So here’s the one-sentence pitch for Quarrel – it’s a turn based strategy game like Risk, but with word battles to take control of territory. It’s a concept that shouldn’t work, but it does.
Quarrel places you in charge of an army, tasked with taking control of a land mass. The game area is evenly split into multiple zones, controlled by either the player or an opposing army (up to a maximum of 4 players), and the object is to take over the remaining areas by engaging in word battles. Each army has a number associated with it that denotes the size of the army, which in turn dictates how many letters can be played when they attack or defend out of a maximum 8 tile rack. This adds a resource management twist to it, making it necessary to ensure that you've got enough soldiers near your borders for the opposing players' next turn. It also rewards risk raking - if an army takes on a larger army and wins they take a prisoner, converting them to a member of your army. It's quite easy to overstretch yourself with a successful attack and find yourself losing multiple territories that you've neglected to fortify during the opponent’s turn. The player who owns all the territories in the area wins.
Finally available after an inexplicable two year delay and a successful mobile version, the Xbox 360 version of Quarrel sees one key improvement - online multiplayer (no local multiplayer is available, although it's hard to think how they'd implement it given that you'd be able to see each other's words). Disappointingly I found it hard to get a ranked game during the first weekend of release, although there was no problem getting an unranked match, and the game played just fine. Where possible, the game sensibly pits the player against an opponent with a similar "word IQ" (ability level)
Your aim is to take over all territories. The numbers signify how many people are in your army and thus how many letters you can play
Apart from a straightforward single player skirmish mode where you choose up to 3 opponents and online multiplayer, there're a couple of additional modes to expand the life of the game. Showdown pits you 1v1 against all of the AI players in turn, ranging from the ultra simple to the fiendishly hard, and throwing in the added pressure of a countdown timer. While the short word rounds are very easy (the strategy is simple - just make sure your word has the highest scoring letter in it), once you hit 6 letters and up it can get very challenging. There's also a challenge mode where the player is tasked with a variety of very specific goals.
In terms of presentation, it's cute and cartoonish both visually and in the sound design with your soldiers burbling away merrily. However, don't mistake this for a kid's game - it can get very challenging against the harder opponents, who will frequently play very unusual words. There's a clear love of language that runs through Quarrel, with pretty much every word on screen given a score, and every word played defined at the bottom of the screen after the turn.
The battle screen
There are some minor decisions we’d quibble with, though. While the animations and sound effects are cute, they’re also un-skippable when you complete a battle, and when you’ve seen them a few times that becomes a little tedious. Inputting letters can be a little fiddly with the controller, making deleting a couple of letters after a mistake the difference between victory and a time out in Showdown mode. Transferring troops can be a little counter-intuitive too, but given that this isn't timed, that's not a big deal.
At 400 Microsoft points though, there’s little to argue with. Quarrel is a great value word game, and the world domination aspect gives it a modicum of extra strategy. Oh, and to answer your burning question - yes, you can play swear words... and it'll even define them for you afterwards