In 1163 construction of Notre Dame de Paris began. It was to be the spiritual centre for France and the tallest building in the city for centuries. Construction took almost 200 years to be fully completed and several different architects. Mary, Queen of Scots was married there, Napoleon held his coronation in its chambers and it was the setting for Victor Hugo’s famous tale of the hunchbacked bell ringer among countless other historical and fictional tales. Even today this feat of human accomplishment is a central point in modern Paris.
Stefan Feld’s Notre Dame pays tribute to the famous cathedral. Set at the end of the 14th century, players take on the role of influential families trying to gain reputation and wealth. Each player controls a neighbourhood and the different buildings within. Just as in real life, Notre Dame is the centre of the city with a different set up for 3-5 players.
Notre Dame is played through nine rounds with five phases to each round. Players will get to execute two actions per round and may hire someone from a collective pool for a third bonus action. Just like olde tyme Paris, rats are a constant problem. If you fail to control the rat population in your district there will be consequences.
At the start of each round the person cards are laid out, giving players a chance to see who they may want to hire. The person cards also indicate how much the rat population will grow at the end of the round. Then players will choose their action cards. This is done through an interesting draft. Each player will take the top three cards from their action deck and select one and then pass them to the left hand side. They select again and the last card is passed on, so that each player has a hand of three action cards. Starting with the first player they will execute actions one at a time until each player has taken two actions. The third is discarded face down under the second action card played so no one gets to see what it is.
So, what actions can you do with these cards? Each action card relates to a different section in your neighbourhood. As you play the action card you are able to add an influence cube to that section of town. The number of cubes dictates how well you can execute that action. So, if you play the Bank action card you add an influence cube to the Bank section of your neighbourhood and then take coins from the supply equal to the number of cubes you have there. The Residence will allow you to take points equal to the cubes you have there and Cloister School frees up more influence cubes for you to put out. The Carriage House allows you to travel around your district (spaces equal to the number of cubes) and pick up bonuses along the way. The Trusted Friend is a wild card of sorts allowing you to go to any of the different sections and execute their action. The Hotel gives you the choice of coins, influence cubes or gets rid of rats. The Park allows you to move the rat marker down one space and every two cubes in the Park gets you a point. The Hospital allows you to reduce the amount of rats added. Finally the Notre Dame card allows you place an influence cube in the (surprisingly) Notre Dame space in the middle of the board. Executing this action requires you to donate one, two or three coins to the church, earning you one, three or six points. At the end of the third, sixth and ninth rounds points are awarded to players with influence cubes in Notre Dame and then the cubes are removed.
After everyone has executed two actions, players in turn can hire one of the face-up people for the round. Each person costs one coin to hire regardless of who it is. Some people will give you rewards, like the Money Lender, who provides two coins and one prestige point or the Monk, who gives two influence cubes and a point. Others, like the Minstrel or the Fool allow you to move influence cubes around your neighbourhood. Finally there are some such as the City Guard or the Lady of the Court that give you points based on the conditions of the board. It’s optional to hire anyone, but you must be able to pay their fee if you decide to do so.
Now what would a Stefan Feld game be without a looming threat? That brings us to the final phase of each round, the plague. During the plague phase players assess the the rat population in their district. Based on the number of rats shown on the bottom of each of the three person cards that are turned up at the start of the round the rat marker in the Harbour section of everyone’s neighbourhood gets raised. Players can reduce that number by taking the Hospital action or lower the rat number by taking the Park action. It’s good to keep that rat population under control too. Ignore and you’ll be paying the piper. Whenever the plague would push a player’s token past nine on the rat track, they lose 2 points and one influence cube from the section that has the most. The rat marker gets placed back on nine, a dangerous position to be in for the next round.
After the ninth round Notre Dame is scored one more time and the game comes to an end. The player with the most prestige points is the winner.
This is fourth published game by Feld and you can see him really starting to hit his stride and develop his voice as a designer with Notre Dame. It’s a much more straight forward game than some of his later efforts, but I consider that a good thing. More recent games have occasionally been criticized as ‘point salads’ with a too many mechanics thrown together. They still get a lot of love and attention, but it could be argued that they lack some of the simple elegance of Notre Dame. Now, this game is not without it’s flaws. The Hotel action is considered notoriously bad and unnecessary, but I chalk that up to a minor flaw by a young designer.
Notre Dame is well worth checking out. If you’re new to Feld you’ll enjoy a solid Euro with interesting, engaging mechanics. If you’re a fan of his later games it might be fun for you to check out an earlier design and see where one of the most influential minds in gaming started to develop his craft.