Notre Dame: A four-sided game review

Notre Dame boxNotre Dame is a light-to-medium complexity board game for two to five players. The game shouldn’t run longer than an hour, although it might with four (slow players) or five. It is considered to be one of respected game designer Stefan Feld’s best games, winning numerous award nominations after its release in 2007.

At its core this is a simple game of choosing actions and placing ‘workers’ via card choices. These actions variously reward you with money, victory points, bonuses, or ways to stave off the ever-present threat of rats. But what really makes the game sing is the card drafting (see below).

While the game isn’t strongly themed while playing, the box art and components do a good job of getting the medieval theme across; a parchment effect rulebook and map pieces, plus period-style card art and map effects – although I’m not sure about the Quasimodo start player piece…

Overall, the component quality is solid. The oddly shaped yet eye-catching map pieces are individual (identical) city sectors, with a different layout used depending on the number of players. These fit together in a novel way which is very easy on the eye. Beyond this it’s the usual card stock, cardboard and wooden cube faire you’d expect from a quality publisher.

Setting the board up the first few times can be a bit of a puzzle, but generally Notre Dame is simple to set up. Each player’s cubes, cardboard chits and action cards are colour-coded and while the game has quite a lot going on it has very few moving parts. You make two card stacks, a few piles of chits (victory points and money) and away you go.

Teaching

The blue player’s cards

Like many euro games that have a short and repetitive round structure, Notre Dame is relatively easy to teach. The eight-page A4 rulebook only really has four pages of rules; the rest is a slightly convoluted explanation of all the cards and actions.

There is also a handy crib sheet which has an explanation of each of the game’s bonus cards (these have bonuses that can be bought at the end of each round). The cards do have icons on them, but they’re not the easiest to get your head around, so the crib sheet might see a lot of use.

The game lasts nine rounds and each player has an identical set of nine cards. On each round you will randomly draw three of these cards as a hand, so will go through the whole set three times during the game.

However, in each round you choose one action card to keep and then pass the other two to your left, receiving the unwanted cards from the player to your right. You will do this twice, again leaving you with three cards, but you will only get to play two of them per round. Occasionally these decisions are simple – most of the time not so!

While adding a fascinating dynamic to the game, it also means players are likely to see every action card played at least once within those first three rounds. As the game essentially rinses and repeats three times (with only the bonus cards changing – but these are common knowledge and can be used by everyone, so are easy to explain as they come up), most players will have a strong grip on things after that first run through.

The four sides

The 'board' is made of up to five of these. There are seven city areas, plus the rat track

The ‘board’ is made of up to five of these. There are seven city areas, plus the rat track

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: A good game, it does things differently enough from its peers to stand out, while bringing something of its own to the party. Notre Dame scores well on both of these counts, while offering plenty to both experienced and new players. Scoring is nicely managed here too; like with many Feld games, things tend to end up close on points but you get the feeling the player who played best won. And you really are going to be making agonising decisions every few rounds.
  • The thinker: I’m close to being on the fence on this one, but in the end it does just about win me over. There aren’t many chances to really plan ahead, while the routes to victory are limited and the random factor larger than I’d like. But for a one-hour experience it offers a fascinating puzzle that is just different enough each time to hold my interest; quite a feat for a game with so few components. It’s not one I’d pick off the shelf often, but I’m always happy to play.
  • The trasher: Notre Dame is very much a take it or leave it game for me. It’s not too bad and doesn’t outstay its welcome, but despite the card drafting there’s very little real interaction or opportunity for awesome moves. It does get the balance right between strategy and tactics, but what you’re doing simply doesn’t get my juices flowing. You trickle along, getting a point here and a point there, and then it’s over. Clever? Sure; absorbing? Not for me.
  • The dabbler: I like this one! The components are lovely and the gameplay is straightforward, but the choices are tricky and it can be really nerve-racking waiting to see what your neighbour is going to pass you. You can also push your luck to an extent, risking the horror of the rats (see below) while taking all the good stuff you can! While it’s a bit above a gateway game it goes down well with non-gamers who have a bit about them – as long as they’ve not had too many drinks!

Key observations

You'll get a choice of benefiting from one of these each round. Note the rats on the bottom of each card

You’ll get a choice of benefiting from one of these bonus cards each round, if you have a coin. Note the rats on the bottom of each card

Rats. Why did it have to have rats? Why can’t we just score a gazillion points with no danger instead of agonising over every turn thanks to these dastardly vermin? Woe is me etc etc.

This is the rather pitiful cry of the Notre Dame naysayer – and euro game whingers in general. But it seems to be the big talking point when it comes to this game, so it seems to be worth addressing. I guess you’ve already worked out my opinion…

A little context. Each player has a ‘rat track’ that starts at zero and goes up to nine. If you ever let your rat counter go above nine, you’ll face a few penalties as the plague arrives on your ships. Worse still, taking this penalty doesn’t do much to reduce the threat: your rat counter will still be at ‘nine’ on the rat track for the start of the next turn.

Rats will arrive every round – normally three or four, but it can be a few more (or less) – so the threat is ever present after the first couple of rounds. However, there are several action cards and bonus cards that mitigate the danger more than adequately, so only poor (or deliberately dangerous) play, coupled with some bad luck, will see the plague hit. I think I’ve seen one player hit by the plague in more than 10 games of Notre Dame.

Rather than being a negative, I see the rat counter as a big tick in the game’s favour. If it weren’t there the game would totally lack tension; it would purely be a march to a large victory point haul and would totally lose its soul. While some games do take mitigating bad times to levels where I can see why people hate it (feeding in Agricola for example – I personally disagree, but see it as a valid reason why people don’t like the game), this certainly isn’t one of them. It’s time to man-up people: this is a feature, not a curse!

Conclusion

Quasimodo guarding the money and victory point tokens

Quasimodo guarding the money and victory point tokens

Despite getting back into board games in a big way, my ears still only really prick up when I hear one designer’s name: Stefan Feld. Having now played seven of his games, four of those would easily make my top 50 game list – probably the top 20. Notre Dame would be in, or close to, my top 10.

I’m a sucker for the randomness of cards, especially when that randomness is tightly constrained as it is here. You’re all facing the same set of circumstances – its not about who is lucky enough to land on Park Lane the first time around the board.

Secondly, I’m also a sucker for worker placement games – especially ones where the paths to victory are clearly defined, yet tricky to pull off. This is a problem for me in another of his popular designs, Trajan – a game I see as a bit of a mess (or point soup, as some wags describe it), despite having a nice enough time when I play it. Notre Dame is far more elegant.

I currently rate Notre Dame a 9 out of 10, on an equal footing with all the other greats in my collection (with the exception of Race for the Galaxy, still my only 10). And it holds the record for biggest bargain too – how this found its way into The Works for less than £10 a couple of years back will always baffle me. It’s a game I’d recommend to pretty much anyone and if you need someone to teach you it, just pay my fare to yours and we’ll see what we can do…

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  1. Pingback: My top 50 board and card games | Go Play Listen

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