There's a nice risk/reward mechanic that sees you showered with more troops at the end of a turn if you can keep a chain of successful attacks going (you'll already get an extra troop for each territory you're holding when your go is over), and if you slaughter the enemy, you may even be able to take some of them as prisoners for use in your next fight.
Those enemies take the form of nine different AI players: a selection of lovable, infuriating, grumpy, nasty word-crazy misfits who come complete with freckles, bad haircuts, and turtleneck sweaters. Quarrel's cast is a bit like Hey Arnold! blended with the Royal Tenenbaums, and the line-up is split across three tiers of word skill, from Normal to Expert.
On top of that, the players all have their specific tactical quirks. Peppermint Patty-alike Caprice is quick but possessed of a limited vocabulary, for example, while fusty old Rex knows some great words, but makes weird choices on the map.
For your first few matches, Quarrel can be a bit of a pain in the neck, frankly. The tutorial drags on a little too long - although it is, beneath the simple premise, a surprisingly complex game - while the campaign mode is initially calibrated to be a touch too challenging for newbies. It was for me, anyway, but I am enormously stupid. It's smart stuff, but it's a slog, and for a quarter of an hour I was ready to write Quarrel off as a great idea that didn't quite bring it all together: a designer's game that couldn't come alive for a normal player like me.
But then I had an incredible game during a quick match, and the whole thing clicked.
The setting was Sunburst Chamber: a huge arena set within the caldera of a volcano. It was a pretty dramatic occasion, and a full house, too: I was up against Caprice, Biff, and - ugh - Troy. Caprice and Biff were no problem: they're low-level characters with obvious weaknesses. Caprice rushes everything, while Biff is a bully, but generally flings little more than, y'know, four letter words at you. Troy was a problem, though. He's good-looking for one thing, in a Princeton sort of way, and that put me on the back foot. He's a middle-tier character, too, and I hadn't had much experience with him. What was his deal?
His deal, for a while, was steamrolling his way to victory. He came in from the east, I came in from the west, and it was red rushing towards green, with two helpless idiots caught in the middle. Caprice and Biff lost themselves to infighting, and so they effectively softened each other up for Troy and I, and then we took them. I killed off Biff and Troy got Caprice. Five minutes in, and just the two of us left.
I like to strengthen my borders after rounds - a good move, as it turns out, because Troy is a bit of a hero, and tends to attack even when he's outnumbered. We skirmished, almost playfully. I fought back advances, and then I pushed forward - but I pushed forward too far. Stupid mistake. What a balatron! (Unintentional clown, BTW: good for the B but not much else.)
Long story short, Troy had lots of tiles held by three or four units - easyish pickings if you're on a roll and with money in the bank - but I had plenty of ones and twos. No good at all if it came down a Napoleon-fleeing-Moscow situation. The main bulk of our forces, however, were pulled together in an eight-versus-seven face-off right in the middle of the board. Whoever won that would win the game, more or less. There would certainly be little more than mopping up to do afterwards, anyway.
The big battle. The letters were a blur. I couldn't do anything with them. S-B-A? T-N-I? Nobody's going to win this with "TIN" or "STAB". I looked over at Troy's side of the field. He'd come up with a word. I had to do something. I couldn't let all that work slip away. A distant relative of mine went to Cornell, after all. This was personal.