Ora et Labora means praying and working. It is about developing and running a monastery in the middle ages. This Uwe Rosenberg design has many similarities to his two earlier designs, Agricola and Le Havre, especially the latter. You construct buildings which have various abilities, and you place your people on these buildings to utilise these abilities. Buildings come from a common pool, so once a player has constructed a building, no one else can construct it, but they can pay the owner to make use of it.
Each player starts with a plot of land which is partially developed, with basic buildings, limited available space for new buildings, and some forests and moors. Forests and moors can be cleared to obtain wood and peat respectively, and the cleared land can then be used for building construction. The play area can be expanded by buying more plots of land, which can give more forests and moors, and also different landscape types (coast, sea, mountain) which allow specific types of buildings to be constructed.
There is a goods accumulation mechanism similar to both Agricola and Le Havre, where all types of goods will gradually accumulate until someone takes an action (e.g. using a building, clearing a forest) to claim the goods. The amount of goods drops to zero and starts accumulating again. In this game, this mechanism is implemented using the production wheel, which makes things easier to manage. This is not the core of the game though. This is just a solution to a minor problem. So, just a nice-to-have.
The core of the game is still the buildings, and how you make use of them. There are many ways to earn victory points. There are many types of goods in the game, and some types are worth victory points. Buildings themselves are worth points too, and you need to spend resources to build them. Every building has a settlement value, and these are scored using a special building type - the settlements. Settlements can be built only at specific times during the game. If you have accumulated the required resources, you can build one. It is not mandatory, but it is usually desirable. At game end, each settlement scores its own settlement value, and the settlement values of the four buildings orthogonally adjacent to it. So you want to place settlements next to high settlement value buildings, and vice versa.
Unlike Uwe Rosenberg's two previous hits, Ora et Labora doesn't have a feeding phase where you must have sufficient food set aside or suffer a penalty. This is replaced by the settlement phase, where if you don't have the resources set aside to be able to build a settlement, it would be at worst a missed opportunity rather than a penalty. Depending on how you develop your monastery, sometimes you may not want to build many settlements.
The game comes with two ways to play - Ireland and France. The difference is in the buildings. Each building card is double sided so you decide up front which side you want to play. I have not studied the differences in detail. I just know that in France you drink wine and in Ireland you drink beer.
So far I have only played 2-player games. The structure and game end condition are a little different from 3P and 4P games. I am assuming the overall feel of the gameplay is similar. In the games that I have played, we seem to focus a lot on construction. Each building is worth points (both direct victory points and the potential in its settlement value), and sometimes I construct a building more for its points than because of the intention of using it. I wonder whether this is normal. That said, some buildings and building combinations are quite useful. I sometimes use my opponent's buildings, when they suit my purpose. The cost is not too high.
There is still the greed vs planning tension. When you see that a certain good has accumulated a lot, it's very tempting to grab the lot instead of sticking to what you have been planning to do. Do I grab it before my opponent does so? Should I delay constructing that building by one turn? There are often many juicy choices, which means tough decisions.
There is also that "maximising" feeling when you play this game. You want to make the most of every action. You try to build up an efficient scoring engine. You try to develop a high-scoring monastery. Many things are achieved by many small steps, so you are meticulously planning your moves and squeezing every bit out of your actions. One of your three pawns is a prior (whom I call "the boss"), and if he is idle when you construct a building, you can immediately place him on the new building as a free action to utilise the building. You want to make use of this as much as possible. There are a few such small tactical considerations throughout the game.
For 2-player games, the game does not end after a fixed number of rounds like in the 3P and 4P game. The game ends when there is only one building left in the common pool (i.e. not yet built). So there is some tension in timing the game end. If you are using some building combo to create many goods worth victory points, you may want to let the game drag longer. If your opponent is doing this, then you want to try to construct buildings quickly to expedite the game end, even if the buildings aren't high-scoring or useful to you.
Ora et Labora feels very familiar, because I have played Le Havre. It feels more open, and the constant pressure in having enough food is replaced by the less intimidating settlement phases. It has a spatial element in the landscapes types and the possible expansions. I can't say which is better. Perhaps it is unnecessary to do so. If you like development games this is a good choice. If you're looking for something very different from Le Havre, you'll be disappointed. Ora et Labora is a complex development game, and it has some differences from its predecessors. I see it as one more choice on my shelf when I feel like playing this type of game. There are many possibilities to pursue in this game, and I like the sense of achievement in developing my own monastery.
The level of player interaction is similar to Le Havre and Agricola, perhaps slightly less tense, not because of the type of interaction itself, but because the game system is more forgiving. In Agricola, claiming four food from the board just before harvest time can be a very nasty action to your opponent who is short on food.
From Agricola to Le Havre to Ora et Labora, the designs have shifted to be less restrictive and more open, giving more options for scoring. However I don't see the earlier designs as inferior, just different. So Ora et Labora does not replace any of its elder brothers, it adds to the family.