Quarrel has finally arrived on Xbox LIVE Arcade after a brief detour to iOS (as Quarrel Deluxe) and is a game to settle old scores. Ninjas (20 points) destroy pirates (9 points) thanks to that valuable letter J. The arcade (10 points) beats the console (9 points) and a Siamese Tyrannosaurus rex and Godzilla (78 points) will beat basically whatever you put in front of it, except perhaps if the individual members of ZZ Top took it on separately – now there’s a film. Are you listening, Hollywood?
Quarrel is about dominating people with words. That doesn’t mean dressing up in leather and demeaning someone while they grovel at your feet (that’s how that works, right?) but instead, you have to come up with better words than them from the same rack of letters. To back up slightly; the game begins with elements of Risk. A map is divided into a number of territories and split between each player, with a random number of troops is placed on each one. Players take it in turns and can either attack an adjacent territory to capture it, move troops between adjacent territories that they already hold, or end their turn and receive reinforcements – one troop goes to every territory they hold. The goal is to capture the whole board.
Where the words come in is when an attack takes place. The owners of each territory go head to head and are given the same eight letters, the person that makes the best word out of those letters wins and the territory will be captured, or successfully defended. Where it becomes interesting, however, is that the player is limited by the amount of troops on a territory. If there are five troops, a five letter word is the best a player can make. While this means that attacking weaker spaces is advantageous, it’s never a guarantee of victory, as those poor defeated pirates will tell you. Damn ninjas. It’s about the score of the word, not it’s length, and so using high-value letters when you can is key.
Various other techniques are available to help your way to victory. Backup troops are earned by constantly making strong words, and trailblazing across a map – winning many battles in succession with one team – can earn loads of bonus troops in that team’s wake.
It’s an excellent, balanced, fast-paced and fiercely strategic game. Going first has its advantages and being the last of four players to take a turn leaves you vulnerable, but rather it changes the way you have to play rather than reducing your chance of winning. Rather than play conservatively as you would have to do at the start where everyone’s strong, you can trailblaze through units weakened by other players and find yourself in the driving seat – or you could be wiped out before you even get a turn; nothing is guaranteed in Quarrel. Winning a match from what should have been an unwinnable position is an incredible feeling – helped in no small part by the personality Denki have filled the game with.
From the cast of miniature characters beaming at a victory or looking distraught at a loss, to the tremendous use of sound, everything here is dripping with Denki charm. Words are shouted out (in a garbled manner) by your troops as each battle’s results are revealed, and the bigger the score, the more excited those little guys are, yelling speech bubbles that fill almost the whole screen. When you’re proud of a word, the game knows it, and knows how to make you feel awesome about it. Making a pathetic two-letter word will result in a whimper from the troops, and you can never feel too bad about losing because it’s just too funny.
All the single-player modes are based upon the same rules. Domination is the traditional mode. Elsewhere you can take on an increasingly clever range of opponents one-on-one, or compete in a series of challenges such as starting a map with one territory and having to trailblaze over as much of the map as you can, with only your vocabulary to support you. Or an online anagram solver, if you’re one of those odd people that buys word games but doesn’t really like the “word” parts.
Unfortunately this is one Quarrel you won’t be having with your other half though, unless it comes after a quarrel about something else which resulted in one of you being kicked out of the house and forced to live somewhere else that happens to have an Xbox with a copy of Quarrel on it. Which is to say, there’s no local multiplayer. The game revolves entirely around making better words than your opponent and it’s one that simply couldn’t work if you could see what the other player has come up with.
Multiplayer over Xbox LIVE is present though, which makes this the ultimate version of Quarrel. Quarrel Deluxe Deluxe, if you will. Gameplay over Xbox LIVE works exactly as it does in the single player, with all the options you’d expect. It works brilliantly, save for a bizarre and secret list of words that Microsoft doesn’t allow to be transmitted over Xbox LIVE. While this list includes things you might expect like ****, ******, and the utterly despicable **** (which is this reviewer’s personal favourite) it also bans the use of harmless words such as help and train. This means if you ever find yourself tied to a railroad track and you’ve got nothing but Quarrel on XBLA to alert someone to your peril, you’re basically shafted (16 points, offline only). It’s absurd and it’s restrictive, but every player is bound by the same word list and so it offers little advantage to any player, instead making it just a minor annoyance in what would otherwise be a perfect online experience.
Quarrel had a troubled development, but it’s finally here now and was more than worth the wait. It’s the best word game on the service, a great twist on the Risk formula, and should really be challenging Uno as the casual gamer’s multiplayer title of choice. That it’s been released at only 400 points means there’s no excuse not to buy it, if only to show your support for that sort of pricing structure and for a developer whose love for the medium couldn’t be more obvious from the game they’ve created.