Ora & Labora
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Play Time: 120-180 minutes
Ora & Labora is from the same designer as Le Havre and Agricola, not to mention Bohnanza and its many, many expansions (that I’ve tried to collect, almost successfully). According to a note on the credits page, on the back of the building descriptions booklet, Ora & Labora was inspired by Le Havre (which was likely inspired by Agricola): “The idea of using Cloisters as an economic system came to the author while on honeymoon in Walkenried. The cloister there in the southern Harzland had a permanent display comparing cloisters with modern economic enterprise.” Walkenreid is in Lower Saxony, Germany, close to the center of the country (a little north and east). The abbey was founded in 1127 as the third Cistercian monastery in a German speaking territory. Sadly, the abbey was quarried over the years so not much remains of the once beautiful structure.
Aside: the credits list about a gazillion names but mine was left out for some reason. (Possibly because I didn’t have anything to do with the development ?)
As you may have gleaned from the intro, Ora & Labora is a monastic economic game set in the Middle Ages. Players labor to develop their landscapes into valuable diocese (i.e. properties worth a lot of victory points). The winner is the player with the most victory points at the end of the game. Other elements to the game include: engine building, resource management, multiple paths to victory, and worker placement… all which make me very happy!
The game also has two variants included in the box – Ireland and France. The building cards just flip to the side being played: a nice design element. For example, the Whiskey Distillery is on the Ireland side of the card and the Winery is on the France side of the card. There is no wine in the Ireland version, just as there is no whiskey in the France version. Another nice design bit is that many of the goods tiles flip to their upgraded counterparts, for example, livestock tiles flip to meat (assuming you have a Slaughterhouse handy, as well as some straw).
Ora & Labora is a rather complicated game. The sheer number of buildings alone will likely be overwhelming to people first learning the game. But stick with it – it is well worth it! To help reduce confusion, the game comes with 3 booklets of rules and explanations plus a game setup sheet and 4 player aids (i.e. one per player). The booklets: general rules (a short, more illustrated guide to the game), detailed game rules, and a building and settlement index with detailed descriptions of each plus a couple sections on why you need particular items (e.g. stone, beer, Wonders) and how to obtain certain things (e.g. ceramics, Chapel, Palace).
That being said, the rules themselves are not all that difficult. The complexity comes from the connections between the buildings, in what they provide and how they relate to each other. For example, Reliquaries (worth 8 victory points each!) can be made by using the Chapel (Ireland version) and turning in one tile each of beer and whiskey (hmm, what is implied here?), or by using the Cloister Church on the flip side of the card (France version) and turning in bread and wine. In the Ireland version, beer is produced in the Brewery by turning in grain and malt. Whiskey (two tiles worth) is produced in the Whiskey Distillery by turning in one tile of each malt, wood, and peat. Malt is produced in the Malthouse by turning in one grain (you get to flip the grain tile to its straw side and keep it as well). Grain (four tiles worth) may be produced in a Granary for one gold (for some reason this also spits out a book, the flip side of the gold tile, but it’s worth 2 victory points). Wood and peat are basic goods produced by using resources on your land. These resources come with the “Heartland” landscape that all players get at the beginning of the game, or with additional landscapes that may be purchased during the game. Gold is produced in the Cloister Office (a default building that comes with each Heartland).
To summarize this example in the Ireland variant: Hartland -> wood, peat; Cloister Office -> gold; Granary + gold -> book, 4 grain; Malthouse + grain -> malt, straw; Whiskey Distillery + malt + wood + peat -> 2 whiskey; Brewery + grain + malt -> beer; Chapel + beer + whiskey -> Reliquary. Of course there are other buildings that produce some of these same goods; I just chose these particular buildings for this example. Easy peasy, right? After a game or two you will come to understand the buildings so it won’t be so overwhelming.
One of the coolest parts of the game is what they call the “game board,” which is basically a giant rondel with a rotating production wheel (and arm) mounted on top. The rondel serves several purposes: it tracks the starting player; it shows when the next set of buildings become available; it shows the settlement phases; it shows when certain goods (grapes or stone) come into play; it shows the number of each resource that is currently available; and it will tell you when the game will end.
During the game players will take turns felling trees or cutting peat, building buildings, or placing their clergymen (two lay brothers and one prior) on buildings and taking the building’s action. Each building has an economic value – the number of victory points it is worth at the end of the game.
The main difference between the prior and the lay brothers is that the prior (if still available) allows a player to get a bonus action when building a building by placing the prior on the new building and carrying out its associated action. A player may use another player’s unoccupied building through the use of a work contract. As payment, the player must give the other player gold, or get him drunk by presenting him with wine or whiskey (sadly these goods go to the general supply and not to the player; thus is the penalty for getting drunk). The other player chooses which clergyman to place on their building (hopefully they did not leave the prior until last).
Each player will receive settlement cards during the game (the same set is available for each player; the cards have the players’ colors on the backs). These cards are basically buildings but they do not have a function during the game. At the end of the game, each settlement allows its owner to score points for the settlement itself and orthogonally adjacent buildings’ settlement values.
To get an idea of game play I have summarized a round below for a 3 or 4 player game. There are variations in the rulebook for 1 or 2 players. Note that I have left out a lot of the smaller details of the game (e.g. building requirements and placement).
Round (3 or 4 player game):
Check to see if players have all three of their clergymen on buildings, if so get them back
Rotate the production wheel (on the game board) one position
Check if new goods (i.e. grapes or stone) enter the game, if so add them to the wheel at 0
Check if new buildings enter the game, if so the game is temporarily suspended by a settlement phase; add new buildings to the game
Each player carries out one action then the starting player carries out a second action:
Place a clergyman (prior or lay brother) or issue a work contract
Fell trees or cut peat
Build a building
Pass the starting player marker to the next clockwise player.
Timing and resource management are key ingredients to the game. Players will want their priors available when building buildings to make the best use of the prior’s bonus action. They will also want to keep in mind that they will get their clergymen back at the beginning of a new round only if all three have been used.
Players will want to build certain types of buildings and work towards advanced versions of those buildings, i.e. where output from one building will be input to another. This creates a sort of engine during the game to produce more and more complex goods. The more complex goods are typically worth more victory points. One of the planning aspects of the game is in the placement of buildings. Players will want settlements to point to higher settlement valued buildings. The buildings themselves can be worth quite a few points, e.g. the Grand Manor is worth 18 victory points. At the end of the game, players will total up goods with a point value, the building point values, and the settlement total values.
I have played Ora & Labora twice now, both with 4 players. The first time I was really overwhelmed by the number of building choices and interactions (as were my fellow newbies). Even so, I really enjoyed the game. The second game went much more smoothly as I became more familiar with the buildings and how they worked. I am curious as to how well the game will work with two players and would even like to try the solo game at some point. The only drawback may be the length of the game, averaging 2 to 3 hours. I don’t mind spending the time if everyone keeps the game moving along; it definitely holds your attention since you usually need to spend time planning your next move during the other players’ turns. But I can see this getting out of hand with anyone afflicted with Analysis Paralysis. Shudder.
The only other (small) complaints I have are with rondel assembly and with the thickness of the land cardboard frames. Although only one rondel is used per game, the game comes with two. They are both two sided, as are their rotating production wheels. Thus if you are playing with different numbers of players (or wish a shorter game), you may have to take apart a rondel and reassemble it. It can be a bit difficult to pull apart the plastic center pieces; personally, I’m afraid I may damage something in the process. As far as the land frames go, I wish they had used thicker cardboard. The rest of the game production is excellent. The rules are well written and very clear.
I highly recommend Ora & Labora to anyone who enjoys worker placement games. I like this much better than Le Havre and probably as much as Agricola (which I really like). The rondel works really well, there doesn’t seem to be a runaway leader problem (both of my games were close in scoring – even with a mix of experienced and new players), and it held my interest throughout the game.
Comparisons to Le Havre and Agricola
Resource accumulation is more streamlined than in Le Havre or Agricola by use of the rondel. All goods go up at one time instead of just specific goods over the course of a round (Le Havre). Also, goods usually go up every round, depending on their use and the number of players; some numbers of available goods will remain the same when they reach certain amounts but only for up to two rounds. For example, in a 2 player game, 2, 4, and 6 are repeated on the wheel so when it turns, the number of available goods on those numbers will remain the same for one round more.
In Le Havre each player has one worker that may go to any building, even other players’ buildings. In Ora & Labora, players have 3 workers (one of which is special); players also tend to use their own buildings due to the cost of using someone else’s, via worker contract; the other player must place their worker for you. Worker placement in Agricola is quite different – all players share the same board and the ”buildings” (actions) on it. Players also start with 2 workers (“family members”) but may grow up to 5.
The buildings in Le Havre and Agricola don’t relate to each other as they do in Ora & Labora. For example, there is a positional element to Ora & Labora; each player determines where to place buildings that may impact victory points (via Settlements). The “buildings” in Agricola come out one per round. In Le Havre, the buildings are not tied to rounds. Three buildings, each atop a stack, are available to be built at any particular time, until that stack is exhausted; new buildings become available when the ones on top are purchased. In Ora & Labora, there are about 13 buildings at the start of the game, which any player may choose to build (provided they have the right resources); on average 7 more at a time are added at certain points in the game (according to the rondel). In Le Havre, the lowest numbered building (or special building) will be built automatically by the town every few rounds (there is no automatic build in Ora & Labora).
There is a strict food requirement in Le Havre and Agricola each round or each Harvest respectively, but in Ora & Labora it is only a requirement to build the Settlements when they become available at certain points in the game; these are optional (although not building them may cost the player a lot of potential points). In Ora & Labora, although the starting player gets an extra turn each round, there are a fixed number of rounds with each player getting the same number of turns in the game. In Le Havre, there are 7 turns per round so depending on the number of players, some players may get more turns per round.
Opinions from the Other Opinionated Gamers
Joe Huber (1 play) – I should state up front that Le Havre is one of my favorite games. Ora et Labora takes Le Havre, removes the economic system which I really enjoy, and replaces it with an uninteresting positional game – while also giving players fewer things to do over the course of the game. Very quickly upon starting Ora et Labora, I wished I was playing Le Havre instead; fortunately, that’s easily solved going forward. Ora et Labora isn’t a bad game; just an unnecessary one, for me.
Ted C. (1 play) – Like Joe, let me give my caveats. I really just do not care for Agricola. I really do not want to ever play it again. Next Le Havre; I have played twice and do enjoy the short game and the adding of special cards every third round or so (a variant by a friend of mine). The very end ramp up of that game is of concern, but I guess you can plan for it. Ora et Labora felt the quickest and most direct of the set. Mary is correct that understanding the building combinations and the use of your workers is key. Two times my desired items were “stolen”, actually people beat me to them 8). I enjoyed my one playing and would like to try it again.
Jonathan Franklin (1 play) – I have not played Le Havre enough to make any deep comparative comments, but found it easier to grok than Ora. Le Havre has a linearity to it while Ora adds a new dimension to everything. My one play of Ora felt like it would require quite a few plays to learn the cards, the combos, and be able to see what cards were on each other player’s board. I’d be fine playing Ora again with 2 or 3, but won’t be seeking it out, as it crossed the fun-work line for me.
Tom Rosen (1 play) – I’ve only played Ora et Labora once admittedly, whereas I’ve enjoyed Le Havre almost 20 times, but Ora felt so remarkably similar to Le Havre that I didn’t see any reason to bother with it. In both games, each turn you choose between gathering a handful of resource chits of one type, or building a building with those resources, or using a building to convert some resources into some other resources. If you do the first thing then you get a number of resources based on how many turns it has been since someone last took that resource type. If you build a building it will be worth a good number of points at the end, but anyone can use it during the game, for a small fee. They’re nearly identical games, except that they have different resource conversion paths. The underlying structure is essentially identical. It’s basically the same as playing a different map for Age of Steam or Ticket to Ride. The reason I’m not enthused with Ora is having to relearn a whole new set of buildings and resource conversion chains, when I might as well continue enjoying Le Havre.
Larry Levy (3 plays) – When I first read the rules to Ora, I was afraid it might be so similar to Le Havre that it wouldn’t be worth playing. Fortunately, within a few turns it was obvious that Ora has quite a different feel than Le Havre and for me represents a sizable improvement. The biggest single difference between the two games is that in Ora, you can actually build yourself an engine. In Le Havre, owning a building doesn’t confer any advantage other than some income; other players are just as likely to use it as you are (maybe more, since they get first crack at it). But in Ora, it’s much easier to get to use your own structures and if you use your Prior to build it, you can use it immediately. Consequently, you can buy related buildings with a strategy in mind and actually have a chance to implement it. This is a big plus for me. There are other positives as well. I like the additional challenge that the geographic aspect provides. Ora seems to have more paths to victory than the older game. And thanks to the nifty Production Wheel, Ora is much less fiddly than Le Havre. I’m a big fan of Le Havre, but right now I can’t imagine playing it as long as Ora is available.
I’ve played Ora twice with 3 players and once with 2. Because of downtime issues, I see no reason to play it with 4 (I felt the same way about Le Havre), but with 3, it’s excellent. The 2-player game was also quite good and surprisingly different than the 3-player experience. The two different variants (France and Ireland) also give the game some variety. The lack of any randomizing factors in the design made me wonder about replayability, but so far, each game has played out very differently, so no worries there.
My only beef with Ora is the theme, which leaves me completely cold and sometimes feels like a real stretch (Wonders? Really?). But the gameplay and improved mechanics are so good that I have no problem overlooking this. In a very strong 2011, Ora is my Game of the Year and I hope to spend the next few months (and more!) investigating the subtleties of this fascinating game.
Dale Yu (5 plays) – Man, it pains me to say it, but I agree with Larry on just about every point. Well, I’m not willing to say (yet) that it’s my game of the year, but it’s in the top 3. I definitely feel that you can get an engine going in Ora, which is improvement IMHO over Le Havre. The two sided cards do give some variation in play, though I wonder if long-term play (>20 games) would show issues as most cards will end up coming out in each game. Of course, I’m only 5 games in, so this might not ever be an issue!
Mitchell Thomashow (10 Plays) – Ora & Labora has a very different feel than Le Havre, despite the similarities in how you build cumulative, sequential economic advantage. The spatial element adds new and different timing choices. The synergies of the cards are more intricate. I’ve only experienced Ora & Labora with two players, but as such I found it interesting, thoughtful, colorful, and dynamic. There are so many approaches to developing your monastery and many different ways to change the game. You have to pay close attention to what your opponent is doing. There’s a built-in territorial bias and it’s easy to forget to utilize your opponent’s tableau. There’s much to explore here. We’re very enthusiastic about Ora & Labora in our household!
Matt Carlson (4 Plays) – I enjoyed Agricola very much (for its theme and the game) but was out of the country during the “Le Havre” phase of our local gaming club so have only played it one time (last February.) However, I was given a review copy of Ora et Labora and was able to get it to the table in several different gaming groups. I played the full game (3 player) with the local gaming club with some experienced gamers and was clearly beat out by one player who focused on points through production and also by the other player who was very effective in his building placements. I had a more haphazard approach, and it clearly showed in my final scoring. All three of us did enjoy the game and were interested in another go in the future. I brought it along to the school gaming club and subjected a few students to the shorter “learning” game, which was complex enough for them – they are all fairly new gamers. Despite what I thought might be an almost overwhelming complexity, they enjoyed it enough to recommend it to others and I played another game of it the following week with other students.
I agree with most of the other Opinionated Gamer’s comments, preferring Ora et Labora over Le Havre and Agricola. While Agricola is nice, it seems to end just before any engine I put together “kicks in”, and it forces all players to be generalists. In Ora et Labora there seems to be a much better potential for players to be specialists. Even in Le Havre, it seems that at least some high end shipping is necessary for a win. Le Havre is very close to Ora et Labora, but I like how players have a bit stronger feeling of ownership for their own buildings within Ora et Labora. I’m a bit torn with the bonus scoring due to building placement – it’s an intriguing idea but seems to take the game in a completely unexpected angle. Intriguing, but not yet something I see as an overall positive. It is also true that Ora et Labora doesn’t have quite the potential for a random setup as Agricola, but with games of this weight I rarely get a chance to over-play them anyway so it isn’t a dealbreaker for me. Having the two “styles” of games (France & Irish) is enough variety for me. I, too, was worried about having to take apart the two resource “wheels” whenever I need to adjust play for a different number of players. Luckily, I’ve managed to play versions of the game that haven’t required me to change around the wheels.
My most unique contribution to this review may be to put in a plug for the “fast” version of the game. I describe it to other gamers as similar to the regular game, but the “fast” version throws resources at you throughout the game. First, every round every player gets two goods (depending on the round). Second, anytime a player collects a good from the goods wheel, all the other players get a single good of that type. This pumps a large number of goods into the players’ hands and speeds up the game. This makes for a much “friendlier” version of the game, appropriate to introduce less hard-core gamers to the general style of the game. Players can freely pursue more advanced strategies within the cards available without having to constantly wrack their brains to make sure they don’t mess up their resource collection. (“Let’s see, I need to build building “X”, so I need to get bricks now, wood next turn, and then build it the following turn. Wait! If I first spend a round collecting peat, I can use the building the turn it is built!”) Having some “spare” bits of each resource allows players to more easily dabble with some of the more interesting buildings in play without having to constantly focus on one’s basic good efficiency. I would even recommend the basic game for groups of more hard core gamers who are (mostly) new to the game or want to play but are under tight time constraints. The short game is a great way to cycle through the various buildings to see how they all work together. Kudos to the designer for giving an alternate way to play. The short game is similar to Agricola’s family version, (which I think is under-appreciated), but the Ora et Labora short version is still useful for more experienced gamers to learn the basic strategies of the full game.
Finally, I have not had a chance to try out the solo version of the game, but I greatly appreciate the rules and pieces for playing a solo version are included right in the base game. I’m looking forward to taking some of my spare time this summer to give the solo game a test drive.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!… Mary Prasad, Larry Levy, Dale Yu, Mitchell Thomashow
I like it… Ted C., Matt Carlson
Neutral… Joe Huber, Jonathan Franklin
Not for me… Tom Rosen