Gaming Unplugged: Notre Dame

June 20, 2010

In Stefan Feld’s Notre Dame, published by Rio Grande Games, each player represents an influential Parisian noble looking to rise to the top of the social ladder by gaining prestige. Each player begins with three gold coins and four influence markers, plus nine action cards and their “trusted friend” pawn. Ten additional influence cubes per player are also included in a general supply for future use.   

The titular cathedral sits in the middle of the modular game board, assembled from 3-5 identical boroughs (one per player, with two players using two “dummy” districts in the four-player configuration) radiating outward like a flower. Within each borough are seven districts, five markets, a carriage, and a harbor. The four outer markets each contain one of four message tokens, distributed randomly at setup. Finally, each player places their black “rat cube” on the plague track located in their borough’s harbor.

The game consists of three periods of three rounds each (or nine total rounds). At the start of each round, three personality cards are revealed: two from the six-card brown deck that will be recycled each period, and one from the gray deck that will be gone through only once per game. The personalities in the gray deck are divided according to period so their abilities are more appropriate for their respective stages of the game. Each cards has from zero to three rat icons on the bottom, which indicates how far each player’s plague track will advance at the end of the round (more on that later).

Once the personalities for the round are known, each player randomly draws three of his action cards and selects one, then passing the other two to the player on his left. Each player then selects one of these two cards and passes the final card to the player on his left once more. Only two actions are taken each round, so the third card is hidden behind the second when it is played so players aren’t completely sure which actions have appeared in the period. At the end of each period all of the action cards are returned to their owners to begin the process again.

Each of the action cards represents one of the districts in the players’ boroughs, plus two additional cards. Most of the boroughs’ actions allow a player to place one of the influence cubes from his personal supply (or from a different district if he has none in his supply) on to it for a reward that scales with the number of influence markers on it. The first time one of these cards is used, the player receives the bonus at 1x (one coin, one cube from the general supply, one prestige point); each subsequent time the reward increases accordingly (two cubes = two coins/cubes/points, three cubes = three, etc.). The carriage house works along similar lines, with the number of market-to-market moves being indicated by the amount of influence on the district; however, only one message can be collected with each activation, and players must accumulate a message of each player’s color before they can collect a second one of that color (and must accumulate two of each before a third; if there are no more messages of a given color then they must complete their set as best as possible before moving on). The hospital district will reduce the number of rats gained at the end of the round by the amount of influence on it, in addition to moving the plague track one space each time a cube is placed on it. The park district also moves the plague track back one space whenever a cube is placed on it, but every two cubes on it also bestows an extra prestige point every time a player earns any, which can be quite powerful over the course of the game. The hotel district earns one coin, cube, or space on the plague track whenever a cube is placed on it; once the district has accumulated at least four cubes the player earns two of those rewards, but the hotel is still usually a last-resort option barring other strategic desciions. The only card not tied to a district is the “trusted friend” card, which acts as a free-roaming influence cube that can be placed anywhere within the borough (and must move off his current district when played in subsequent rounds). Finally, each player also has a Notre Dame card; playing this card allows the player to pay from one to three coins to earn 1, 3, or 6 prestige points and place one cube on Notre Dame. At the end of the period, the number of points available from Notre Dame (which varies according to the number of players) is divided by the number of cubes on it (rounded down) and each player scores that many points for each cube he has there.

Once each player has performed two actions, they may hire one of the three personalities for the round by spending a gold coin, then increase (or decrease, if their hospital and/or personality’s ability bring the rat total below zero) their plague track accordingly. If a player’s plague track would ever pass 9, they suffer a loss of two prestige points and must sacrifice an influence marker from whichever of his districts contains the most (or of his choice amongst tied districts) to the general supply. It’s also worth remembering that the plague track remains maxed out in this situation, so it is very likely that the player will suffer this penalty again unless he gets the situation under control.

By far the most defining strategic feature of Notre Dame is the mini-drafting of the actions each round. You can’t really go into a session with a pre-planned strategy in mind, as the cards you need to execute it might not come up in time or be passed to you, so you have to remain flexible and be able to find the best avenue to victory presented to you. Not knowing which personalities will appear each round (except for the final round of each period, if you’re paying attention) is a factor in this as well. The prestige points earned by each player is kept hidden (sadly, the tokens provided aren’t one-sided like the ones in Small World; usually player hide their stack under spare coins or messages, trading up for higher-values as necessary), creating the possibility for a surprise winner. A typical session of Notre Dame surprisingly plays put in under an hour, usually around 45 minutes, but it will make a lasting impression on the group in that brief time.