Designer: Stefan Feld
Artist: Harald Lieske
Publisher: Alea / Ravensburger
Notre Dame is one of the earliest Feld in my collection. I recall the game being light and relatively simple, rules wise. Since then, Feld has become a household name and his games have well well-received. I wouldn’t be surprised if Notre Dame is slated for a remake soon. In the mean time, it’s been a while since I visited the title and in my recent quest to find simpler games, this will be hitting the table more often.
Notre Dame is a card drafting game that probably came out in an era when card drafting was not as plentiful. From 7 Wonders to Sushi Go and Greed, the mechanism is practically everywhere now. In the game, players have 9 cards, drawing three each time, selecting one and then passing around the rest. After drafting a hand of 3 cards, players will play two in sequential turn order and discard the remaining card. In this way, each round will see 2 cards being played and a phase lasts for 3 rounds in which all 9 action cards are selected and passed around. After each round when 2 cards are played, players will get to purchase one person from a choice of 3 personalities that are randomly drawn for each round. Personality cards allow for some specialization to the game because they provide benefits or scoring bonuses for the players that select them. They also bring need much needed variety to the game. As is typical for Feld designed games, a mechanism to induce tension is added to the end of each round. Players count up the total number of rats that appear on each personality card on display and move a plague marker forward a number of spots on a track. When the track is maxed out, a penalty will be imposed.
It’s cliche to say this, but the actions on the card are laughably Euro to the core. You draft and play cards mainly to place cubes on the board. The more cubes you play on your regions, the more benefits you will get. For example, for each influence cube you place on the bank, you will get one coin plus one more coin for each preexisting cube on the board. So when you play the bank action card and place a cube, you will get as many coins as your cubes in that district. Importantly, each player has their own board with similar layouts. So player cubes really don’t mix and match.
Other actions that trigger the same compounding cube effect include placing cubes to earn prestige points, obtaining more cubes from the general to personal supply, reducing the impact of the plague by investing cubes in hospitals or parks and moving the carriage to different marketplaces across different districts to collect scoring chits. The carriage movement and scoring is another way to score points and introduces a spatial component to the game. Players move their carriage to different marketplaces across different player districts to collect scoring tokens. There is a set collection aspect to carriage movement as one needs to collect a complete set of colors from all the different players board before starting on a second set. So, the further your carriage moves, the more ground you can cover and the more tokens you can collect.
Finally, one can also play cards to put cubes in Notre Dame to score instant and end of round prestige points or play the trusted friend card to move the trusted friend token from one district to the next to activate the district powers without having to place a cube.
Notre Dame is decidedly old school. It is an old school cube placement Euro with relatively old school scoring. Surprisingly, Notre Dame has none of the point salad scoring or turn order tracks that are standard hallmarks for a Feld design. There are a few things I enjoy about the game: it is quick. A 2 player game can come under an hour, perhaps even less. Overall, the decision space is pretty limited. You get 3 cards each round and you decide which ones to draft. There is very little downtime and card play is snappy since most of the decisions are made during drafting. So, there is little left to ponder when you decide which cards to play first except in a few circumstance involving Notre Dame scoring and the carriage movement where turn order matters. Like any solid Euro, you will have some “angsty” decisions to make during drafting. Almost all card actions are decent and useful, and so selection can be tough because you want to do them all, but you can’t. Every action has an opportunity cost and unlike other complex games where that cost is hidden among layers of complexity, in Notre Dame, the sacrifices you make in after each decision will hit you squarely in the face immediately. Choosing to take cubes instead of money means you will struggle with Notre Dame scoring or purchasing a personality. Taking the money instead of cubes means you will have to start redistributing your preexisiting cubes from other districts, which reduces efficiency. Each decision presents a trade off and the outcomes are clear as day. I like it.
I feel that Notre Dame is also the rare game that features multiple viable ways to victory. On paper, there are several ways to earn prestige points, and some may feel stronger than others. But I am surprised at how robust and competitive some of the routes for scoring are. For example, it is possible to go for a cube-lite strategy and redistribute cubes instead of just getting more cubes to place in districts. I initially thought cube redistribution is a losing strategy. I was wrong. You can win by not taking that many cubes from the general supply. Similarly, one can completely ignore Notre Dame scoring and still come out tops. I have a feeling that a carriage-heavy strategy or scoring prestige point directly from your district is also a possible victory strategy, particularly if every body is passing on these cards during drafting, allowing a player to score points over and over again on the same category. I am actually quite curious about these approaches. Still, there are some constraints to these different routes to take for earning points. You are very much so limited by the cards passed to you. You will see each of your cards three times during the game, but it helps greatly if you also get to draft the desired cards from your neighbors.
Looking back at the ratings, I considered Notre Dame to be average. I have to be honest and say that the game has aged, mechanistically speaking. The game doesn’t really feel unique in any way and it is clearly a product of its time. That, is not a bad thing at all unless you are a member of the Cult-of-the-New. Playing Notre Dame is the same as eating comfort food: It is good, it is soothing, you know what you like and that is what you get. For folks new to the scene, I think Notre Dame is a good step up from your entry level games and has enough material and complexity in there to bridge the gap between a newcomer and a seasoned veteran. Finally, I think the game is better with more than two players. It works well enough with two, but it feels like the card drafting is slightly more restrictive and perhaps certain strategies have a better chance to shine with more players, especially the cards that might be considered “weaker” since you will see more than 2 copies being passed around during drafting.
Alea still has the game in print with the new 10th Anniversary edition. This new version includes some of the personality cards introduced as expansions. This is worth getting. The additional personality cards does open things up, but more cards also means more variability and since some scoring cards that are you expecting to come up may never see the light of day.