Review: Notre Dame: 10th Anniversary

Designer: Stefan Feld
Artists: Harald Lieske
Publisher: Alea, Ravensburger
Category: Economic, Renaissance
Players: 2-5
Price: $29.29 Miniature Market
Notre Dame: 10th Anniversary is a reprint of the 2007 release by the same name. The first printing dates back to collaboration between Alea and Rio Grande Games. Notre Dame was designer Stefan Feld’s second game published by Alea.
Preceded by Feld’s Rum & Pirates, and followed by In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame is the 11th game in Alea’s big box series. This series includes other popular Alea titles, such as The Castles of Burgundy, Broom Service, and Puerto Rico.
The 10th Anniversary edition ships with one expansion: The New Persons. This expansion was originally included in 2009’s Alea Treasure Chest, which included expansions for various Alea big box games. Notre Dame: 10th Anniversary also ships with an exclusive expansion for The Castles of Burgundy, titled Trade Routes.

Content Guide

Notre Dame has players acting as nobles, bribing and shoving their way into influencing the quarters of Paris and the church of the Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a tad grimy, but hidden under mechanics. One of the person’s you can hire is a cleavage-bearing barmaid, but the persons’ illustrations are tame and likely accurate to the time period.

Review

As usual with these semi-historical games, I like to take a little stroll through history and Wikipedia. Shhh, don’t tell my professors from academia (apparently, Wikipedia simply isn’t a credible source). When looking into said history, other titles, such as The Castles of Mad King Ludwig, or Three Kingdoms Redux, offer more practical clarity on significant events which took place in years’ past. Like our recent article on Alea’s In the Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary reprint, the background of Notre Dame both tracks to many centuries ago, but thematically reaches from different cultural observations.

The common day Notre Dame Cathedral. (By Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54296849)

For one, a typical absurdity of the religious types of the day was that giving monetarily to the poor granted a higher religious status. This allowed one to be deemed more worthy than others solely due to their generosity. In tandem, the 1400s placed beggars in high regard, being considered a natural role in society.
The wealthy nobles of the day spent their money on hospitals, schools, and other local institutions to increase the growth of cities and peoples. I’m reaching here, but the drive to benefit society was derived from personal gain rather than making a difference. This is my speculation at least. Of course, the irony is: once the plagues hit in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, beggars and the poor were driven out, blamed as sources for the diseases, and totally unwanted.
With a historical perspective, I now have a bit of insight into the nobles of Stefan Feld’s Notre Dame. It’s a tad sinister. Rich folk coughing up their dough, led astray by the religious institution of the day. Dubious motives fill the table as players unsuspectingly slip into the roles of greasy, wealthy, French-types, building up the city of Paris. The seedy nature of becoming the “most wealthy” or “most influential” in board games by attaining the most victory points has never seemed so icky. I think it unfair to give Notre Dame a strike for inciting subtle sordidness among players, so I won’t. In fact, I think it’s mostly interesting to know the background because it ties together as you watch both the city and influence grow as the game draws to an end.
In Notre Dame, players are noble families, competing for the prestige and wealth of the city of Paris. These Parisians are spending time and money to increase the well-offness of the quarters surrounding the Notre Dame Cathedral. In Feld fashion, one will find many ways to acquire points for victory.

Many ways to victory in the city of Paris.

You might:
  • Donate money to the church of Notre Dame.
  • Gather messages with a carriage around the city.
  • Place influence into residential zones, scaling points.
  • Place influence into parks.
  • Hire a person.
Notre Dame provides many routes to victory, and one will not find success in pursuing only a single victory track.
Rounds look as follows:
  • Lay out 3 new person cards (people you can hire for special abilities).
  • Choose action cards (draw three, keep one, then draft two more from players on your right).
  • Play action cards (commit to various actions on your board, using influence markers).
  • Hire a person (these cost two coins each; you may only hire one).
  • Determine plague value (subtract any modifiers, then adjust all rat tracks).
  • Setup for next round (every third round has additional setup instruction).
At the end of all of this, the player with the most prestige points wins the game. Ties are broken by gold coins.

Card drafting becomes essential as you take what you need and deny your opponents.

If players were at the mercy of the draw from their own action decks, I think Notre Dame would be middle-of-the-road. Instead, what makes the game so interesting is card drafting. Players are always guaranteed a shot at every single action available to them, as their first draft comes from their own deck. That card you’ve been waiting for? It’s fresh and ready to go somewhere in-between every three rounds (decks are exhausted and reshuffled at the end of each third round).
Of course, the beauty of drafting means you might get the card you need from another player’s throwaways. In other words: you get what you need sooner than anticipated. The flip side is players also need to remember what their opponents are working towards. Taking cards they need can make it more difficult, though you’ll have to adjust your strategy. In addition, of the three cards you end up with, you will only play two of them, discarding the third.
In terms of what these cards actually do, most of them involve placing one of the available influence cubes from your supply onto the corresponding space, then taking that action.

Not the Cloister School, but you get the idea.

Players can place influence into the cloister school, therefore giving that player another cube for each cube already placed into the school. Placing cubes into the bank grants a coin for each cube already present. Cubes placed into the hospital will not only reduce the plague count by one, but also subtract numbers from the oncoming slew of rats into your part of the city. Players can also recruit a trusty friend, who not only counts as a cube, but can visit any of the locations on your board.
All available actions have players carefully counting and managing the different parts of their boroughs. Maybe you have interest in dragging your carriage around to local marketplaces in order to grab messages. These grant points, money, cures from the rats, or an extra cube. Of course, you cannot grab two of the same color until you complete a set, so you’ll need to travel around the board, likely requiring many cubes to move further. If you aren’t into traveling, maybe donating money to Notre Dame is more worthwhile to you. This grants points based on how much you can spare. It’s also a race, because every three rounds Notre Dame pays out prestige points—most to the more gracious givers at the table—then less points to the more frugal.

Starting equipment for the blue player.

Balancing your cubes becomes paramount, as players are limited in their starting supply. You’ll need to expand and receive additional cubes to compete with others. When you play a card requiring a cube and you have none, you’ll need to move a pre-existing cube to a new location. Maybe this works with your strategy. Maybe you are a cube minimalist. It’s all up to you. The trick, however, is learning to manage cubes, coins, and rats.
Once all players have finished their dance of playing actions, players will each have the chance to hire one of the three available persons. Each person will grant a special ability, but also bring rats into the city (more on that later). Six persons rotate through every three rounds, but players will also anticipate special A, B, and C persons, which act as one-time hires throughout the game. Skilled players will card count and be able to predict how they should draft cards, awaiting specific person cards, knowing when to have gold at the ready for the next round, and when gold doesn’t matter as much.

Oh, the people you can hire!

These persons (bar maids, beggar kings, nobility, etc.) can grant many extra points depending on how you’ve dispersed your cubes around your borough. Some give prestige for possessing lots of cubes in individual locations, while others give points for simply having presence in many locations. It’s kind of a toss up, but lends additional strategy for the experienced Notre Dame player. Of course, other persons will do things like give extra cubes, reduce plague markers, or make you completely immune to the rats for this round. I love the options this phase presents, but it also requires players to withhold two gold to even allow opportunity to use these new friends. They’ve also been illustrated, and add some character to the game. After many plays, you’ll grow more familiar with their effects by their expressions rather than the iconography beneath them.
Each person also depicts a nasty number of rats underneath. After hiring people, you’ll count up these rats, and each player will move their harbor’s rat track according to the amount of invaders. While some persons bring zero or one rats, some people can bring in up to three. This means you could get unlucky and your despicable rat track could jump from one, all the way up to seven or eight in a single round.

The dreaded rat track.

Once a player’s rat track fills, they are hit with a penalty. They must lose points and a cube on the board. It’s awful. This is why you must rely on the hospital to decrease the amount of rats that will enter your part of the city. Some players might ride the current, allowing fewer and fewer rats each turn, playing the odds of which cards will be drawn each round. Unfortunately, if the plague is strong, one might end up spending multiple actions on reducing their plague, spending very little time pursuing extra prestige points, making them a weak competitor for victory. The more wise and experienced around the table plan ahead, play the odds, and will secure victory.
Notre Dame is typically-styled as an Alea game. I’ve grown to love the unassuming nature of the artwork. Each Alea title is vibrant in its own way. The people are always interesting to look at. Tiny details might tip you off to their motives. The theme behind each character is totally interesting. The beggar king is valuable to society because he has some kind of mystical control over rats, meaning you receive none into your part of the city that round.

Three options for different player counts.

Each player board is a part of the city, and depending on the player count, it constructs Notre Dame differently. A three player setup uses a triangular Notre Dame tile, where five players use a pentagon, all connecting their boards to the centerpiece. Each player brandishes a neat stack of action cards in their own colors. Though the red player’s card look sort of orange, as players discard to a common pile, the refuse looks nice. It’s a fat stack of rainbow colors, and it kind of symbolizes the unintentional collaboration of the Parisian nobles to make Notre Dame and its surroundings more beautiful and lovely than ever.
The player boards are a little funny to look at. They are covered in a plain tannish color, and are a little underwhelming and difficult to understand at first. Thankfully, after only a few rounds, players will quickly pick up on how to manage their boards, using the action spaces to help determine what strategic direction to pursue.
The rulebook is excellent. Alea titles are thorough in explanation. Each rulebook provides ample example for each possible scenario. I was, however, a bit tripped up on how to explain carriages and needed to consult the Geek for further clarification. Aside from this tiny issue, the rulebook is an easy read, telling me everything I need to know to play and teach.

I love all the chits, but it sure is sad when they tear.

For a 10th Anniversary edition, I’m a little concerned with the overall quality control. After only two plays, my player boards began to curl. My home isn’t humid, so this was strange to me. Each board is thin and lifts a bit towards the center as they connect to Notre Dame. It’s like a weird cardboard peak that drops down into the valley of Notre Dame, apparently now deep in the canyon of Paris. On the same note, like In the Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary, I found myself needing caution to remove pieces from the cardboard sheets. A few gold coins were more peeled than I’m used to when punching chits. I think the damage is avoidable if you take care, maybe bringing a knife along to make sure you’ve punched everything perfectly.
The included expansion, New Persons, was previously included in the Alea Treasure Chest. This expansion adds 18 new persons for each of the three periods (A, B, and C) to be shuffled in and selected. These persons do many interesting things like doubling your current prestige score, reusing each message you currently own, hiring extra persons, and many other zany things. Because the persons are balanced for each period they appear in, I found each person we encountered to feel mostly fair, especially since players need to learn to have gold available to hire if they want to participate. All in all, New Persons adds enough variability to help mix Notre Dame up for re-playability. It’s not as interesting as The Great Wall from In the Year of the Dragon’s 10th Anniversary edition, but I still like it.

Trade Routes and New Persons.
(Left to right)

Notre Dame: 10th Anniversary also ships with a small expansion for The Castles of Burgundy, titled: Trade Routes. Castles is one of my all-time favorite games, and my wife and I played two 2-player games with the Trade Routes expansion this past weekend on our getaway. It adds a deck of cards with different action icons, and whenever you sell trade goods, if the sold good matches the color on the card, you get to use that action. This can result in some chain reactions, as Castles is famous for, but more importantly it gives trading the impetus it never had in the base game. Now, players play a little mini-game of matching up which goods they need in order to activate the specified actions. I really like it. Castles feels even more well-rounded because of it. To my understanding, Ravensburger/Alea will be selling the expansion separately down the road, so never fear! I do recommend pursuing Trade Routes, because it’s excellent.
Notre Dame is fun and interesting. It has that familiar Alea charm. Drafting cards make for great, tactical, decision-making. Balancing your losses with the plague meter is a cool mechanism. If you’ve not had a chance to play this Feld classic, I think it can find a lovely home on your bookshelf. It’s a worthy addition to the Big Box series, and despite the weird quality issues, if you don’t own the original, this is worth picking up.

The Bottom Line

Notre Dame: 10th Anniversary is another excellent Stefan Feld title, featuring card drafting, worthwhile decision-making, and a neat expansion. While I'm a tad underwhelmed by the "anniversary" art and components, the game itself is great, lending itself to many replays.

 

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