Quarrel, XBLA – Review
Review by Will Templeton
Quarrel’s been through a lot on its journey to XBLA. Rejected several times by publishers everywhere, Denki’s taken the stance that the publishers are playing it safe rather than playing the market – that their little word game could stand on its own two feet in the land of guns. Finally, following its success on iOS, Denki was able to secure a publisher and release a much more full-featured version, including the simultaneous multiplayer that was so tragically cut from the mobile app.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Quarrel is a delicious mix between the best parts of Risk and the best parts of Countdown. Players occupy a board filled with territories, are given troops on those territories, and then battle their neighbours for domination of the board. In battle, each player is given the same jumbling of eight letters that have the potential to form an eight-letter word, but the length of word you’re able to form depends on the amount of troops you have in your square. You can see that the word is EQUALITY (29), but you only have two guys? Tough. Looks like you’re stuck with QI (16). At the end of your turn, you get reinforcements based on the amount of territories you hold and the amount you took that turn. And that’s where the comparisons to Risk rear their heads once more.
Despite the aspect of words scoring points based on their constituent letters, it’d be a mistake to think you were playing anything similar to Scrabble – even though it uses the official Collins Scrabble dictionary. Whereas Scrabble tests your vocabulary, Quarrel expects you to guess at anagrams that have already been preordained. It’s a different feeling altogether to know that somewhere in the set of tiles you’ve been given is a word waiting to be set down with a flourish, and often you’ll find yourself glancing at the letter scores rather than the letters themselves. With four spaces, and a G and M sitting there, you’d be much better served using GUM (11) than GRIN (8). It’s tempting to give in to a Words with Friends-style guessing game of Is This A Word, but a three-guess limit and a very well-adjusted timer ensure that the emphasis is on vocabulary knowledge, not guesswork. Wonderfully, it supports both USB keyboards and the ill-fated Xbox Chatpad, which prove to be invaluable tools when you both have a stab at SKY (12) and it relies on a “fastest finger first” scenario.
The vocab, though, is where Quarrel XBLA fails significantly – and it’s a problem that the iOS game does not share. XBLA certifications are notoriously stringent, and every game must adhere to a one-size-fits-all set of similar rules, with very few exceptions – every game, for example, must have a menu formatted in the same way, support online leaderboards (even if in name only), and crucially, if any content can be user-generated, this content is subject to even more guidelines.
So, say I’m making a word in Quarrel online against a friend. I can’t tap in the word MINGE (11). Fair enough. I have GEM (6), or maybe even GEMINI (9). But later, I have the opportunity to use the word SHAT (7). Apparently, that’s fine, I get points, and the game even tells me it’s the offensive colloquial past participle of defecation; it’s not some odd alternate meaning. My opponent tries TRAIN (6). It’s disallowed, as is CUP (8). We’re given an anagram to which the only solution is SEXUALLY (25), but we’re prevented from submitting SEX (12), SEXY (17), SEXUAL (18), or even solving the anagram itself. AXLES (15) is the only useful option. And then the game chastises us: “Nobody made SEXUALLY (25).”
Evidently, this cripples Quarrel. Even Countdown, a programme well-known for its conservative audience, won’t often blush at a racy or inappropriate chance encounter with the language, but in an increasingly child safety-conscious Live environment, gameplay is affected as a result, often with no chance of a comeback from a valid word due to the time limit. According to Denki, they’re forced to use Microsoft’s own uncompromising whitelist – meaning that a word that works one day might be disallowed the other, or vice-versa. And while this means Quarrel won’t accept some of these, it will accept a wide range of things that Susie Dent would sneer at, such as NAETHING (14, Scots variant of ‘nothing’), YOGHOURT (21, archaic spelling of ‘yoghurt’ presumably only known to overzealous autocorrect algorithms) and RIVETTING (18, variant spelling of ‘riveting’ and denounced by every style guide imaginable). While it’s commendable that Denki are trying to increase the already expansive wordlist as much as possible, it invariably leads to frustration. “It was CRAPIEST (12)? Most like a crepe? Really?”
It’s such a shame that these issues exist, because Quarrel, fundamentally, is great. An unabashedly brilliant game that gets friends forming alliances and laughing at their own mental blocks, and even with the aforementioned reservations (including a very reproducible crash bug, which should be stomped out with a swift patch) I still recommend it very highly. It executes extremely well on the promise of Xbox Live Arcade, allowing that board-game atmosphere in a more convenient form for a fraction of the price, and crammed full of that lovely Denki charm. But, just more often than is comfortable, it stumbles, and that’s also due to Arcade’s inflexible guidelines. If Quarrel fails to prove that gamers want brilliant innovation, it’ll be the fault of the platform, not the game itself. And IRONY only scores 10.
[UPDATE – January 27th 2012, 22:14 pm – It’s come to my attention that a little clarity is in order. As the main selling point of Quarrel XBLA over iOS is its competitive multiplayer, I have focused primarily on this mode in this review. The censorship issues I mention here are in sole regard to play over Xbox Live, and do not apply to the single-player modes when playing against bots unless Family Settings are enabled. It should be noted, though, that Quarrel against AI-controlled dictionaries is a far duller affair then against devious human opponents.]