Released in 2007 by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Stefan Feld. For 2-5 players.
Notre Dame is themed around nobles controlling the districts in the region of the titular cathedral. Experientially, however, much of it is about obstinate behaviour, rather than noble conduct.
I’ll come to why later. First, the surrounding framework of rules had better be tackled. This being a Stefan Feld game, things are fairly fiddly.
Notre Dame is typical of the prolific Feld’s designs, in that it offers players a spaff of assorted unweildy mechanisms they must divide their attention between in order to generate prestige points. However, it does keep turn-by-turn decisions manageable through limiting a player’s options using a small selection of cards.
Each player has a personal mini-deck of nine cards, representing the nine possible regular actions in the game. Each round, the player draws three cards from his or her deck, choosing one to keep, then passes the remaining two to his or her neighbour to the left. Of course, each player also receives two cards from the neighbour on the other side. One is selected to be kept, and the other is again passed to the left.
In principle, during this phase it should be important to consider not only what card you want yourself, but also what you will give your neighbour. In practice, with more than two players you’re usually better off focusing on keeping cards that suit you, rather than denying your neighbour: aggressive play in this phase can only directly affect one immediate opponent (your neighbour), meaning a player who does not choose the best card to boost his or her personal score does so knowing that the attack will have no effect on any third party player.
The opportunity to activate the cards follows. In turn, each player chooses a single card and uses its effect, then – after all players have done this – each plays a second card. The third is not used.
Many actions tempt players to flirt with extreme play. For instance, when the residence card is played, a player takes a cube from his personal supply and places it in the matching section of his or her part of the board. For every cube in that section, including the one just placed, the player receives a prestige point. Thus, with directed play, the player might find himself or herself gaining six or seven points from each time this action is used in later rounds (and, very occasionally, even more).
The bank, meanwhile, yields coins in the same way. Though these do not, in themselves, count towards victory there are a number of opportunities to spend these to gain prestige points.
Other actions concern limiting the ill effects of rats, which if not attended to, can be a pain in the arse. The spread of rats is represented by the position of a black cube (a rat) on the beautifully named ‘plague track.’ To combat rats, a player can take either the park or hospital action. In the short term the placement of a cube in either of these districts allows a player immediately to move the rat back one space on this track.
At the end of each round the rat may advance. How far the rat should move is determined by three common cards (revealed at the beginning of each round, called person cards). On the bottom of each may be one or more rats (up to three), though some do have none. The number of rats shown equals the distance the rat should move (though the number of cubes currently in the hospital area is subtracted from this distance). If a player’s rat should move beyond the last space on the track, the player loses two prestige points, and one cube from the board. Also, the rat stays in the last place on the track – meaning it can, and probably will – bite again and again.
This is not the only significance of person cards, however – the people on them are not merely rat-wielding weirdos. Before the rat advances, each player can pay a coin to use the special power offered by one of the three people. For instance, the doctor reduces the plague value for that player to zero (which, if the player has cubes in the hospital, will mean the rat marker moving backwards), while the beggar king gives a player a prestige point for each space beyond the rat on the rat track. Thus, like in the rest of the game, there’s a balance between averting plague-related disaster, and gaining points.
After every three rounds one extra phase occurs. Players who have used cards during the regular rounds of the game to make donations to the cathedral (which converts money to prestige points), gain extra prestige points – in proportion to their share of the total number of visits to the cathedral made by all players. For example, in a three player game, there will be eight prestige points distributed in this phase (providing at least one player visited, of course). If two players visited a single time each, both would gain four points.
Often, visiting Notre Dame becomes the subject of some form of stand-off. Unless a player has really focused on using the bank, the need to pay at least one coin to place a cube at the cathedral can make visiting feel costly (money is often scarce – and paying to activate a person card frequently offers better value for the coin spent). However, if a player is left to visit Notre Dame alone, he or she gains a lot of cheap points from doing so.
Thus, it becomes about obstinacy, stubbornness (and the luck of the draw). If one player has already visited Notre Dame, who is going to be the second to go, in order to reduce the haul of points for that first player? It’s a job you’ll regularly find yourself wishing someone else would do (because the more players at Notre Dame, the less each gets).
Stubbornness to some degree characterizes Notre Dame as a whole. Frequently, I’ll pass a couple of cards, knowing one of them would be perfect for the player two to my left. I don’t want to have to keep it: it really doesn’t suit my plans, so I’ll let my neighbour do the dirty work instead (hopefully). Even within his or her own district, a player will often do all he or she can to focus on one section, whatever the wider consequences. For instance, single-minded attention to the residence, with its prestige point pyramid, can win the game even if the plague is left to run wild (though I do not mean to suggest this approach is the strongest in all circumstances, or especially simple to put into practice effectively).
Kind nobles, with clean, healthy districts, are by no means automatically rewarded with victory in this game.
Nevertheless, Notre Dame does a lot in a time-frame of around an hour. It balances different approaches reasonably well, and provokes tough, but not overwhelming decisions. It’s a mess of different systems, but processable (unlike other of Feld’s games – Macao, in particular, I found a trial with its pfaffy card combinations). Just be aware that many of the decisions in Notre Dame are difficult, at least in part, for being mildly sour.