For decades, Scrabble and Risk have been two of the most successful and widely loved family board games. Evidently, some genius at the game studio Denki recently looked at this state of affairs and thought, “Why not shamelessly steal both of ’em at once?” The result is Quarrel, a cute and fun but not particularly substantial iOS game that has found its way to XBLA.
No matter what mode you choose, a round of Quarrel always unfolds the same way. You’re presented with one of several small maps. The computer randomly assigns you and your opponents to control certain territories, and then populates those territories with a few soldiers each. A player is randomly chosen to play first, and that player makes some Risk-style decisions—he can transfer soldiers between bordering territories, or attack his enemies.
Once an attack takes place, the game switches into Scrabble mode. The dueling players are shown the same set of letters—which, in true Scrabble fashion, have different point values depending on how rare they are in the English language—and must use those letters to make a word. The twist is that players are limited in the number of these letters they’re allowed to use; they’re allowed one letter for each soldier they have on the territory that’s involved in the battle.
If the attacker wins, he takes over the territory with his men, leaving one behind to occupy the territory he attacked from. If the defender wins, the attacker is left with only one man on the territory. If a player wins a match despite having fewer soldiers, he takes some of his opponent’s men as “prisoners,” who can be used to make extra letters in battle. At the end of a player’s turn, he gets one extra soldier on each tile— “reinforcements.”
The combination of these two board games will force you to make some interesting strategic decisions. You have to be careful not to leave sparsely populated territories near well-stocked opponents—no matter how good you are at Scrabble, you probably won’t be able to make a winning two-letter word if your opponent gets to use six letters. If you’re thinking about attacking an enemy who’ll be able to use more letters than you, you have to factor your foe’s Scrabble skills into your decision. And you always have to choose between staying on the attack and consolidating your forces so you don’t spread yourself too thin.
I do have a fairly significant complaint about the overall setup of the game, however: I absolutely hate the winner-take all nature of the battles. Even if you tie your opponent on points and the match is decided on the basis of who took the least amount of time, all of the loser’s soldiers are killed (except for one if he’s the attacker), and the winner loses nothing. Oh, and speaking of matches decided on the basis of time rather than points? So far as I can tell, if your enemy is controlled by the A.I. rather than a human, you will always lose.
Winner-take-all battles are in stark contrast to the Risk setup, in which soldiers are whittled away a couple at a time; most Risk battles have casualties on both sides, and evenly matched opponents usually destroy each other before a territorial dispute is settled. One wonders why Denki, so eager to steal from Risk in every other respect, changed this feature for the worse. Perhaps a traditional setup leads to too many two- and three-letter battles, but the alternative is still frustrating.
As I mentioned above, the gameplay mode you choose doesn’t really matter much. In the single-player game, you can play a quick match, play a series of increasingly difficult matches, try to overcome various challenges (such as capturing a certain number of prisoners, or coming from behind to win), or customize a game (you can choose a map, the number of opponents, etc.). Sure, you’ll notice changes in the difficulty, especially given that some modes have a time limit and some don’t, and opponents with skill levels similar to yours can take forever to beat. But no matter what, it’s still Risk strategy followed by Scrabble fights.
Unfortunately, because all players use the same set of tiles for their words, local multiplayer isn’t possible (you could just copy your opponents’ words). But there is online multiplayer. I wasn’t able to put together a ranked match—there just aren’t enough players yet, apparently—but I had no trouble at all finding quick matches. These contests run smoothly, though they don’t offer the wide range of options available in the offline game.
Quarrel is amazing when it comes to the technical and presentation side of things, with polished and colorful graphics, amusing animations, cute sound effects, upbeat music, and workable controls. Quarrel was originally an iOS game, and it must be easier to spell out words quickly with a touchscreen rather than a thumbstick, but I found it relatively easy to punch in words quickly. An especially nice touch on the presentation front is that the game constantly bombards you with random facts—after each match you’ll learn the anagrams that use all of the letters you just saw, and you’ll also see plenty of definitions for words you don’t know.
Of course, I should also mention one bizarre feature of Quarrel that’s been in the news lately. Single-player matches are governed by the Scrabble dictionary, meaning that pretty much every word you’ve ever heard of is fair game. However, online games are run through Microsoft’s decency filter—a filter that blocks not only legitimate words that have risque connotations in some contexts (“shaft,” “balls”) but also completely innocent words (“help”).
So, here’s the bottom line: Quarrel is a well-made and fun game that will put your vocabulary to the test, and at a price of just $5, it’s a good buy for Risk and Scrabble fans. It will be especially fun for gamers who have friends online who share their tastes. However, some aspects of this game are quite frustrating, so expect Quarrel to become a pleasant diversion, not an addiction.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
The game looks cute and polished. 3.5 Control
A gamepad is never a good way to type, but the developers make it work. 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is upbeat, the sound effects adorable. 3.8 Play Value
All of the game modes feel the same, but the basic gameplay can be compelling for Risk and Scrabble fans. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best