XBLA Review: Quarrel



If you don’t own an iPad or iPhone (or even if you do), last year’s release of Denki and UTV Ignition’s party strategy game Quarrel might’ve flown completely under your radar. Now Xbox 360 owners have a belated chance to check the game out as Quarrel hits XBLA, and this immensely fun blend of Risk and Scrabble is a surprise treat that’s a must for gaming wordsmiths.

As Quarrel kicks off, you’re dropped onto a game board divided into coloured plots of land, all split up equally between you and your opponents. You start out with a number of troops on each section of land, some squads slightly smaller than others. The stronger your forces in a plot of land, the more likely they’ll win in battle, with the aim being to take on smaller enemy forces which border your land, annihilate them and claim the territory for yourself, repeating the process until you’ve achieved total domination.
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So far, so Risk. But where Quarrel differs is in its use of clever wordplay as a substitute for the dice-rolling statistical probability of Risk’s battles. When you start a fight with bordering lands in Quarrel, a Countdown-style jumbled eight letter anagram appears at the bottom of the screen. Each soldier in your plot of land represents a letter space for you to use – eight soldiers means you can serve up an eight letter word or less from the letter jumble, but if you only have one or two, your word options are severely limited. Each letter has a point score, like in Scrabble, and within the time limit, you have to make the highest scoring word possible from the anagram letters with your available troops. Invade enemy land and score a higher word than them and you’ll take their land, moving your troops in to occupy it. Successfully defend against an attacking opponent and you’ll whittle down the amount of soldiers they have, taking prisoners to use for yourself if you fend off a squad bigger than you.

The strategy of Risk is carried over perfectly. When you take over a piece of territory with a squad, the majority of your troops take up residence in your new plot of land, leaving a lone soldier behind to guard the other space. If you’re on a hot streak, you might be tempted to push ahead and keep ploughing through into enemy territory to grab all you can with your turn, but the further you move ahead, the more thinly your numbers are stretched, and it might leave you open to slaughter for the next opponent. Reinforcements drop in after every turn, and you can move troops from one of your spaces into a bordering bit of land to reinforce weak spots. It becomes a balancing game, learning when to quit while your ahead and build your defenses, but knowing when to strike before stronger adversaries have a chance to regroup.
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The Scrabble element is a fantastic inclusion, too, and while Risk was all about having greater numbers and sheer luck on your side, that’s only a part of Quarrel. Sure, it’s definitely helpful to have seven or eight soldiers in every plot of land to give you more letters to play with, but if you’re a cunning wordsmith or have sharp eyes and quick fingers, then you can often best your opponent with less letters than they have. Someone might come at you with eight soldiers, but though the temptation is to go for the longest word possible, it’s the letter score that counts; if you’re quick enough to spot a high-scoring four letter word, you could still beat a larger opposing force, helping even the odds and make the game more fun for everyone (and challenging, too, especially as the timer ticks down and your brain’s vocabulary vanishes under the pressure).

If two players score the same, whoever answered first wins. You’re also given a ‘level up’ meter – the more word points you score and the more land you grab, the higher it climbs, and with each level, you get an extra backup soldier to use for an extra letter in battle. Even if it’s not your turn, you can still guess words or try to nail the anagram for more points and units to use when your turn rolls around, helping make the wait between turns more eventful. Even losing has its benefits, helping keep you on your toes and teaching you new words you might’ve missed. While you’ll be pretty screwed if you go up against Crossword champions, in general company it’s a well-rounded, incredibly fun mash-up that anyone can jump into and have a chance of winning.
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The game is split into a varied selection of single player modes and online multiplayer. There’s no local multiplayer, but understandably so – it’d be incredibly easy to cheat if you could see your friend’s word choice being typed in on-screen. The single player section is surprisingly robust: Quick Match speedily sets up a single match against an AI opponent who matches your skill level; Tutorial does what you’d expect, with a special match to introduce you to the rules; Domination gives you a long-form campaign to play through, as you strive to conquer 12 increasingly tough islands, one match for each, some against a single opponent, some against up to three; Showdown is a 9-round series of one-on-one battles; ‘Challenges’ pits you against opponents, but gives you specific challenges, like winning five word battles in a row, and Make Match lets you put together a custom match of your choosing.

As robust and entertaining as the single player modes can be, they’re a little more troublesome than multiplayer at times. The order in which players take their turns isn’t randomized, and the game always seems to make you take your turn after all the other AI players. Sometimes it feels like you’re missing out on the strategic advantage of getting the first move, and being last makes waiting for your shot a bit of a chore. While the ability for all players to take a stab at the Countdown Conundrum-style anagram while other players fight helps keep the tedium between turns to a minimum, it’d be nice if you could skip the victory animations, at least for the single player game to speed things along. The challenge level ramps up a bit too unfairly in later stages, too; some opponents are simply programmed to have a flawless vocubulary and impeccable speed, and it’s no fun going up against an AI enemy who almost never fails to nail the 8 letter anagrams.
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Thankfully the majority of those niggling issues vanish if you take your game online, where you can take on players of a similar rank, try to find a random game or play with friends. The online multiplayer brings out the best in the game, and when you’re up against actual people, who can fumble just as easily as you, it makes the challenge much fairer and more fun, and the engaging strategy and wordplay at the game’s core make it an addictive and ridiculously entertaining game with a cute and colourful cartoon visual style. What’s even better is that it’s available at the bargain price of 400 Microsoft Points, making it an absolute steal.

The single player mode has a few unfortunate foibles, but if you take it online, Quarrel is a quirky and incredibly fun fusion of Risk and Scrabble. If you’re a sucker for word games and are aching for a new XBLA title to scratch that itch, then Quarrel is a must buy, especially for such a great, low price.

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Quarrel is now available to buy on the Xbox Live Marketplace, priced at 400 Microsoft Points.