Notre Dame has been available on Brettspielwelt for a few months now, and I have played it quite a bit. Misleading pre-release reports compared it to Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence, but, after a game or two, the difference was obvious; ND sits in the same weight category as slightly lighter fare such as Torres, Blue Moon City and Ninety-Nine.
The only strikingly original idea in Notre Dame is the rat track—the rest hearkens back to Caylus, Fairy Tale and Pillars of the Earth. Stefan Feld did a good job of tweaking the borrowed mechanics, though, and they work well together—it does not feel derivative to me. There are some annoying pointy bits hanging off of what could have been a nice clean design, though. The Inn and the Park do not follow the same pattern of progression as the other buildings, breaking the rather nice symmetry. The Inn also feels like a last-second-before-publication patch to fix a broken building. This is one of the factors that makes the luck of which action cards you draw together, and which get passed to you by your opponents, a significant factor in how well you do. It is possible to get screwed rather badly by factors that are out of your control. Finally, learning the personality cards takes long enough that it bugged me.
Despite my misgivings, though, I would call Notre Dame a fun, well-constructed game. I rate it an 8 on BGG, and I doubt it will drop from there. I own or want almost every game that I rate 8 or higher, as well as a few that I rate lower, but I’m not going to buy Notre Dame. The problem is that Notre Dame is a good, solid design in a market niche loaded with classics. “Middleweight system game” is an unwieldy phrase, but it’s a decent description of what Notre Dame is. PR, PoF and Caylus are more typical system games, which led to the aforementioned comparisons, I think. All of them feature development of infrastructure and the management of different currencies, with a limited spatial component. PR, PoF and especially Caylus are significantly heavier than ND, though. They are real meals for the mind, where ND is a light lunch.
Better comparisons to Notre Dame are Saint Petersburg, Ra and Modern Art. They are all games about the same weight, featuring decisions that are just as delicious. They all feature more streamlined, more natural, and less obtrusive systems, though. Even Saint Petersburg, while flawed (hopefully the forthcoming expansion will address the worst problems), is a more pleasant experience, I think. Its system gets out of your way and lets you focus on making choices.
All three of these games, by the way, are already part of my collection. If I bought Notre Dame, it would have to elbow these classics aside to find table time and, frankly, I’d rather it didn’t.
I am eagerly anticipating Stefan Feld’s newest game, In the Year of the Dragon, though. It looks to be a bit heavier, a bit cleaner along the edges, and a bit less obtrusive than Notre Dame. I doubt his design style will be absent from my collection for long.