If there’s ever a game that will illicit cries of “cheat!” from the opponent it’s a turn-based word game. Accusations of guessing or blindly stumbling over a word are abound, and if you’re playing apart, separated by the tubes of the Internet, then there’s always that suspicion that certain apps or anagrams sites have been called in to reinforce their knowledge of the English language. It’s a murky world where you can and should trust no-one. Just ask my brother about the word “oolite”, and you’ll see what I mean.
Quarrel, therefore, is aptly named. Another word based, argument inducer, it comes to XBLA after a successful debut on the iPhone. In it players are handed a series of nine tiles, each with a letter with a corresponding number of points attached to it, and are asked to make the most valuable word possible. Length is not always best, however, with quality beating quantity as “sounder” can easily be trumped by “qi”, given the esteem that ‘q’ is held in.
High scores and quick fingers mean more than just points on the board though, as Quarrel is as much about warfare as it is word play. Each word battle takes place over the territories of an island, with the winner claiming new land or successfully staving off unwanted advances. You start off by being given a random smattering of land, each with a number of cheery natives, the number of which is crucial because they represent the number of tiles you will have at your disposal when the fighting begins. Should a player with seven villagers attempt to invade a neighbour with only five then that puts the invader at a distinct advantage, being able to pick more letters and long words. It’s not an assured victory, should the defender spring a doozy like “proxy” then anything is possible, but the extra tiles do tip victory in his favour.
And so the strategy begins. Victory means all but one of your conquering horde then move into the captured territory, free to attack again in a pique of word savagery. Rampage too far however and you’ll leave a string of solitary defenders ripe for being picked off on the counterattack.
It’s a delightfully simple premise given an extra twist by the inclusion of a Risk-style boardgame and limiting the length of the words that players can produce. Given a straight anagram then it will always be those who can decipher the jumble first who would claim victory, but the extra layers are a fine equaliser. With reinforcements after each round, cautious players can build up a large number of villagers before marching into battle, whilst the more gung-ho or confident wordsmiths can seize an early advantage and hope the tiles favour them and their small strike team. It’s a very satisfying experience knowing that you and your four tiles have outwitted a seven letter word on the opposite side.
In the basic mode, play continues until one side dominates the map, turning each block to the colour of their banner on the way. In the early “campaign” this is all but a cake walk, and even when outnumbered by your opponent’s tiles you barely have to worry. Despite faced with relatively simple words worth large points they’ll still reveal vastly shortened attempts, causing you to win almost by default. Conversely the latter matches in the same campaign verge on being an exercise in futility, so quick and accurate are they with their choice. A moderate middle ground can be found on the way to the top, and further distractions can be found with the Quarrel challenges. Long words, winning streaks and alike are all laid down for you to achieve, although the base mechanics remain the same.
Online is possibly where the fairest challenges lies, pitted against likeminded humans. Here at least it feels more of an even keel, knowing that the chap at the other end of the connection is only limited by the grey stuff between his ears and the speed at which he can enter the solutions pumped out by his anagram solving app sat by his side. Those matchups that do appear to be genuine however manage to show off the finery of Quarrel’s core concept; victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat as one or the other of you goes blank for a round, and whole matches can be turned with moments of clarity over the mess of letters in front of you.
Happily the presentation is sweet enough to make light of all such conflict. With a world full of bright, primary colours, depicting toy castles, lush forests and coastlines with blue seas stretching away from their shores. The tiny Quarrellers themselves are a cheery sort, made up of Vikings, aliens and robots. They bleet and ba along in tones of joy and despair, echoing your own success as they stand their holding your letters above their heads like pastiches of ring girls from boxing.
Yet there are times when I feel there is too much heaped on the presentation of proceedings. As endearing as it may be the first dozen times, with the dramatic reveal of each side’s chosen word and the subsequent scuffle and take over, long matches can feel overly so as there is no way to quickly skip through this fluff. The effect is more prominent should you be involved in a three- or four-player game where you may be sat on the side-lines for a considerable period of time, though you too can guess at the anagrams whilst rivals duke it out.
In an era when everything is heading to the digital platform, I find it intriguing that I consider that I would probably enjoy Quarrel more as a board game (which is indeed where its roots lie). The understandable lack of a local multiplayer option, the odd word filter that Microsoft applies online, and the periods of inactivity when playing with three or more players leaves me longing to have that physical connection playing with others in the same room affords.
Everything about Quarrel is wonderful fun, from the main themes to the ways battles can swing back and forth even within a single round. Nonetheless, as good as it is, the niggles leave a slight tarnish to an otherwise oolite solid puzzler.