Review: Notre Dame
One of the games that has recently made a big impression is Notre Dame by Stefan Feld. Notre Dame is for 3-5 players and games last about an hour. It's also the latest in the prestigious line of Alea big-box games. This line includes such classics as Puerto Rico, Ra and Taj Mahal so it's not surprising that there would be high expectations for this game.
In Notre Dame, players assume the role of influential Parisian families who each control one of the boroughs near the cathedral of Notre Dame in the 14th century. Each player attempts to use his family's influence to increase his power and prestige in the borough. It's an interesting theme that is well supported with the components and artwork but it's almost completely unsupported by the mechanics. The mechanics of the game really have almost nothing to do with the theme and, like many European games, the game is actually rather abstract and could just as well have been assigned almost any other theme. Of course if the game is a good one then that's not really all that important. Is it?
As is to be expected with an Alea game, the game components are first rate. Inside the box you will find dozens of brightly colored wooden cubes, pawns and markers; several sheets of sturdy cardboard tokens, coins, and influence (victory point) counters; a pack of beautifully illustrated cards; three Notre Dame tiles; and five game board sections.
The game board sections are very clever. There is one for each player in the game. Together they form the game board. In the center of the table is placed one of the Notre Dame tiles. For a three player game, the triangular Notre Dame tile is used. For four players it's a square and for five it's a pentagon. The game board sections, which represent the various boroughs are placed around the Notre Dame tile. The borough tiles are all shaped in such a way that they will always fit together perfectly no matter how many players are participating. It's a clever mechanism that adds a nice finished touch to the game.
Notre Dame is a progressive influence game with a card-driven action mechanic. Players play a card, and take the appropriate action. Each action typically results in an influence cube being placed in one of the seven sections of a player's borough. Each section offers a different escalating reward. The more cubes that are present in a section when a new cube is placed there, the better the reward. This game rewards committing to improve a few sections a lot rather than trying to improve each of them a little.
The game is played over three periods, each of which has three rounds. Each player has their own deck of nine action cards. At the beginning of each round, each player draws three cards from their action deck. One of those cards is chosen to remain in the player's hand and the other two are passed to the player's left. Then one card is chosen from the two cards received from the player to the right and the remaining card is again passed to the left. This drafting mechanism results in each player holding three cards at the start of each round, one of his own, one from the player to the right, and one from the player sitting two seats to the right.
After the hands are drafted, there is a round of actions during which each player will play two of their three action cards and discard the third. These actions are played in turn order (twice around the table).
7 of the 9 action cards show one of the sections in a player's borough: the cloister, the bank, the residence, the carriage house, the park, the hospital, and the hotel. When a player plays one of these cards he takes an influence cube from his supply, places it in the appropriate section and takes the associated action. The sections give escalating rewards based on the number of cubes already in them. They include things such as getting more coins (used to buy the services of influential persons and contribute to the church), getting more influence cubes (if you ever run out you have to start pulling them from other sections), getting victory points, pest control (more on that later), and so on.
One card shows a trusted friend and allows the player to move his trusted friend marker (a pawn) into any of his seven sections and take the associated action as if he had just placed a cube; it behaves more or less like a wild card.
One of the action cards shows Notre Dame. When a player plays that card he places an influence cube on the Notre Dame tile and he must pay a donation to the church. Depending on how much he donates, he is rewarded with a number of influence points. Furthermore, at the end of each three round period, there are a number of influence points which will be divided among the cubes placed on the tile. If you're cube is the only cube in Notre Dame at the end of the period you stand to score big but if everyone has decided to contribute to Notre Dame during that period then you aren't going to score very many points.
Also on the table are three randomly selected person cards. After the action rounds, players may each buy the services of one of the three persons shown. Each one offers some special ability such as the ability to score based on the configuration of cubes on the board or perhaps the ability to take some bonus action in addition to the normal two.
The final thing that players must deal with at the end of each round is the plague. Each player has a small track in their borough with a black cube on it that represents the threat from the plague. At the end of each round, this cube will be advanced a number of spaces equal to the number of rats shown at the bottom of the three person cards, subtracted by the number of cubes the player has in his hospital section. If the plague marker ever goes past the ninth space the player is penalized two influence points and he also must remove an influence cube from his section with the most cubes. This is a pretty nasty penalty and players who neglect to pay attention to pest control may find that they are paying it repeatedly.
While the rules are fairly simple, Notre Dame is a relatively complex game with many different ways to score points, many potential avenues to victory. One of the hallmarks of a good game is that players are faced with many desirable options between which they are forced to choose. When I play Notre Dame, I always wish that I had more actions than I do and I always find myself wondering if perhaps I should have made a different choice than the one I just made. There is no question in my mind that this is a relatively deep game that holds up well over repeated playings.
This is also a very balanced game. There does not appear to be any one strategy that is obviously superior to another. They all have merits and in certain circumstances I could see any of them being successful. This seems to be supported by the fact that over several playings, all of our scores have tended to be relatively even and no single superior strategy has emerged.
If there is one aspect of the game that I could complain of it's the drafting mechanism. This is clearly designed to provide some much welcome player interaction and it mostly works very well. My only problem with it is that since cards are always passed to the left, players spend the entire game at the mercy of the player to their right. If the player to your immediate right notices that you are pursuing a particular strategy, she can refuse to pass you the cards you need in order to execute your strategy. And if she happens to be pursuing the exact same strategy, then you had better change strategies quickly because you can bet that she'll have far more success at it than you will. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor problem and if players are flexible enough in their strategies they should be able to overcome it.
All in all, I think that this one shortcoming and the thin theme are more than outweighed by the wonderful, rich game play. This is a beautiful and elegant game that is well worthy of joining the other games in the prestigious Alea line. I definitely recommend it.