I’ve been a fan of Uwe Rosenburg’s big box games since I first played a pasted up copy of Agricola before it was available in English. Le Havre I went to the trouble of having shipped from Europe a while before it was available in the US. After playing At the Gates of Loyang a few times, however, I didn’t feel a big need to play it again, and the Agricola expansions started getting overwhelming, so I didn’t have any particular plans to pick up last year’s offering, Ora & Labora. After one play, however, and knowing that available supplies were selling out quickly, I went right out and bought it. So what’s so special about Ora et Labora?
In spite of being an Uwe Rosenburg game, Ora et Labora is not really about farming. Rather, the game is about careful building placement and usage. I tend to call it a cross between Agricola and Le Havre, with many of the best elements of each.
Each player starts with a 5×2 player board on which to construct his buildings (three buildings are already constructed, and trees/peat cover several spaces), as well as three clergymen (workers): a prior and two lay brothers. Each turn, you can play one of your workers, build a building, cut down trees or fell peat, or pay someone else to play one of his workers (which is one of the few ways to use someone else’s buildings). As a free action, you can also turn grain into straw or (once per turn) buy an additional landscape to add to your board.
While most buildings are worth points, as are some goods, most of your points generally come from the settlement buildings. Five times per game, there is a settlement phase during which these special buildings (which have a cost in food and energy, rather than goods) can be played; as they will score for both themselves and the buildings around them, proper placement tends to be extremely important. While normally each person will play five of these, there is a building that lets you play more of them.
After playing this half a dozen times, I put it and Agricola as Uwe’s best games. It kind of “fired” Le Havre for me, because I feel that it takes the mechanics of Le Havre and does them better. This is also a deterministic game – only the start player is random – but there’s enough variety in the buildings (as well as two versions – France and Ireland – which have different buildings) that it hasn’t started feeling repetitive yet, and I expect we’ll see expansions at some point (so far there’s one promo card, available in the Z-Man Essen Pack from boardgamegeek). I’ve taught this game several times and haven’t seen anyone who was willing to play it not like it, so if it sounds like it might be your kind of game, it’s probably worth buying.