The Alea Analysis, Part Seven: Notre Dame (#11), In the Year of the Dragon (#12), Witch’s Brew (M#4)

This article is the seventh in a continuing series that’s analyzing the entire Alea line of games. For past articles you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five; or Palazzo, Augsburg 1520, and Rum & Pirates in Part Six.

This article brings Alea thoroughly into the Stefan Feld years, when a single author dominated the large game box production. Many (myself included) consider it a new height. Not only was Feld producing some of the best serious games in the line’s history, but the medium boxes also started excelling beginning with Witch’s Brew.


Large Box #11: Notre Dame (A)

Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Rio Grande (2007), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 4
Other Articles: Psychology of Gaming: Loss Aversion (5/13)
My Plays: 7

Notre DameNotre Dame is a card and resource management game. Each player has a number of buildings that allow him to take a variety of actions — such as earning gold, increasing victory points, gathering cubes, and killing rats. A player preps for each round of play by drafting three cards that let him utilize these various buildings, then plays two of them. When a card is played, a cube is added to the building and the player then takes its effect. Most buildings have powers that increase triangularly based on the number of cubes they contain: 1 cube means 1 action, 2 cubes means 2 actions, etc. Over the course of three rounds a player goes through his full set of cards, which means he had the guaranteed chance to use each building — though the best players will build up specialties by using the same buildings again and again.

Strengths: Mechanical Innovations

I’m very fond of Notre Dame. I think it might be the game in the later Alea releases that best combines serious strategy with light and easy gameplay. Here’s what I think works best:

Great Core Mechanic. The combination of a card drafting system with an action system works very well. I’ve generally been happy with most card-drafting games, and I’ve found the ones that combine that mechanic with unique actions — such as Midgard (2007) and to a lesser extent 7 Wonders (2010) — especially interestingHowever, Notre Dame manages to make the mechanic really shine thanks to its careful control of luck, which keeps bad draws from totally ruining a player’s game and so makes everything that much more strategic …

Luck Management. There is definitely luck in which cards you draw and thus which actions you can take. However, Notre Dame offsets that in two ways. First, a player is guaranteed to see all 9 of his cards every 3 turns. He doesn’t get to use them all, because of the draft, but he does get to choose whether each one is important to him. Second, the draft improves a player’s ability to get the cards he wants because he’s constantly picking and choosing. (And, if your neighbor is never giving you what you want, it’s your own fault for adopting the same strategy as him.)

Scarcity. The biggest innovation of Notre Dame is, of course, the rats. It was one of the earlier games that was heavily based upon scarcity economics, where you are always just one step ahead of total failure. It followed on the heels of Age of Steam (2002) and appeared around the same time as the other pivotal game in the subgener, Agricola (2007). The scarcity element in Notre Dame is pretty light — which means less overpowering than it could be. However, you always have to think about rats, balancing them with the good stuff you’re working on each round.

The Little Stuff. Notre Dame plays quickly, but simultaneously gives you a lot of actions over the course of the game. In addition, the action system supports a lot of paths to victory, in part through the specialization encouraged by the  triangular power rankings. In other words, it’s got a lot of little things that make it work well.

Weaknesses: Sameness & Balance

Sameness. Though I think Notre Dame is a very light and pleasant play, it eventually fell off my playlist in favor of more recent designs. I think that’s because there’s less variability in the design than you’d need to support a real evergreen. It’s not just that every game feels much the same; it’s also that you can adopt the same strategy in every game you play, without being driven to do something else by a starting position that you’re randomly handed — perhaps suggest that luck is too well managed.

Balance. Without a thorough analysis, I can’t definitively say that the different powers in Notre Dame are unbalanced, but I’m very suspicious of them. I often do well by hitting the VP generator hard, while the hotel is never well loved.

In general, Notre Dame is an innovative game that’s still pretty innovative today and represents a great gateway for more serious strategy gaming. However, it may dry up after a half-dozen plays or so.

Comparisons

Rum & Pirates (#10) & Feldisms. This was Feld’s second entrant in the Alea series, and it was a sea change. His previous game, Rum & Pirates (2006), is a casual, random adventure game, while this is a serious, fairly abstract strategy game. And, I liked it a lot better. Rum & Pirates is one of the few Alea games to have left my collection, while Notre Dame is constantly on my list of games that could be played (even if other Feld games win out instead).

Despite the large difference in weight, you can still see the similarities in design. For example, they’re both lucky games where the luck is somewhat controlled. Rum & Pirates had rum barrels to control the random die rolls, where Notre Dame has card seeding and card drafting to offset the random card draws. More of the same would appear in Feld’s next few releases. Both games also feature a variety of action spaces that are activated in unique, constrained ways. In Rum & Pirates it was about where the pirates landed, and here it’s about where the cards land.

When I originally wrote about Notre Dame, I made the same argument that I did for Rum & Pirates: that it was a unique take on worker placement. I no longer entirely agree with that viewpoint, because worker placement ended up staying pretty close to its very specific origins, rather than innovating. However, it’s still possible to squint and see the cubes that you place on buildings as workers. They have three unique aspects:

  1. You’re only allowed to place them if you have the right cards.
  2. They stay on the board once placed.
  3. The buildings get more powerful as workers accrue.

Even if Notre Dame isn’t worker placement, exactly, these mechanics will all be interesting additions to the genre.


Large Box #12: In the Year of the Dragon (A)

Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Rio Grande (2007), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 5
Other Articles: Psychology of Gaming: Loss Aversion (5/13)
My Plays: 6

In the Year of the DragonIn the Year of the Dragon is a resource-management game of actions and roles. Players take actions (to improve their resources and their capabilities) and then hire persons (to make future actions better). Throughout the game, they’re trying to balance their money, their workers, their palace size, and their place in the turn order. Letting anything fall behind can upset the game’s delicate ecosystem!

The object of the game is to earn the most victory points while preparing for upcoming disasters. There are four different disasters: Mongol invasions which require warriors; disease which requires healers; famine which requires rice growers to have made rice; and Imperial taxes which require money. In addition, there’s one opportunity: a festival, which gives bonus VPs to players who have fireworks.

Strengths: Resources + Scarcity = Victory

Complex Resource Management. Calling In the Year of the Dragon a resource-management game understates the gameplay, because the various resources that you have to manage (workers, palaces, victory points, money, rice, fireworks, and the turn-order track) are so different that this is clearly not just a game of figuring out when you need indigo and when you need coffee. Instead, it’s a complex web of interrelations and that’s what makes it an interesting game.

Scarcity. In the Year of the Dragon is also a scarcity game, meaning that you constantly feel like you’re falling behind the curve on demands that are slowly overwhelming you. This is the second time that author Feld used this style of play, following on from his work with the rats of Notre Dame (2007). Here, the disastrous scarcity is much more important — forming the core of the game.

Many Paths to Victory. Together the many resources and the many potential scarcities combine to create many paths to victory. Do you try and stay totally clear of disasters, or do you sometimes give up resources as the lesser of two evils? Do you cycle characters, or do you try and keep your full complement? Do you earn your points with scribes who require you to take a book action, or do you pick up VP generators early on and just try and tread water while they do their work? Do you try and push to the start of the worker track, or do you accept that you’ll be last and take lots of excellent workers with that understanding? I’m won with multiple strategies, which is my usual mark of a good strategy game.

Weaknesses: An Unpleasant Game

So Depressing. Compared to Notre Dame, the scarcity mechanics of In the Year of the Dragon have been cranked into high gear. It feels like you’re always fighting against the next disaster … and that you’re often losing, because you really don’t have time to do everything. Though never being able to do enough is often a sign of a good game design, not being able to offset scarcity can feel less fun than not being able to take advantage of opportunities, for purely psychology reasons.

So Tight. In the Year of the Dragons also feels very tight — like every single move has to be perfectly accomplished lest you fall into a pit. This makes the game tense and nerve-wracking, and not always in a good way.

On the whole, In the Year of the Dragon may be Feld’s most serious strategic game, and one of the few without a heavy random factor. It’s a great game, but it won’t necessarily appeal to the same folks who like rolling dice in Feld’s many games of controlled randomness.

Comparisons

Notre Dame (#11) & Likability Though Notre Dame In the Year of the Dragon have some superficial similarities, thanks to their designer and their scarcity mechanics, they’re very different games. I know a number of players who love one and hate the other and vice-versa. I can understand the difference: Notre Dame feels a lot lighter and like you have more control, while In the Year of the Dragon is more strategic and more demanding. Indeed, though I’ve rated both equally well, I enjoy Notre Dame much more.


Medium Box #4: Witch’s Brew (A)

Author: Andreas Pelikan
Publisher: Rio Grande (2008), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
Other Articles: Alea Treasures #2: Witch’s Brew (6/12)
My Plays: 10

Witch's brewWitch’s Brew is a pretty unique game that focuses on role-selection, but with a lot of quirks. Basically there are 12 different actions (roles) in the game. Each round each player selects five that he’s going to try to take. Then it turns into a bluffing game. One player selects a role by playing a card. Then each other player who is holding that card either takes over the main power of the role or else accepts a subsidiary (and less powerful) power. If a player opts for the main power, he might have it stolen by someone else; but if he instead takes the secondary power, he gets less in return!

The role cards themselves let the players engage in resource management, as you collect three different resources and try to turn those into victory points.

Strengths: A Social Game

Social. Witch’s Brew may be the most social game in the entire Alea series. Every single decision has to consider other players’ motivations, then the bluffing elements put you straight in their faces. The unique gameplay alone makes the game a standout, but the social elements also work really well.

Tense. Players I’ve talked to say they particularly enjoy the social gotcha! factor — the way you can smugly grab a power from someone after they thought they had it made. I rarely see a game with as much thrill of victory and agony of defeat as this one — unless it’s a dice game. (And since I think that dice games can be some of the most adrenaline-boosting and stomach-dropping games around, that’s high praise.)

Interesting Strategic Play. Though the results of an individual turn can be chaotic, you can still do lots of strategic planning before each round (when you’re selecting your five roles), and some of it will usually pay off. The chaos factor is decreased during this planning by the fact that a player’s current set of resources can tell you a lot about what they’re going to do. There’s also some opportunity for nice brinkmanship, as you will probably occasionally choose cards that you can’t immediately use in the hope that you’ll be ready by the time someone tries to call the role.

Weaknesses: Variability

Limited Variability. As a fairly casual game, Witch’s Brew has simple play, and that means there’s not a lot of variability: most games lead you to the same decisions about cards to play and resources to gather. That can limited the game’s ultimate playability … but I’ve nonetheless continued to play Witch’s Brew about once a year even after the new-game-smell wore off.

Comparisons

San Juan (S#5) & Success. I found the first nine small and medium-box Alea games to be a mixed bag with two just stand-out successes able to compete with some of the really notable big box games: San Juan (2004) and Witch’s Brew (2008). What do they have in common? It may just be raw originality. Both games offered gameplay that was unlike anything before them and though Witch’s Brew hasn’t create a mini-renaissance of similar games like San Juan did, that doesn’t make it any less notable. (OK, maybe a little less notable.)

Broom Service (#17) & Reprints. Alea has somewhat inexplicably started reprinting old games as new releases in recent years. However, unlike the updated Puerto Rico (2014) or San Juan (2014)Witch’s Brew got a large-scale revamp and a new name: Broom Service (2015). It hasn’t made it to the States yet, but I’ll probably give the new version of the game some more discussion in some far future article in this series.


I originally wrote about the Alea games on my personal journal in 2009, the year that I played through the whole series. Witch’s Brew marked the end of my original writing (which I’ve since been revising for this site), but then Alea Iacta Est came out just in time for me to write about it on December 31, 2009. Though I’m almost out of material, I’ll be continuing this series in the future with totally new discussions of Alea’s classic games … but expect my articles to drop back to just highlighting two games each, since I’ll be writing lots more fresh material for these future entries. —SA, 6/13/15


Notre Dame artwork cropped from an original by André Nordstrand (takras at BGG) used under a a creative commons license. In the Year of the Dragon artwork cropped from an original at the Alea website. Witch’s Brew artwork also cropped from an original at Alea.

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