Word war never changes… except for when it does.
Quarrel stresses the power of words. I mean that literally. Words are weapons in this hybrid of Risk and Scrabble, where I try to drive my enemies from their land by assembling the highest-scoring word from a jumble of eight letters. It’s like if the kids from Scripps decided to take over the world.
If this sounds familiar it’s because Quarrel isn’t new. It was released for the iPad last fall and quickly commandeered every spare minute of my life, eventually making Paste’s list of the best mobile games of 2011. The only problem with the original Quarrel is that it lacks any kind of multiplayer mode. This is a game built to be played with friends but all I can do with it is face the same ten computer opponents over and over.
The Xbox Live version fixes that. This new Quarrel lets me lose to up to three real life people at once. Even when playing without a headset, as I often do when I’m not facing friends, human opponents are distinguishable from computer foes, and vastly preferable. People are erratic and unpredictable, prone to nervousness and mental lapses, and regularly upend strategies (intentionally or unintentionally) and force new ones to be devised on the fly. They lack the robotic consistency of Quarrel’s cartoonish characters, such as the professorial Rex or the aggressive Malik. Real people keep things interesting.
Multiplayer is perfect for Quarrel. It makes the game into what it should have been all along. It’s a crucial development that will hopefully be added to the iPad version (or its inevitable sequel). I hope that happens soon, because otherwise I can’t stand playing it on the Xbox.
I’ve complained about the virtual joystick and buttons of iPad games before, but Quarrel has the opposite problem. The original is perfectly conceived for a touch screen. To spell a word I just tap the letters I want. If I want to wipe those away and start spelling a new world I only have to hit a single button. It’s quick and simple and close to second-hand nature to a guy who types for a living.
Obviously the Xbox 360 doesn’t have a touch screen. In this version I have to cycle through each letter with the joystick until I reach the one I want to use and then press a button. Repeat that for every letter, all the way up to eight for an unbeatable anagram (Quarrel’s version of a WMD). If I enter the wrong letter I have to manually cancel it out with a button press, all while the clock is ticking down to my doom.
The controller almost ruins Quarrel. I lose at least one battle in every game against a good player because of the sluggish controls. Nothing in games is more frustrating than losing because of the controls instead of my own mental or manual mistakes. And even when I clearly make a mistake, like entering a word so fast that I misspell it, I’m used to a Quarrel where that mistake can be instantly deleted and quickly fixed well within the time limit. That’s often impossible in this Quarrel.
So what’s more important, playing Quarrel with friends, or playing it with controls that don’t send me into a blind rage? As much of an improvement as multiplayer proves, it can’t outweigh the fundamental problem at the heart of this adaptation. In the original you can spell almost at the speed of thought, whereas now there’s an extra barrier between thought and action. That’s not good for a game as split-second tight as Quarrel. Any Quarrel might be better than no Quarrel, but anybody familiar with the iPad version is bound to be disappointed.
Garrett Martin is the videogame and comic book editor for Paste Magazine. He seriously dedicated himself to Scrabble for about two days after reading Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak. Twitter him, etc.