posted 2/15/2012 by Nathaniel Cohen
other articles by Nathaniel Cohen
Platforms: 360
The definition of Quarrel is both a square-headed projectile specifically for use in crossbows, and a verbal argument between antagonists. At first glance, applying a word that has both martial and linguistic connotations is a clever play. The same goes for the game Quarrel. At first glance it seems like a clever take on Scrabble. It’s only later that you realize that titling such a game Quarrel is the most obvious play on words a human could construct, and the same goes for the game itself. Combining Scrabble with Risk is such a stupidly obvious mash-up, it’s a wonder that the world isn’t littered with such games. Battles whose outcomes are determined by something other than brute force have been a staple of videogames, tabletop games, and board games for as long as most of us have been alive. What I’m getting at is that Quarrel is an initially clever game that soon reveals itself to be ridden with bad ideas. It’s like a term paper with a clever assertion, but is so riddled with logical holes and typos, you can’t finish reading it.

When you first play Quarrel, some things will instantly stand out. The game’s graphical style, for example, is probably not going to be what you expect unless you’re already familiar with the game’s look. I was expecting sedate colors, earth tones, and visages frozen in the throes of battle-fury - in other words, a visual combination of Scrabble and Risk. Instead, with Quarrel you get bright colors, goofy sound effects, and garish big-headed soldiers that range from island natives to robots and ninjas - and they all speak gibberish. Now, I’m not saying this is bad, just that it was unexpected and a little jarring; your mileage may vary, however.

Once you get over that shock and start playing the game, you get access to a (perhaps too) lengthy tutorial. The game isn’t that complicated after all, you just need to learn the rules like every other puzzle and word game out there, yet Quarrel seems to spend way too much time explaining even the simplest of concepts. When I finally finished it (I spent the entire time wishing I’d never started it, and/or that I could make my own words at least) and started my first proper match, I was initially impressed by the way it forced me to think in terms of battlefield maneuvers. You start the match with randomly distributed squares (they’re not square in shape, but bear with me) and a randomly distributed army. Some squares may only have two or three soldiers while others will have five or six, and the maximum number a square can have at any one time is eight. You don’t get bonuses for flank attacks or anything but you do have to be careful not to over-extend your army because every successful attack reduces your attacking force by one, as one soldier is left behind to defend the previous square. It’s also a good idea to link up with nearby units to gain the ability to reinforce the squares those units control. Furthermore, it’s wise to attack a weaker square with a superior force or divide and conquer when faced with a continuous front of enemy-controlled squares. So, not only did it make me feel like the littlest general, but the word battles were engaging and just demanding enough that I had to exercise my brain without feeling like I was in over my head, since I’m not an avid word-gamer. All-in-all, the first hour or so I spent with Quarrel was a great experience.

Then everything went to Hell. To continue the military theme, Quarrel became a bit like invading Russia in the fall - initially promising, but always destined for failure.

What appeared to me at first to be lots of fun, later showed itself to be full of holes, weird logic, and misguided gameplay. The single most damaging issue with Quarrel is the 20 second time limit you find yourself enslaved by online and in all but one offline mode, with no option to alter or eliminate it. 20 seconds is not a lot of time and many people are going to struggle to make anything more than the most basic words in that time-frame, especially when you have 6, 7, or 8 tiles. It’s made even harder by the sounds the countdown clock makes. They are as abrasive and distracting as humanly possible without the game physically slapping you in the face when it’s your turn. Now, obviously some people will have no such trouble because they’re word game experts or have brains hard-wired to unscramble letter jumbles, but the majority of people who play this game will enter a panicked state that renders clear thinking impossible after about 10 of those seconds are up. I understand the need to stop griefers from ruining online matches by purposefully taking extended turns, but I feel like a minute would have been long enough to take full advantage of your letters while keeping the griefers in check. Alternately, giving players the ability to boot people that are taking too long would solve it also. But instead they just punish everyone but professional Scrabble players and word savants. The punitive nature of Quarrel’s rules is a reoccurring theme.

Another huge issue is that whoever goes first (turns are randomly assigned) has a very obvious advantage over the other players. You see, since turns go on as long as you capture new squares, whoever goes first can conceivably run the table, and even when they don’t, the other player(s) will be in a hole before they even get a turn. Remember earlier when I said that square population was randomized? Well, despite the fact that each side will have squares that are the same size, opposing squares of equal power are almost never next to one another. The defending side will see several of their squares wiped out because it’s just impossible for squares with two or three troops on them to outscore ones with five or six (since words can only be as long as the number of troops you have on that square), unless the attacking player is a simpleton. Simply limiting the number of turns whether a player wins squares or not would have fixed the issue, and I’ll never be made to understand why they chose to go the route they did.

Similar to that first-player advantage issue is another that affects offline and three or four player online matches that don’t fill up with human players. Battles that end in a draw go to the player who submits their word first. Initially this seems 100% fair, but, of course, it’s not because the AI is almost always able to submit their word faster than average-humanly possible. That means your only hope is to outscore them, which can be impossible in many cases. The eight tiles you receive are randomized, obviously, and both sides get the same times, obviously, but there can easily only be one word in the eight tiles. So you’ve lost as soon as the round begins because the AI submitted that one word before you finished mentally processing all of your tiles. Obviously, that’s only an issue against the AI. Against humans, it’s perfectly reasonable. It’s too bad then that there are so few players online (as of the time of this writing). If you want to play a three or four player match, be prepared to see at least one AI opponent and pray one of them doesn’t get to go first because then they have two advantages instead of just one. I have seen four player matches where the human players are conquered almost immediately, because in mixed human and AI battles, the AI strongly favors attacking humans before their fellow AI’s. Yep, that’s right: In Quarrel, the AI is racist, and aggressively colonial. Skynet moves one step closer to being reality.

As unnecessary as those issues are, there’s one that’s not only unnecessary but, given the martial nature of Quarrel, should be punishable as a war-crime: there is no offline multiplayer. Why? Quarrel is a board game. What board game doesn’t allow you to play with somebody you’re in the same room with? Given the AI issues and lack of human players online, it’s even more inexcusable. Furthermore, a game’s ability to be enjoyed properly shouldn’t be dependent on how well it sells or how many of your friends also purchased it. Hopefully, someday developers will stop pretending like they don’t know when their game won’t sell a million copies and spawn an enduring online community. Then they’ll have to include offline multiplayer or appear delusional.

One more big problem I had with Quarrel was the seeming arbitrariness in what the game will accept as a word and what it won’t. For example, why is ER an acceptable word, but not other commonly used abbreviations like HR, HD, ROM, PI, or AI? Also mystifying to me is how a word like “fus” will be accepted as “fuss” like that’s a perfectly normal way to write it. This happens a lot, most of the time by accident. The time will run out before I get the last letter up but the word will be accepted anyway, or I’ll get credit for an entirely different word that I didn’t even know existed. In fact, lots of antiquated and obscure words that are no longer commonly used (or were never commonly used) will be accepted. For example, “ped” is what the Ottoman Empire called governors and other regional officials of similar status. I would feel confident in putting money on the fact that no one in the western hemisphere has ever used the word “ped” in a conversation that wasn’t specifically about bureaucracy in the Ottoman Empire. There’s not even any reason to know it, and the same goes for many other obscure foreign words I’ve accidentally discovered by desperately throwing up three or four letters that simply match the consonant vowel consonant spelling patterns of basic English. Maybe these are all fundamental word game rules, but they seem completely arbitrary to someone who is not a professional Scrabble player.

The final insult comes at the hand of Quarrel’s E rating. There are a lot of “no no” words that violate the game’s innocent sensibility. That’s right, all the millions and millions of adult gamers out there with the money and interest to download a word battle game: no naughty words are allowed unless they have some obscure foreign meaning that you didn’t intend, or even know/ For example, “a Scottish term for a mass of chopped meat.” I won’t tell you what word the AI submitted with that definition, but it’s more socially unacceptable in civilized circles than eff-bombs. The in-game censorship is double stupid since you already have to know the word before you can submit it, and the kids that are being “protected” from being scandalized won’t have any interest in Quarrel while adults offended by bad language would have stopped going online years ago. Just wait until you get the letters U, F, K, C, and four other completely useless letters, and see if you don’t quietly curse the game’s naïve censorship. But don’t think it’s only George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words that are banned, either. You’ll be surprised what the game deems inappropriate.

In the end, maybe I just don’t get word games, but I sure wanted to get Quarrel. It’s a game with a clever concept that relies on brain power rather than hand-eye coordination and requires a kind of thinking that has no place in the action games of the world. Sadly, Quarrel is derailed by poor balancing, esoteric rules governing the words themselves, it hamstrings itself with combat issues that could easily have been rectified without damaging the game’s integrity, and worst of all, there’s no offline multiplayer. That feature alone is worth a whole letter grade.
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