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Review of Notre Dame

After my initial two games of Notre Dame, I played three more times. I don't know if there was a clear consensus at the Gathering, but I didn't hear any complaints about Alea's latest offering. The (basic) theme has players earning points and helping build Notre Dame, while trying to avoid catching the plague, brought in by rats. [The theme isn't particularly strong].

Each player has a district with seven buildings, and randomly places their four message tiles in designated intersections. Your carriage starts in the district center, and you have four available people (cubes), and a special friend (pawn). Each district touches the cathedral of Notre Dame at two corners. [The physical design is amazing. There is a triangular Notre Dame for three players, a square for 2 or 4, and a pentagon for five. Each district is an oddly shaped thing, you just match the side length with Notre Dame, so the board looks great with any number].

Each player has nine cards. Seven of them correspond to a district in his region, and let you place a cube from your supply on that district and activate it. Districts let you:

* Get more people (equal to the number already in the building)
* Get gold (ditto)
* Get VP (ditto)
* Move your carriage (a number of spaces equal to the number of cubes) and collect the message. Messages are worth 1-4 VPs, and may have a special ability.
* Kill a rat, and earn bonus VP for every two cubes in the district whenever you earn VP. [This is the Park].
* Kill a rat, and reduce the effects of the plague each turn. [The Hospital].
* Get a cube from the supply, or VP, or kill a rat. However, multiple cubes don't help here, unless you get four. [The hotel].

The 8th card lets you place your "special friend" on the board. He acts like a cube, but that card lets you pick the district. If/when you play it later, you must move your friend to another district. [If you run out of cubes from your supply, you must remove use a cube from the board.]

The final card lets you build in Notre Dame, which costs some money, but earns VP (more money, more VPs).

Each turn (out of nine), three residents of Paris will be turned up. They can be hired to help you out, and also let you know how bad the plague will be (each resident shows 0-3 rats). Then you (randomly) draw three of your nine cards. Players take one, then pass the remainder to the left. Of the two cards you receive, you keep one and pass the final one. So each player ends up with three cards (from three different players).

Players go around the table taking actions twice, and discard (unseen) the final card. Then each player has the option of hiring one (of the three) friends and getting the associated benefit. Finally, each player ups their plague track by the number of rats shown (-1 for each cube in the hospital). Any player who goes above 9 points on the plague track must kill a cube in the most crowded region and lose two VPs, then resets to nine.

After three rounds, Notre Dame scores a number of points (divided up equally by all cubes there). Those cubes are removed, but the cubes in each district stay. After three rounds, you count up points (no special end of game scoring).

Notre Dame plays quickly (experienced groups should be able to finish in an hour), and provides good decisions. You want to avoid the plague, but I've seen players suffer horribly (three turns or so) and tie. Notre Dame's points are nice, but not overwhelming. You can earn just as much (or more) focusing on messages, or the VP space, or getting a few cubes in the park. [The general consensus is that the Hotel is too weak, and I like the variant that earns a second action at three cubes, instead of four]. I've seen players grab lots of cubes, and others just move their cubes around.

In short, there are lots of ways to win.

But there may not be lots of ways each time. Notre Dame is a drafting game. If the player to your right is intent on delivering messages, don't expect many carriage cards. Since you only play two out of three cards, you can sometimes take a slightly inferior card (for you) to deny it to your left hand opponent. This means that the oft heard cry "I lost because X was sitting the the new player's left" can be levelled (fairly) here. So be it.

Like any game with cards, Notre Dame has luck. If you draw your three best cards at once, you only get one. The order that friends show up is important, but tightly constrained. Six friends show up in pairs, and get reshuffled after every three turns. The other nine show up in order, but show up in specific "Eras" (A/B/C). Again, you may hit a turn where all three of the friends are 'good for you' (and you can only buy one), while someone following a different strategy may get their favorite friends on three sequential turns.

But I find the luck to be fairly small, at least at the level of newer players. No doubt if everyone played at a high level the luck would dominate. But skill matters (particularly for drafting). I don't think Notre Dame rises to the level of the Alea greats, but I gladly shouldered the burden of five plays last week. Deep enough to fill sixty minutes pleasantly.

Since my wife likes Notre Dame quite a bit, I'll almost certainly buy this when Rio Grande's version hits the shelves (and I would have taken a German version off the prize table, were there any left when it got to me). The cards have no text, but you do need to know the rules and what the 15 friends do. The icons work nicely, after your first two games or so.

Recommended.

(Review originally appeared on BoardGameGeek.com, by Brian Bankler)

 
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