If there are two joys I don’t indulge enough it’s word games and strategy games, good thing somebody combined the two and made Quarrel which is out today on XBLA. The game describes itself as Scrabble mixed with RISK and while it may lack some of the complexity of those two classics that phrasing does seems apt. The best part is the game is cheap (at least by XBLA standards, the iPhone version is a couple of dollars cheaper) at only 400 Microsoft fun bucks A.K.A. a cool five bones. Question is though does this game happen to be worthwhile for non-linguaphiles or does this game’s verbosity become a foil to those who are annoyed by people who use words like verbosity.
So I might as well say up front that this will probably be a shorter review because this game is essentially all mechanics, there’s a lot of them and they’re well-built but there isn’t really any context or story to worry about here. The real hook is the game’s simple but addicting gameplay, you have a map which is split up between all the players who then have units allotted to those territories so that turn based strategy can commence. Each player can transfer units to an adjacent territory or attack enemy territories during their turn with each one of their own territories, it’s basically just RISK in that fashion. The hook comes when you get into battle where instead of rolling dice you and the enemy have to make words using a jumble of letters all of which have a point value, the winner is the one who makes the highest scoring word fastest. There is some strategy involved though as you can only use as many letters in your words as you bring units-up to a max of eight-with you to attack (or have to defend).
There are two distinct strategies to use both reliant on different mechanics and word lengths the game has which allows players of all vocabularies to have some fun. If you have that max of eight units on a territory you’ll be able to make that particular battle’s anagram, player’s both use the same pool of letters and every seemingly random pool of letters can be reconfigured into a word or phrase for a ton of score and a nigh guaranteed win. However let’s say instead of massing your troops on the battlefield you decide to spread out a little bit and bolster your defense all over, well in certain situations a lower unit count is in its own way useful. When you have lower unit count than the enemy and manage to win a battle (tough but possible depending on your opponent) you can sometimes take some of the enemy’s units prisoner and make them fight for you, buffing you and rubbing your enemy’s nose in it. With either strategy if you keep racking up the territories you’ll gain certain bonuses. With each win you have on your turn with a certain group of units you’ll gain more treasure which allows you to call in back up units in a pinch, those extra wins will also increase the number of units you get when you end your turn.
The gameplay as you can tell is strong but that’s not the only high point; there is also the jaunty, vibrant, and just little jazzy presentation to enjoy. The stages have a nice over-saturated look to them with a soft design that’s whimsical enough to be just shy of childish. All of the characters look like bowling pins with heads and are modeled to be meme-tastic groups of warriors like Ninjas and Pirates; the impression you get from the whole thing is very similar to that of the Worms series. You also have some nice jazzy music filled with lots of great stings for when important events happen in-game and a tons of flavor text describing what your and the opponent’s words mean (because you can and totally will win on a guess) as well as just other random fun stuff.
The only real problem in this game is an A.I. that seems just a hair too damn knowledgeable, obviously this isn’t apparent in the multiplayer but I’ve been playing pre-release so the A.I. and I have been the best of frenemies. The problem here is the A.I. already knows all the words the game has programmed into it and it isn’t afraid to use them. While I’m certainly impressed by the lexicon the devs have managed to cram into this, it’s the rare human player who is able muster something like the word “taconite” (which is a rock and not a delicious evening of Mexicana) out of thin god damn air (I never saw the word taconite in this game just for the record but it seemed like a good example). The result is you very regularly calling bullshit on the game only for it to pull out a description that you never could have imagined, it’s educational but also incredibly frustrating. All that said the game does only cost $5 and despite it’s E10+ rating it allows you to use swear words (at least in single player) so for entirely puerile reasons I’m pretty willing to forgive this flaw.
In the end I think this game is ton of fun in single player and I’m sure ten times as much in multiplayer if you can bring a bunch of word nuts together to play it. While it certainly has a flaw or two and it isn’t exactly a substantive gaming experience, as essentially what amounts to an online board game it’s fantastic. It’s cheap, it’s addictive, and it’s educational fun which assuming you’re not adverse to the occasional issue of National Geographic can be one of the best kinds. So for making me feel dumb while actually making me smarter, not to mention allowing me to win a match with the word “shit”, Quarrel gets a 4.5 of out 5 stars.