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.

Reprints Abound in 2015

Much to the chagrin of resellers everywhere, a couple of much sought after games are getting reprints later this year.

Ora & LaboraFirst up we have a reprint of Ora & Labora, by Uwe Rosenberg. This one has been out of print for a few years now, which is surprising given how well it was received. Printing will handled by Lookout Games, with Z-Man Games taking care of the English version. This news came straight from Uwe Rosenberg himself, and it looks like the flimsy think cardstock boards will be getting upgrades in this new version. Look for this one sometime in the third quarter of this year.

Another heavyweight title seeing the light of day once more is Luna by Stefan Feld. Since the explosion of Castles of Burgundy, Feld’s older catalog has been in high demand with several of his games falling out of print. Rumors have been swirling about Tasty Minstrel Games picking this one up, and finally this tweet confirmed it all:

Looks like a third quarter release for this one as well, with a confirmed MSRP of $60.

 

Mission: Red PlanetFantasy Flight Games, who could probably just churn out LCG content and ignore the cardboard, also gets in on the reprint game in 2015. They recently released a reprint of Tigris & Euphrates and will also bring forth a reprint of Mission: Red Planet by Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti. Apart from the usual Fantasy Flight treatment where the components get a massive upgrade, it looks like the gameplay is getting tweaked as well:

[well]In Mission: Red Planet, two to six players compete to control as much of Mars and its priceless natural resources as they possibly can. This edition maintains the core mechanics of this fast-paced game while incorporating updates by the original designers. Astronauts can land in a new zone, the moon Phobos, and the Soldier can convey astronauts from Phobos to anywhere on Mars. Missions and Discoveries have been fine-tuned, and new Action Cards join the Event deck. The game can now handle six players, with rules for a two-player variant also included. What’s more, the Victorian steampunk aesthetic has been refreshed with all-new graphic design for a more contemporary look.[/well]

Tiny Epic KingdomsFinally we’ve got a comparatively new game getting a reprint and a new version in Tiny Epic Kingdoms. Gamelyn Games announced that the Scott Almes title will see a reprint with a few minor tweaks to the ruleset and some component changes as well. Nothing but good news for a great game! No firm date on this one yet, but with a Kickstarter for the expansion launching in June I would guess no sooner than the end of this year.

Game Day – The New and The New Old

[dropcap background=”yes” bgcolor=”#176D13″]W[/dropcap]inters in Vermont (especially this one) can be bitter cold with miserable weather. This makes you want to do nothing but curl up inside and play some games…which is what we’ve been doing! Let’s catch up on some of the titles to hit my table recently. Some were new, some were old favorites, and some were old games that were new to me.

 

The New

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Patchwork

PatchworkAh, Uwe Rosenberg. He’s on this little list more than once. Patchwork is a wonderful little two-player game where players use various cuts of fabric to make a quilt. The catch is that all the fabric tiles are different shapes and sizes, each costing you a certain amount of time to place on your quilt. This is quite thematic, as it is much easier to sew a square into an actual quilt than a Tetris shaped piece. Buttons are the currency here, and some of the quilt patches have buttons on them to help you build an economy to keep things moving along.

This game really threads the needle when it come to two-player games. The gameplay is simple, but the fabrics you choose can pin you down later on if you aren’t careful – you lose points for empty squares at the end. Any gamer will appreciate this game, and if you know a gamer that quilts, even better.

 

Steam Park

Steam ParkMy brother and his wife recommended this one to us, and I can see why. Steam Park is a light, fun romp where players build an amusement park…….for robots. Marie Cardouat, best known for her work on Dixit, was the illustrator for this game. The surreal style of art makes the game even more thematic – of COURSE a robot would ride a metal octopus ride!

The gameplay features real time dice rolling, a race of sorts, which is actually reminiscent of the building round in Galaxy Trucker. It adds a fun little press your luck element to the game as you try to keep rolling to get the results you want while hoping your opponents don’t finish first. It’s a light, fun game that acts as a wonderful opener to a gaming evening.

 

The New Old

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Airlines Europe

Airlines EuropeWhen looking at Alan Moon’s catalog of work, it’s hard to see past the behemoth that is Ticket to Ride. That game is so successful and has produced so many expansions that Moon can be mistaken for a one-hit wonder. Airlines Europe is an excellent reminder that this designer has more than one trick up his sleeve.

In what is essentially a stock game, players will purchase routes for one of several airlines, place a marker on this route, and adjust the price of that company’s stock. The game is so easy to grasp, at least from a rules standpoint. But at about turn three, when you see what is really going on, you suddenly stare at the board in wonder. Manipulating the market, knowing when it’s time to cut and run, jumping on underdeveloped airlines…it’s a lot to pack into a deceptively simple ruleset. But Moon pulls it off and this is a great game to help bridge the gap between a gateway game and the heavier games one will encounter.

 

Ora & Labora

Ora & LaboraUwe, Uwe, Uwe. You magnificent bastard. I’ve always enjoyed Rosenberg’s games, from Agricola right down to Bohnanza. But this one eluded me for years. It was only in print for a short time, and my gaming was at a different phase back then. Finally I was able to trade for this rare gem, and I’m glad that I did.

In Ora & Labora each player is attempting to grow their plot of land into a thriving society based on work and prayer. I’d get into the gameplay, but there’s no concise way to do it and this would wind up turning into a full blown review. Suffice it to say that we fell in love with this game about halfway through our first play. It combines elements of city building, tile placement, set collecting, and worker placement (among other mechanics) to make a wonderful stew which each player will partake of using their ONE action per round. It’s really a masterpiece.

 

So there you have it…some of the notables from the past couple weeks of gaming. If you have the chance, I highly recommend checking any one of these out!