Review: Ora & Labora

As a matter of courtesy, we try not to review games that have gone out of print. That’s just not cool, you know? “Hey, look at this game…and look at how awesome it is…and guess what?? You can’t get it.” Of course, you probably could get said game, but you’re going to pay an arm and a leg. So yeah, not cool.

Today, however, we make an exception to this rule. Ora & Labora, a game for 1-4 players from the highly esteemed Uwe Rosenberg, came out in 2011 and seemed to go out of print almost immediately. The game was quite well regarded, and still sits in the Top 50 on BoardGameGeek’s rankings…but for some reason Lookout Games chose not to order a reprint.

Well, recent news from Mr. Rosenberg himself reveals that Lookout Games will finally reprint this much sought after game in the next few months. W. Eric Martin of BGG News also confirmed with Z-Man Games that they will be handling the English Language reprint. So, in light of this great news? Let’s take a look at Ora & Labora.

Ora & LaboraThe game’s tagline pretty much says it all – you’re going to be developing a “Monastic Economy in the Middle Ages”. Each player is given a heartland landscape, three clergymen, and some starting goods. They also have a small deck of 8 settlement cards; 4 of which they start the game with, and 4 that will become available to them as the rounds progress.

Your heartland board is just what it sounds like – the heart of your little monastic village, which will grow and change throughout the game. There are three basic buildings present on your heartland to start: the Farmyard, the Clay Mound, and the Cloister Office. You’ll also have some Forest and Moor cards on your board, which can be harvested for resources on your turn and to make space for new buildings.

Over the course of 24 rounds, your turn will consist of taking one of three main actions: place a clergyman to use a building, fell trees or cut peat, or build a building. The first two actions are based around gathering resources – the buildings and trees/peat will provide you with resource tiles, which you will need to expend to use the third action and build a new building.

Ora & LaboraWith the basics out of the way, let’s chat about what makes Ora & Labora special: the Production Wheel. On this wheel you will find several wooden pieces which represent the various basic resources that you can acquire throughout the game, along with a wildcard which can be used in place of any resource. In the center of this wheel is an arm which has numbers around its inner ring.

At the start of each round this arm rotates, which will usually increase the value of each good on the wheel. The markers for each good stay where they are until a player takes an action which will allow them access to that resource. Once this happens, the marker is moved around the wheel to the zero spot, where it will start the journey once more. If you’ve played Rosenberg’s Glass Road you’re pretty familiar with how this works.

But that’s not all the wheel does. During setup all of the building cards (and those four extra settlement cards each player has) are divided into four stacks based on the letter on the cards. These are placed along the outer edge of the wheel, to come into play once the arm passes them at the start of a turn. This will put new buildings into the market and a new settlement card into each player’s hand.

These settlement cards are used during the settlement phase, which is also tracked…by the wheel. Look, if the wheel wasn’t already one of the human race’s best inventions I would certainly be lobbying for it after playing this game. On the wheel are little blue houses which signal a settlement phase, which is the only time a player may build one of the settlement cards from their hand…and these translate to some massive points at the end of the game.

Ora & LaboraOnce the game ends you’re going to accumulate points in three ways: some goods will earn you points, each of your buildings and settlements will have a point value on them, and each settlement will have a separate value based on the buildings orthogonally adjacent. Thankfully, there’s a scoring sheet included with the game because these are numbers you’re going to lose track of quickly.

Ora & Labora, while not taking up a ton of room, will look great on your table. Klemens Franz provided the art for this game, and he really did an excellent job. As your board fills with buildings you’ll see a colorful little society start to develop before your eyes. And, like most of Uwe’s games that Klemens has illustrated, there’s little easter eggs peppered here and there.

When it was released, there were some people who were very concerned about the replayability of this game, especially at lower player counts. Since you’re using the same cards in every game, and they are coming out at the same time each game, there was a worry that it would start to feel repetitive after a few plays. Thankfully this is not the case, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the game comes with two decks of building cards so that you can choose to play the game in either France or Ireland. In fact, you’ll find that some of the goods are different as well – France produces bread and wine while Ireland produces beer and whiskey. And that’s “whiskey” with an “E” for those of you keeping track at home. The U.S. and Ireland are the only countries to add the “E” in there. While some buildings exist in both decks the majority of them are different from one country to the other.

Secondly, the decision trees that span off of…well, just about every action, keep each game playing differently. For example, it’s all well and good to have a plan in place to purchase a certain building on your turn, but someone else might get there first. Or, worse yet, they don’t care about the building you want but they need the same resources and grab those before you get the chance. But this doesn’t derail your whole plan because there’s another avenue you can take to score points.

Ora & Labora
Heartland board shown with the extra plots you can purchase.

Diversification is pretty key here. You can’t simply ignore one of the point scoring avenues completely and expect to win. You want to strive to get your village developed to be able to take you down any of the paths for point scoring. Need to produce goods to make wonders? Need goods stored up to get those pricy settlement cards out?  You try to keep them both in mind as much as you can.

One of the more interesting decisions you’ll need to make is when to expand your land. Expansion is an additional action that you can take on your turn to open up more spaces to build upon. There are coastal, district, and mountain plots  – but they increase in price as they get snatched up, so you’ll want to act early. Of course, taking money might cause you to not take another resource you need. But you can’t ignore them. There are buildings and settlements which have to be built on a specific terrain, and your cloister buildings need to be next to one another. So after a while expansion is completely necessary.

The player interaction is quite interesting as well. For the most part, it’s indirect. In other words, I’m taking a resource that you wish you could have gotten. But you also have the ability to use someone else’s buildings as well. You pay for it, but you get to use that person’s clergyman to take the action. So if you hit someone when they’ve just taken back all their workers you’ve really put a kink in their works.

Ora & LaboraNow I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the negatives here as well. Setup and cleanup can be pretty painful. There are 450 goods tiles to deal with. That’s a LOT to keep track of. Now if you want to just dump it all in one bag and sort as you play it isn’t bad, but if you’re looking to keep each good type in a different bag? It’s about a 10 minute clean up job once you’re done playing.

And, of course, the big one: component quality. This printing of the game had some pretty flimsy stuff inside the box. There were counter misprints left and right, but the worst were the heartland boards and expansion plots. They are cardstock, and not terribly thick cardstock. Thankfully, and I’m going to bold this so people see it, the components will be better in this upcoming release. Hanno Girke from Lookout Games has already addressed this issue in a post on BoardGameGeek, so this should no longer be a negative.

So if you’re a fan of Rosenberg’s games, if you enjoy having the ability to alter your path to victory, if you enjoy the feeling of building a little village, and want a game that will scale well across all player counts? Well, keep your eyes peeled for this one. After all, this is a game you wouldn’t have to wait another four years to get a shot at owning.

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