Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ora et Labora Board Game Review

As I write, my girlfriend and I are listening to David Bowie’s Young Americans album on my recent gift to her: a new Audio Technica Two Speed Turntable. Speaking of Bowie, check out the new Jimmy Fallon Tebowie video. This parody of the Major Tom song is as funny as William Shatner performing Rocket Man: 

Jesus replying to Tim Tebow: 
This is Jesus Christ to Tim Tebow
Please leave me alone
Don't you know my day of rest is Sunday?
And I'm sick of watching all these Bronco games.

Lately, I have been hooked on watching reruns. One of the shows I’ve been watching is The Benny Hill Show on a local TV station which airs mostly kitschy B-List movies and post 70's era shows. Besides the recycled program the local commercials are funny. Previous to watching Benny Hill I only knew two things about the show: the theme song, "Yakety Sax" has been much parodied and the dames on the show have top-shelf bristols. 

Besides watching Benny Hill before bedtime my girlfriend and I have started watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Hilarious, the show is packed with science, nerdom, and numerous pop-culture references. Together we have been enjoying the show so much I ordered Season 1.

This week I am going to review Uwe Rosenberg's new game: Ora et Labora(OeL) recently released by Z-Man Games while interspersing quotes from Dr. Sheldon Cooper, my favorite character on Big Bang Theory.

Sheldon: You know, in difficult times like this, I often turn to a force stronger than myself.
Amy: Religion?
Sheldon: Star Trek.

Religion from an evolutionary biology perspective has numerous proposed explanations. Some evolutionary biologists claim religion fosters group co-operatively and enhance fitness. Ora et Laboram, translated as pray and work, is a game for 1-4 where players control a monastic economy during the Middle Ages. Players control clergyman: one prior (a monastic superior) and two lay brothers to produce goods, upgrade goods, purchase land and construct buildings and settlements. This religious urban planning builds up and improves the community. The player who "prays and works" the hardest wins.

Leonard: Sheldon, why is this letter in the trash?
Sheldon: Well, there's the possibility that a trash can spontaneously formed around the letter, but Occam's Razor would suggest that someone threw it out.

Normally, I don't like to trash a game right out of the gate, but it warrants it. Last Wednesday my gaming group opened Ora et Labora. For the first 30 minutes while reading the rules our group inspected, made fun of, and tried to justify the game components.

The player boards are made of card board thinner than that of Le Havre or Agricola. The two sided rondel must be deconstructed when the other side is desired. Though, it is not necessary to lock the spinner on the rondel. Also, the player aides are made of very thin paper and ideally should either come as France or Ireland version player aides. Instead all information is on one page. Half pages would be more useful. Simply put, Occam's Razor applied to Ora et Labora results in the following conclusion: Cheaper components result in higher profit margins and miffed gamers. I think I will wait until Z-Man Games releases a 10th anniversary edition.

Penny: Ok Sheldon, what can I get ya?
Sheldon: Alcohol.
Penny: Could you be a little more specific?
Sheldon: Ethyl alcohol ... 40 milliliters.

In Ora et Labora there two ways to play the game: as Ireland or France. The differences between the France and Ireland games are some different buildings and Ireland produces whiskey while France produces wine. Now alcohol is important to both countries cultural identities. As a physiologist, I have a strong side interest in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biologists discuss proximal vs. ultimate causation. 

My favorite example of explaining the distinction between the two is using sex. The proximal reason for sex is because is feels good. The ultimate causation reason for sex is copulation produces offspring. The same could be said for alcohol for Raj in the Big Bang Theory. Drinking alcohol is pleasurable and results in a buzz, but the ultimate reason for Raj drinking is to meet and talk to girls. I suspect the same may be true for Ora et Labora. The monks produce alcohol because it tastes good and is probably safer than the local drinking water, but without alcohol who would want to perform manual labor to produce goods.

Sheldon: My new computer came with Windows 7. Windows 7 is much user friendly than Windows Vista. I don't like that.

This is Rosenberg's first game with a rondel. This game mechanism helps eliminate the need to stock the board with additional goods each round like in Le Havre. This stocking of the board in Le Havre was not a major gripe. I admit to liking games with rondels (such as Imperial and Eve). In each round the goods (lumber, peat, clay, livestock, grain, coins, and wild) increase in value when not purchased. Later in game rounds grapes (or malt) and stone enter the game. The game is played over 24 rounds plus a bonus round. Obtaining goods is great, but there's more to the game than the introduction of a spinning rondel.

Sheldon: Oh, Research Lab is more than a game. It’s like the slogan says, the physics is theoretical, but the fun is real.
Leonard: We must not be playing it right.
Penny: All right, five. One, two, three, four, five. Oh, wow, look at that, my Department of Defence research grant is renewed.
Sheldon: Oh! Great roll! Now you can demolish your Soviet-style cyclotron and build the large Hadron Collider.
Penny: Yay.

I was surprised Sheldon would come up with such a boring roll-and-move game similar to the event driven spaces of The Game of Life. There's no dice in OeL; players may take one of three main actions: 
1. Place a clergyman: think take actions obtain goods or use card actions
2. Clear land to produce more lumber or peat: gain lumber or peat and make room for more buildings
3. Construct a building. Goods serve as the cost to construct buildings and settlements. When goods are upgraded by using actions they can utilized to build better buildings or upgraded eventually to victory points.

Before or after a main action: Buy landscape to expand available land and thus building spaces. As they get bought up they become more expensive. Covert resources: grain into straw, coins for a larger denomination.

The use of the clergymen are important to the game because the help upgrade goods. Of course there are no cyclotrons to upgrade, but grapes can be upgraded to wine, livestock to meat, etc. 

Leonard: What the hell are you talking about?
Sheldon: I’m attempting to communicate with you without my meaning becoming apparent to those around you. Let me try again. Have the indigenous fauna accepted you as one of their own? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

Besides a funny Monty Python reference, our first game we did not know what the hell we were doing and why we were building certain buildings. During later game rounds, new buildings become available. Although, there is a player aid I would suggestion looking at the building cards. For instance, building the Chamber of Wonders and trading in 13 different types of good results in 30 VPs. Knowing what's ahead will significantly help planning. Mid-way through our first game we leveled up and realized what we wanted to work towards.

Sheldon: He is 6th on my all-time enemies list between Joel Schumacher, who almost ruined the Batman franchise (you gotta give him that one after the Bat-nipples), and Billy Sparks, who lived down the street from me and put dog poop on the handles of my bicycle. In the words of Khan Noonian Singh from the immortal "Wrath of Khan," "He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him!"

Over the course of the game, players construct buildings by trading in resources. The buildings serve two purposes: 
1. They contact "Place a Clergyman" Actions
2. They grant victory points immediately and additional victory points when settlements are placed adjacent to them. Within the game certain buildings must be constructed on certain types of land: coast, plains, hillside, or mountains. Additionally, the yellow cloister buildings must be built adjacent to other cloister buildings.

Building is a very fun part of the game and equally frustrating. Getting mad at another player for ruining your plans of a future building purchase is amusing. When a player constructs a building they may use its action without expending a coin on their turn and use the action immediately by using the prior. 

Other players may Issue a "Work Contract" and pay 1 or 2 coins to use an opponent's action. This action is similar to the mechanic in Le Havre; The workers are only removed from their locations after all of them have been placed. The maddening part of the game is having to pay your opponent to use beneficial building actions.  

Sheldon: Dr. Sheldon Cooper for the win!
During select rounds when new building cards enter the game to be available for purchase, there is a settlement building phase. Settlements are built by trading in goods with food and energy values. Settlement cards are important because they to add VPs to your score at the end of the game.

Victory points are had in three ways:
1. Upgraded Goods 
2. Constructed Buildings and Dwellings (The Shields)
3. Settlements Points:  (Red House Values) the key is to build next to settlements

After the 24 rounds plus the bonus round, victory points are calculated. Our group was surprised who won. We expected the guy who had many building and settlement points would win; however, another player who upgraded many good won. I definitely want to play the game again and will have a strong strategy in hand.

Thumbs Up:
Another fun Rosenberg game with lots decisions

Streamlined Game Play

Gambling Aspect: Will the goods still be available when you turn comes around

Thumbs Down:
Cheaper Game Components: With great power comes the great responsibility to produce good game components. Opening the box felt like the string on your Ball in the Cup broke. 

Religious theme (Might not appeal to free-thinkers and Richard Dawkins types)

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Ora et Labora English Rules
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