To new players Ora et Labora is a strategically ambiguous game. The decision tree is fairly extensive with enough things that seem to be good that it can sometimes be difficult to identify what moves are good and which are merely distractions. While even at thirteen plays I think I have a lot to still learn, I think I have learned enough that it is worth starting a discussion on Ora et Labora strategy. I have only played the four player game once, and have not played the two player game so I expect most of these suggestions are most useful for the three player game. Additionally, I have played Ireland a lot more than I have played France, and I suspect that my perspective of what is good is warped a little bit based on that. Most of these principles should be useful regardless of player count or scenario though.
Your First Action As First Player Should Be To Take Wood
Using your first action for wood is useful for two reasons. The first is that it immediately clears off a space on your board, allowing you to start planning your settlement placement without being pushed into taking wood later on when there are better options available. The second reason is that it enables you to use your second action to build the Cloister Courtyard and thus trade three different resources into six identical resources. This is useful because there are a number of significant buildings that convert unlimited amounts of a basic resource into useful advanced goods. The Cloister Courtyard enables you to gather large amounts of those resources and thus set yourself up to use these conversion buildings more efficiently.
Your First Action As Second Player Should Be To Take Wood
In addition to enabling you to immediately prepare yourself for the A settlement phase as noted above, taking the two wood puts pressure on the first player, forcing them to build the Cloister Courtyard on their second action rather than allowing them the flexibility to perform other actions before their construction action. If they choose to ignore this pressure then it lets you build the Cloister Courtyard and use it immediately. Otherwise you can build the Priory, which lets you use any building occupied by the Prior, and immediately use the Cloister Courtyard anyway.
Bonus Actions Are Key
In general, each player has a limited, equal number of actions during the course of the game, with the exact number of actions dependent on the number of players. The only way to break this limit is to construct a building and use the prior to immediately take a bonus action. The momentum gained by placing a building and getting an action at the same time is enough that it is usually best to maximize the number of bonus prior actions during the course of the game. The best way to do this is to use up your workers as fast as possible, either by maximizing your ability to place workers on your own board to perform actions or by having buildings that other people want to use.
Constructing buildings that are good places to use your secondary workers helps this greatly. Buildings that provide you with a way to get scenario-specific goods, let you use other people’s buildings while still using up one of your workers, let you clear land while using up one of your workers, or are just easy to use without a lot of requirements are very good for this as they let you easily and efficiently move back to the point where you can place your prior and thus maximize the number of your bonus actions.
Maximize The Use Of Late Game Buildings Through Combos
Particularly later in the game when you are going to have a limited number of worker refreshment cycles to take advantage of the buildings that give you a large number of victory points with a single action, having ways to use the same building repeatedly can be particularly powerful. In Ireland these buildings are the Priory and the Grand Manor. In France they are the Priory, Palace, and Cloister Garden. At first I underestimated the value of these buildings, but now I see them as the primary way to get serious points out of goods, by allowing you to use the Wonder buildings multiple times in a row, or settlements, by letting you use the Castle multiple times in a row. .
You Cannot Ignore The Settlement Phase
While you may initially feel “less pressure” from the Settlement Phase then you do from the feeding phases in Agricola or Le Havre, that does not make the Settlement Phase any less important than the feeding phases in either of those games. If you handle the Settlement Phase poorly you will lose to those who are able to maximize their settlement capabilities. It is important to start thinking about how, where and when you are going to arrange your settlements from the very beginning of the game. This is largely because maximizing the points earned from the dwelling values of your buildings requires you to place them in-between as many of your settlements as possible and being able to do this requires you to not only clear out forests and moors, but also clear them out at the right time. With a bit of planning, it is possible to earn 20-30 bonus points from a high dwelling value building, and even with scores in the 200-300 range this is extremely significant.
The settlement phase really deserves its own article (with pictures and the like) of its own, but for now I will just encourage you to treat the settlement phase with the same seriousness you would treat the feeding phase in Agricola or Le Havre.
The Most Valuable Of The Basic Goods Is Livestock
While other goods can be more valuable with conversion actions, sheep are the most valuable basic good because of their high native food value of 2. A single use of the cloister courtyard for sheep is sufficient to produce enough food for any of the early to mid-game settlements, and a group of them is a useful building block towards placing the Village and Hilltop Village. They are also fairly easy to convert into even larger amounts of food with the Slaughterhouse, and in Ireland can be used to get money without actually consuming any resources using the Spinning Mill. So unless you have a specific need for a particular resource, it is usually best to take livestock due to their high value in their natural state.
Scenario Goods Are Important
While it might be possible to win Ora et Labora without paying attention to Whiskey and Beer (in Ireland) or Wine and Bread (in France), not having access to either of them makes the game much more difficult. This is because these goods are the easiest way to get reliquaries, which are both required to get wonders and very valuable in their own right (worth 8 victory points each). I have done very well both investing a great deal of time in getting large amounts of beer/whiskey and wine/bread and have also done very well simply using the secondary buildings that give smaller amount of these resources, but ignoring them entirely does not seem to be a real option.
Do Not Buy Too Much Land
It is very easy, particularly for new players, to buy more land then strictly necessary. Resist this urge. You will generally only need to purchase two or three land tiles over the course of the game, mostly because there are only so many buildings that can be constructed over the course of the game, but also because the settlement phase rewards you for having lots of buildings close together. If you have buildings randomly spread across a half-dozen terrain tiles you will not be maximizing your settlement points.
The only situation where I think this could be violated is if you are able to put together a strong Irish Festival Ground strategy, which gives you points based on the number of forest and moor tiles that you have on your board, but even then you probably should be using the Bulwark as much as possible to get the additional terrain tiles rather than the just spending money.
Watch For Disruption Potential
Ora et Labora rewards players for successfully executing particularly intricate chains of actions. By maintaining a strong awareness of what other players are doing, and how important it is to them to do it at a particular moment in time, you can take actions with their workers and potentially throw their entire chain out of whack with a potentially big impact on their score. Of course, this only works if you do not have a similarly tight action chain or at the very least are aware enough of points in the game where you have enough flexibility to be a disruptive source.
Abuse The Hospice/Guesthouse
While there are a lot of buildings I am fond of, none of them quite equal the Hospice/Guesthouse. Particularly with the three player game, where a large number of buildings go unbuilt, the Guesthouse allows for an amazing amount of flexibility. This is particularly useful when combined with the Grand Manor/Palace and the Priory, making it possible to use a variety of different unbuilt buildings or using the same unbuilt building three times in a row.
I still have a lot to learn about Ora et Labora, and it is quite possible that in another dozen plays I will look back at my advice here and laugh at a few things. So far I have found these to be pretty good rules of thumb while playing Ora et Labora. This really is an impressive design, and the way the web of conversion chains, actions, and requirements weave together creates a rich and rewarding experience that provides strategic avenues without really giving you one of a set number of paths to follow. Right now I am working with my local gaming partners to experiment with the relative value of extreme strategies focusing on settlement points vs. goods points, and determining if either one is better than a hybrid between them. I suspect after this I will start to look at the Festival Ground in more detail and then see what sort of additional strategies are possible with France. How have your early experienced with Ora et Labora been?
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