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Quarrel

(UTV Ignition Games; US: 25 Jan 2012)

Okay, so if you haven’t heard, everybody is saying that Quarrel is a mix of two classic boardgames, Scrabble and Risk.  And this is a pretty fair description of this word game released on iOS last year and recently released for XBLA.


Basically, Quarrel features a gameboard divided into territories.  Each player is assigned a few territories on the board and a number of units that occupy those territories.  The object of the game is to take over all of the territories by engaging in word battles using these units.


“Quarrels” involve battles between players to score the best word that they can in an eight letter anagram.  When a quarrel is initiated (in other words, when a set of units attempts to take another territory), each of the player’s units engaged in the battle gives that player one letter to form a word.  In other words, if the player has six attacking units, he or she can then form a word up to six letters long.  If the opposing player has four units, then he or she will defend by making a word up to only four letters long.  Since some letters in the anagram are worth more points, it is still possible to win a quarrel with fewer units, assuming one can come up with a “better” (higher scoring) word than your opponent.  Ties go the player who entered the word the most quickly.


On the face of it, this makes it sound as if Quarrel resolves that pesky problem of Risk, the luck of the die roll.  Basically, it is vocabulary knowledge and the ability to quickly come up with the best word possible that determines the outcome of each battle, so it seems very much more like a skill-based battle system than the die comparisons that govern a game of Risk.


This is true.  Sort of.


Initially I enjoyed playing Quarrel pretty well.  I like word games, and the added light strategy element of taking over territories seemed to work well enough with the more recognizable word game mechanic of unscrambling some letters to score words.  The art style is simple and cute.  Units range from cartoony robots and aliens to cartoony pirates and ninjas, and the chaotic flurries of cute, but ferocious battles are fun to watch. 


However, as the game progresses in difficulty, some of the weaknesses of the design begin to shine through.  Battles in Quarrel are “winner take all.”  Thus, if eight units are defeated by four units (which, again, is possible due to the varied values of letters used), all eight are destroyed.  Essentially, you can begin losing pretty rapidly if you screw up just one or two quarrels.  And while I am pretty good at word games, even a good player is bound to get tripped up once or twice in a game in which spelling words is complicated by a fairly short timer.


To complicate matters is an input system that may not be the best choice for a timed word game.  I played the game on XBLA, and I imagine that a keyboard would have gone a long way to winning me a number of quarrels in which my opponent and I tied for points and the outcome of those quarrels came down to input speed.  Losing all of your units on what is essentially a tie seems a pretty harsh penalty.


But worse in my book is the kinds of words that Quarrel accepts.  It does allow for abbreviations (accepting both “mm” and “DUI,” for example), which is fine, I guess, but AI players also form words like “fubs,” “egma,” “siker,” and “incages.”  None of these were words that I could find in a standard college dictionary.  Online dictionaries helped a little (once I could run searches in multiple dictionaries, especially ones that included the Oxford English Dictionary).  Nevertheless, some words didn’t show up in any dictionary that I checked in, some were hopelessly archaic (I mean, seriously, a word used exclusively in the early 1600s?), some were words exclusive to reqional usage, or others were simply unusual variant spellings of other words.  Additionally, I personally don’t think digraphs like “ch-” constitute actual words.


I guess that this wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me, though—after all, AI frequently needs an edge on a human brain to even up the odds—were it not for the “winner take all” element of battle and the fact that the player is always given the final turn in a round of Quarrel.  Basically, a loss or two early on means that your forces are pretty much decimated from the outset.  Even were they not, the fact that the weakest enemy AI is given the first turn, then a smarter AI, then a smarter one, then finally the player, virtually assures that by the time that the player gets their turn that the board will be dominated by the most difficult AI (wielding a pretty bizarre set of obscure words and a large numbers of troops).


Like Risk, Quarrel matches take some time to complete, too, so if you lose a couple early battles, quitting is really preferable to sitting through the lengthy “quarrel, reassign troops, reinforce troops” process that each turn requires because defeat is the most likely outcome should you get your first turn holding four isolated territories with the best AI in the game holding most of the territory on the board already. 


I think that I would very much prefer a Steam release for Quarrel, in which I could be guaranteed a fairer experience with a keyboard to battle for word supremacy, rather than with a more awkward controller interface.  That being said, what I really would like is a more reasonable dictionary to define play (you know, one that uses words that are dominantly used in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries).  Pulling off victories with obscure words in tournament-level Scrabble is one thing, but I didn’t come to Quarrel to play tournament-level Scrabble.  In that regard, the online multiplayer mode is a more suitable option, as you will be playing against players that probably mostly use words from this and the last century.  You know, words that you’ve heard of.


I’m really looking for a word game that is something as casual as the game’s cutesy presentation seems to imply that this game is supposed to be.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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