Aaron, myself and our friend Jason recently played Notre Dame, a game designed by Stefan Feld that is part of the Alea Big Box series (Puerto Rico, etc). The game is relatively popular and was nominated for several awards when it was first publisher in 2007. Below is a conversation we had discussing the design of the game and our play experience.
Jordan: anyone that’s played a game in this series will recognize how Notre Dame operates. For me it felt very similar to Puerto Rico, and I’m saying that because it’s the benchmark game in this particular genre; it’s a German-style game with lots of tiny markers, a focus on economy and resources management and converting your various pieces into something.
Aaron: it felt relatively solitary. Interaction consisted of a few components, but it was all indirect.
Jason: the Puerto Rico comparison is pretty strong in terms of game mechanics, dealing with resource management, etc. In addition, the type of learning curve was similar; it’s not particularly a difficult game, but there are so many features going on that you have no idea what you’re doing in your first game. You’re unable to strategize until you see it at the end.
Jordan: that’s how I feel as well. It’s always unfortunate to feel like you’re stumbling through the first game and have to throw up your hands. I don’t know if that’s good design or not.
Aaron: I think it shows complexity. It may border on bad design if the complication masks the elegance.
Jason: is it complicated for the sake of being complicated? I think that would be an issue. If it’s complicated because it allows interesting, subtle interactions, I’m willing to forgive that indiscretion of being unable to understand it in the first play-through.
Aaron: it feels very balanced and fair, so you could get excited about it and plan out your turn without worrying. I liked that stability.
Jason: what you’re saying reminds me of Dominion or any of those drafting games that’s very focused on each player’s solitaire game. Everyone can do anything any other player is allowed.
Jordan: it’s certainly mixing in the card drafting craze while retaining its roots, but I’m not sure if pushes itself to either. The card drafting bit was pretty minor.
Jason: how do you feel about the interaction in the game?
Jordan: none of it felt particularly crucial. I counter-drafted one time, but overall the interaction elements felt tacked-on. The carriage felt particularly weak to me.
Jordan: I think interaction is interesting and good, but then again I also like Race for the Galaxy (RftG). The reason I like games like RftG is that you feel like you’re building something: you get to play in your sandbox and build something and plan out this grand strategy and see it come to fruition. That’s satisfying. I didn’t receive that from Notre Dame.
Aaron: that’s one thing I felt this game lacked. In those solitaire games, there’s a sense of satisfaction when you get a strategy going and it feels good to see all the parts come together.
Aaron: the plague is one of the more interesting mechanics of the game. We definitely all underestimated how it would work, so we were all like “yeah yeah I’ll deal with that later” and then it suddenly became a huge problem. I liked that it was unignorable—you had to deal with it. It was one of the more satisfying parts of the game. It felt like a direct threat that you had to address, and it felt good to figure that out.
Jordan: I enjoyed the plague counter. I mostly enjoyed seeing the shared pain and watch everyone squeak by disaster. It was one of the few times where I was actually looking at other people’s boards. It also served as an interesting cap on unbridled economic engines that you can often build in games like Dominion that are unstoppable. The plague sets that in check and doesn’t let you do that.
Aaron: one thing I liked about the game is the timing and pacing of the game. It didn’t feel too long, and the turns felt quite natural, I don’t think we had to look at the rulebook for the turn rules.
Pain points, weaknesses
Aaron: I felt like there were too many resources. How do you guys feel about that? It seemed like there were too many paths to victory.
Jordan: I think you’re right, but I don’t think they all lead to victory. In fact I think some were simply distractions and I don’t know if any were particularly built out.
Jason: that’s exactly what I was going to say. For instance, gold in the game can either be donated to the church, or used to purchase the services of the people. I think that’s it. So it felt like an unnecessary variable. It was a binary characteristic—you either needed it or you didn’t. There wasn’t a huge incentive to get a whole lot. Other things I didn’t really get: the carriage or the hotel.
Jordan: the hotel felt like a jack of all trades, but in a game that’s devoted to min maxing, I don’t know if it ends up being useful. I tried it in the beginning, but it felt like a trap. I think I was fooled into thinking that all the districts were equally valid options, but I don’t think that’s true.
Aaron: I was shocked at how strong the park was: I didn’t realize there were so many micro-transactions during the game, so it just propelled your score.
Jason: I would remove variables. Gold is unnecessarily simple. I just want to trim down to some more essential elements so people can more easily see it for what it is. I feel like there are red herrings on the board or in play.
Jason: there might be other cool strategies hidden in there, like bursting Notre Dame with lots of gold and shutting others out, but I didn’t see that many other options.
Jordan: it’s such a game of minor actions; it’s hard to say what pushed you over the edge. It’s a game of small accumulation.
Aaron: to me it’s a matter of perspective: In Notre Dame I can’t see past the next turn; I don’t feel like I am building toward something. The game seems to have a lot going on, which makes it more difficult to see how it works together.
Jason: I do think the game has a myopic view on the overall strategy. It feels very self-contained between turns—maximize points while mitigating negative factors, namely the plague.
Aaron: I would continue to play it. But I didn’t have a strong feeling for it; nothing really drew me to play again. But I’m intruiged a little bit.
Jason: I agree a great deal there. I didn’t have that draw to compel me to play the game over and over. I didn’t see the potential for so much exploration and diverging paths and different ways to play the game that I would be expecting. I think I’d rather play Puerto Rico, which feels deeper. That said, I would be up for playing this game again several more times but I don’t think the replayability would go beyond that point.
Jordan: the visuals were very difficult to decipher. Something like hieroglyphs; I think it added to the muddled understanding of how the game works. It requires people to flip through the rulebook rather than visually imagining a strategy on the board.