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Say I build some software around the Bitcoin system and I would like to try stuff without having to earn real BTC first, and without having to employ a lot of hashing power to grow the block chain.

As I understand it, the bitcoin clients connect to the network to get the authoritative block chain, so it seems I can't set up a toy network easily. Or can I? I would assume developers of the clients would need some way of testing their software.

While I am a software developer, and familiar with stuff like modifying source and rebuilding the client, the point of this exercise would be to run unaltered clients in a dummy environment.

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This seemed to be a newbie question. There is what is called a "testnet", and there is more info on the Wiki at: https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Testnet

This site has a specific tag for it, as well: https://bitcoin.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/testnet

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