing. It’s not something to cover up or conscientiously ignore in polite company, but an achievement to be shared and almost celebrated. A common high-school graduation present is the “double eyelid” operation. (Before coming to Korea, I had no idea what that was; here are some illustrative examples.) Families often encourage their daughters to become beautiful via surgery, and can be openly disdainful of those who refuse it. Schoolkids too young or poor for the eyelid surgery will glue their eyelids together to achieve the desired look. Cosmetic alterations are a part of Korean life in a way that Jürgen and I have a hard time understanding.

Media, of course, plays a big role. A huge majority of the country’s actors and K-Pop superstars have had their faces restructured. There’s a very identifiable standard of beauty here, and it definitely isn’t Korean. It’s western. Wide eyes, small chin, small mouth, linear jaw. One of our friends remarked that the winner of this year’s Miss Korea was the contestant who looked the least Korean. It’s not a coincidence and it’s not altogether inappropriate. This is what a plurality of Koreans consider beautiful.

Look, I’m not going to judge anyone for getting plastic surgery; a person’s body is their own, and they can mess around with it however they want. Plastic surgery doesn’t bug me at all, and I don’t think there should be any stigma attached to it. Still: although natural Korean faces can be absolutely beautiful, entire generations are learning that their features aren’t, and could never be, beautiful enough. And that can’t be good.

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July 25, 2012 at 7:29 am Comments (9)

The Brilliance of the Yogi-Yo Button

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Of all the technological marvels we’ve seen in ultra-modern South Korea, only one has completely wedged its way into our hearts: the Yogi-Yo button. Found on tables in many of Busan’s restaurants, it is utter, blissful genius. Press it, and your waiter appears like magic. Leave it unpressed, and you’re left alone.


There are plenty of advancements in Korea which the USA could sorely use. Bullet trains. Affordable, first-class health care. Efficient public transportation. A low crime rate. These are all important, to be sure, but if I could bring just one thing with me back home, it would be the Yogi-Yo button. My lord, do we need this.

“Yogi-Yo” approximately means “Hey, over here”! It’s what you would shout in a Korean restaurant to get your waiter’s attention. But with the Yogi-Yo button, you don’t even have to shout. If you want another bottle of soju, you don’t wait patiently for your server to come by. You just press this magical button and she’ll come running.

Our first few times eating out, we were too shy to actually use the Yogi-Yo button. It felt too pushy, and I’ve been conditioned by my American upbringing to treat waiters with meek politeness, rather than as the servants they are (heh, that little quip ought to win me some spite!) But now, in our third month in Korea, we press the Yogi-Yo button without hesitation. Sometimes, I’ll gobble up all the kimchi, not because I’m extra-hungry, but because I want to hit the button again and watch the waitress come scurrying.

Yes, the Yogi-Yo button must enter the American dining scene as soon as possible. And while we’re at it, we should also import Korea’s tipping policy. That is: no tips ever, not even pocket change. America’s waiters have gotten a little too entitled in the past decade. 20% now standard?! Yeah, I don’t think so. “Yogi-Yo, buddy. Get me another beer and, no, I’m not going to pay you extra for doing it”. That’s the way it should be.

All joking aside… after over ten years living outside the US, I find our tipping culture to be horrifying. Twenty percent is absolutely ridiculous, and found nowhere else in the world. It’s out of all proportion — the staff is simply performing the service they’re being paid to perform. Customers should expect to receive good service regardless of the “tip”. Am I right? And sure, waiters earn a pittance, depending on tips for their real wage — but how is that my fault? Restaurants ought to pay their employees correctly. After so much time living in other countries, the idea of paying somebody extra just because they carried food to my table seems completely insane.

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July 22, 2012 at 5:51 am Comments (9)

The Busan Museum

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Opened in 1978 at the western end of the U.N. Park in Daeyeon, the Busan Museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the city and its region, from paleolithic times to the modern day. We visited recently and found it to be the perfect rainy-day activity.


Busan Museum is quite large, well-organized and, like most museums in the city, completely free. Busan as a city has a relatively recent story; up until the late 19th century, it was a mere fishing village, nowhere near as important as nearby Gyeongju or Daegu. Not until 1876, when its port was opened to international trade, did Busan become a city of any importance.

But that doesn’t mean that its history isn’t interesting. Starting in the late Paleolithic period, with the first documented appearance of humanity around the mouth of the Nakdong, visitors are slowly brought to the modern age. There are two floors of fascinating exhibits which have excellent English translations and shed a light on life in the various phases of Korean history.


Our favorite section detailed the period of the Three Kingdoms (around 57 AD – 668), when the various tribes of the peninsula were organizing themselves for the first time. One exhibit showed how the people of that day used primitive body-modification techniques to give themselves flat foreheads or pointy feet. On the second floor of the museum, there’s a room dedicated entirely to the relationship of the Japanese to Busan, which is more even-handed (and therefore, more interesting) than the “Japan=Villain” equations of the Modern History Museum.

How much enjoyment you get out of this museum is entirely a function of your interest in history. Nicely presented, informative and with plenty of information in English, we thought it was well done.

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July 19, 2012 at 10:01 am Comments (2)

Brave the Crowds of Haeundae Beach

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South Korea’s most popular beach is Haeundae, found on the northeastern end of the city. Famous across the country as a place to see and be seen, Haeundae explodes into life during the summer when the entire beach is covered in both parasols and people who are less interested in swimming than looking good.


Unfortunately, this has been a very wet summer, and there haven’t been a lot of weekends conducive to beach time. But the clouds momentarily lifted on one Saturday afternoon, and we went to check out the scene. Haeundae has the world record for most number of parasols on a beach (yes, there’s a “record” for that), and the atmosphere is claustrophobic and chaotic.

We walked up and down the sand — the water was awfully cold (perhaps we’ve been weakened by summers on the southern coast of Spain), so we had to content ourselves with people-watching. Luckily, the people-watching is excellent. There are girls walking around on the sand with high heels, guys carrying fluffy dogs with dyed-red ears, groups of foreigners playing volleyball and thousands of parasols, almost all occupied. Haeundae is a hot-spot for the wealthy youth of Seoul, who come to Busan in droves for the weekend.

There is some structure to the chaos of Haeundae. You can rent the umbrellas at automatic machines, as well as big yellow inner tubes for the water. If you get hungry while sunbathing, just pick up the phone — pizza companies will deliver to the beach. And despite the rigid organization, there are less rules here than at many beaches; you can drink, play ball, and bring dogs.

It’s not exactly the kind of beach experience we normally go for, but clearly appeals to a lot of people. A day on Haeundae is perhaps not relaxing, but it’s certainly entertaining.

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July 17, 2012 at 9:02 am Comments (2)

Some Great South Korean Movies

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South Korea’s film industry has been absolutely killing it for the last decade or so, winning admirers across the globe for their character- and plot-driven movies which tackle every genre imaginable, from western to comedy to thrillers. Since arriving, we’ve been watching a lot of Korean flicks, and are almost always surprised and entertained — traditional Hollywood fare, this isn’t.

In our day jobs, we run a film recommendation website called Criticker, which has been very useful in helping us choose which Korean film to watch next. Here, for instance, is a list of the most popular Korean films of the past decade.

And here’s a quick list of the films which we’ve seen since arriving. This doesn’t include many of the most famous South Korean movies, which we had already watched (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, The Host, Thirst, JSA). And there are a few we still have to get to — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring, A Bittersweet Life, My Sassy Girl and The Brotherhood of War are all on our list. Any other must-see Korean films we should check out? What are your favorites?

1 Dollar DVDs

Mother (2009)

Summary: A mother desperately searches for the killer that framed her son for their horrific murder

This goes to darker places than we were expecting, and we enjoyed it all the way through. Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the nameless Mother, who will do anything to protect her son, was incredible… especially as she slowly uncovers the truth.

5 Stars!

The Chaser (2008)

Summary: A pimp hunts down a pair of his missing girls.

A brutal, brilliant Korean thriller that completely ignores the normal plot devices of such films and presents a story which is impossible to predict. As the baby-faced serial killer, Jung-Woo Ha is positively terrifying (and kind of funny).

4 Stars!

Summary: A man named KIM jumps into the dark, quiet waters of the Han River. He wakes up and finds himself lying on strange ground, covered with sand. For a second, he thinks he is in heaven, but soon recognizes that he simply drifted to a nameless island in the river. In one of the riverside apartment buildings, there’s a girl who hasn’t ventured out of her room for years…

Most often, this whimsical romance is compared to Amelie — a film I really can’t stand. But this movie transcends its “quirky” characters, delivering a thoughtful message about humanity’s struggle to cope with modernity. One of the best, funniest, and most touching movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

5 Stars!

Summary: Sin-ae moves with her son Jun to Miryang, the town where her dead husband was born. As she tries to come to herself and set out on new foundations, another tragic event overturns her life.

Wonderful, unpredictable film. We loved the contrast between two types of people who can use someone’s grief for their own (not entirely selfish) ends… This film has one of the most honest and thoughtful depictions of modern Christianity that we’ve seen on film, and Do-yeon Jeon’s performance as the bereaved mother is astounding. You can’t look away.

5 Stars!

Summary: Jae-Young is an amateur prostitute who sleeps with men while her best friend Yeo-Jin “manages” her, fixing dates, taking care of the money and making sure the coast is clear.

Within the first few minutes, it’s clear that this movie would go in unexpected directions. Unconventional plots seem to be a hallmark of Korean cinema. This bizarre and occasionally brutal film earned director Ki-duk Kim (who also directed the wonderful 3-Iron) a prize at the Berlinale.

4 Stars!

Summary: A bounty hunter (the Good), a gangster (the Bad) and a thief (the Weird) match wits and many, many bullets in a quest for a mysterious treasure map in 1930s Manchuria. Over-the-top shootouts and chase scenes highlight this Korean homage to the Spaghetti Western. The cast includes the three biggest movie stars in Korea.

With Korea’s biggest actors, this was a major smash here. It’s a fun genre piece with some incredible action sequences set in the deserts of Manchuria, when Korea was under the thumb of the Japanese. It went on a little too long, though, for our taste.

3 Stars!

Summary: A secret agent tracks a serial killer who murdered his fiancée.

Very exciting, very brutal, very unpleasant. A horrifically bloody, unrelenting thriller which I kept averting my eyes from and praying for to end — I actually screamed out loud once. It was excellently made and exciting throughout, but only recommended for those who like their hyper-violence extra hyper.

4 Stars!

Summary: Based on a true story, Memories of Murder is a Korean suspense thriller offering an unusual fusion of death and laughter, while recollecting truly nightmarish events.

A gripping detective story which doesn’t shy away from the fact that many crimes are almost impossible to solve. The characters are well-developed, and their progression through the film is both natural and surprising. Given the fact that it’s a true story, there’s a surprising amount of humor. Quentin Tarantino named this one of his favorite films of the past twenty years.

5 Stars!

Summary: An ex-special agent CHA Tae-shik’s only connection to the rest of the world is a little girl, So-mi, who lives nearby. Her mother, Hyo-jeong smuggles drugs from a drug trafficking organization and entrusts Tae-shik with the product, without letting him know. The traffickers find out about her smuggling and kidnap both Hyo-jeong and So-mi. The gang promises to release them if Tae-shik makes a delivery for them, however it actually is a larger plot to eliminate a rival drug ring leader.

Like a Korean version of The Professional, except much better and more brutal. South Korean model/heartthrob/actor Won Bin excels in the role of Unstoppable Avenger, and the action is almost relentless. Includes the sickest knife fight we’ve ever seen on film, and earns an extra star just for that.

4 Stars!

Summary: A tilt-a whirl genre-blender that turns film history against itself to create one of the most savage, affecting and inspired anti-violence movies ever made. This is a movie that defies all marketing labels and is exactly what it wants to be: like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

We weren’t exactly sure what kind of film this was supposed to be. Comedy? It was pretty unfunny, especially during the… you know… bloody torture scenes. While watching this, we began to suspect that Koreans just throw a bloody torture scene into every movie they make.

2 Stars!

Summary: A girl who thinks she is a combat cyborg checks into a mental hospital, where she encounters other psychotics. Eventually, she falls for a man who thinks he can steal people’s souls.

WAY too cutesy, and not nearly funny or endearing enough to justify it. With a wide-ranging cast of wacky inmates, we kept hoping for a fire to break out in the asylum that would kill them all.

2 Stars!

Summary: Joong Rae goes on a road trip to the west coast with his friend Chang Wook and Chang Wook’s girlfriend Moon Suk. In the beautiful beach setting of Shinduri, Joong Rae and Moon Suk find themselves attracted to each other and spend a passionate night together. But where does life go the morning after?

A director’s-showpiece kind of film, with long, languorous shots and emotive performances. It’s all well-done, and is refreshing after the frequent gore of Korean cinema, but gets very long after awhile, and you can easily start to despise the selfish main characters.

3 Stars!
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July 15, 2012 at 10:50 am Comment (1)

A Trip to Gyeongju

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Budget Accommadations in Gyeongju

Gyeongju is a small city 50 miles north of Busan, known as the “Museum Without Walls” due to its incredible wealth of historic treasures. This was the capital of the powerful Silla Kingdom which ruled most of the Korean peninsula for nearly 1000 years (57 BC – 935 AD) and is without a doubt the most rewarding excursion you can make from Busan.


We took the KTX bullet train from Busan Station and arrived in Gyeongju in 28 minutes. Less than a half-hour. That’s significantly less time than it even took for us to reach the train station from our apartment. I’ve taken showers that last longer. The train cost ₩10,000 ($9) per person, and was unbelievably smooth and fast. It was mostly through tunnels, though, so you couldn’t see the countryside whipping past.

The Silla Kingdom is among the most long-lived and powerful dynasties in Asian history. They started in the Gyeongju/Busan area, and were the first to successfully unite most of the peninsula. It was a strict monarchy, with a hereditary royalty and aristocracy, and no chance of social advancement for the great majority of people. Sillans spoke Korean, wrote in Chinese characters, practiced both Confucianism and Buddhism, and battled with the Korean-speaking Goguryeo Dynasty for control of the North.

Although Gyeongju’s period of prominence lies over a thousand years in the past, the sense of history is still present in the modern-day city. The most conspicuous remnants of its rich heritage are the amazing royal tombs where kings and nobility were buried. These large, perfectly rounded hills covered in bright green grass pop up all over Gyeongju, like miniature replicas of the mountains that are always visible in the distance. There are 35 royal tombs and over 150 smaller mounds in the city itself, with many more found in the surrounding environs.

In the Daeneungwon Park, tourists have the chance to peek inside Cheonmachong, the Heavenly Horse Tomb, which is one of the most important of the burial sites. When it was excavated in 1973, over 10,000 artifacts were found inside, including a golden crown and a saddle engraved with a winged horse, which gave the tomb its name.

We had two days in Gyeongju, and had just enough time to hit most of the major highlights. Over the next couple posts, we’ll focus on this historic and gorgeous mountain city.

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July 10, 2012 at 11:59 pm Comment (1)

Korea’s Love Motels – For More Than Just Sexy Time

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So-called “love motels” are ubiquitous in Korean cities, and exist primarily to provide couples a secretive, swanky place to hook up. But as we’ve discovered, they’re also a valid option for budget accommodation, for those who are more interested in sleep than sex.


We checked into Motel Time after an exhausting day of sightseeing around Gyeongju: our first day trip outside of Busan. In case there was any doubt as to the motel’s intended purpose, the walls were decorated with pictures of lingerie-clad women and slogans reminding us that “Motel Time” was for “Sexy Time, Hot Time, Love Time, Fun Time”. The front desk was behind an opaque window so that the woman checking us in couldn’t see our faces. Anonymous Time.

Our room was insane. Laser lights, mirrors everywhere (including the ceiling), a giant HD television, a computer, triple-pane soundproofed glass, robes to change into and look sultry in, a full set of cosmetics like hair gel and deodorant, a récamier and, naturally, a two-person whirlpool bath. If I hadn’t spent the last twelve hours hiking around the city, I’d have whipped my clothes off and started humping everything within reach.

Aversion might be the proper reaction to the idea of sleeping in a motel primarily intended for lovestruck teenagers and married men on liaisons. But unless you’re willing to sleep on a floor mat — as you would at most normal Korean guesthouses — or shell out big bucks at a Western-style hotel, love motels are among your best options. They’re clean, comfortable, affordable and, hands down, the most fun.

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July 10, 2012 at 3:09 am Comments (4)

Busan’s Very Own Madame Tussauds

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Is there anything more thrilling than standing next to a wax figure of a celebrity? Say, Lady Gaga? Of course not, what a stupid question! Wax museums are among humanity’s most transcendent achievements, allowing us to indulge in fawning celebrity worship without the actual physical presence of the celebrity! There’s nothing the least bit ridiculous about that. Nothing; right, Gaga?

Isn’t that right, m’lady? … Gaga? [poke] Oh that’s right, you’re wax, hahahahahahhahaha!! You just look so realistic, hahahah! Hah. Hehm.


We were among the first to visit the new Madame Tussauds, which just opened on the sixth floor of the Shinsegae Department Store. Because we love wax figures so much that we simply must be the first ones to see them… or because we just happened to be walking by and noticed it. This is a temporary exhibit, though there’s a chance it will become permanent. Madame Tussauds’ website threatens the good people of Busan, thusly:

Even though this is a temporary attraction, if South Korean residents and international visitors enjoy it as much as the other 13 Madame Tussauds attractions around the world, then we will look at making it a permanent feature in the future.

Hear that, South Korea? You better get to worshipping wax figures of Western celebrities or the huffy Madame will take her toys away! Entrance to the rather small exhibit costs a whopping ₩9000 ($8.10), which is about the same price you pay for four hours at Spa Land (also in Shinsegae).

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July 9, 2012 at 9:05 am Comments (3)

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Masters of Go-Stop During our walks in the hills of Busan, we frequently see groups of hikers taking a break in a pavilion, drinking soju and playing Go-Stop, a betting game which uses small plastic flower cards. Once, we hovered around and watched for a bit -- the players were too engrossed in the action to even notice our presence. The game looked fun, and later that day we bought our own deck.
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