I was furious with Quarrel when it launched on the iOS devices (livid, really), and not just because Christian had pipped me to the post in reviewing the game. What really got my goat was the near-inexplicable lack of multiplayer for such an obviously suitable competitive game. "Oooh, can we play a game together?" my other half asked, in a rare fit of gaming. "NO!" was my bemused and exasperated reply.
That didn't stop the game being something rather special - and fully deserving of Christian's lavish praise - but it was a frustrating oversight. All hail the arrival of Quarrel on Xbox Live Arcade then, bringing the much-desired online multiplayer to one of mobile gaming's brightest gems, as well as the core of the game - which remains exactly the same as the one we've loved and obsessed over on our phones and tablets. [So much so that it was one of our Games of 2011 - Ed.]
Two to four players, possessing an equal number of tiles and soldiers each, move around the play area choosing either to take on an opponent in a word-making match, shuffle troops around, or end their turn and receive one reinforcement for each occupied tile. For every soldier you take into battle, you get to use an extra letter from the eight-letter anagram presented to both players in a time-limited Scrabble tussle.
Beat your opponent and you take their tile, with all but one of your soldiers moving onto it. Beat them with fewer troops than they have in any given match, and you'll take prisoners. Gameplay gradually evolves into a strategic game of cat-and-mouse, until individual opponents are fully bested and an overall victor emerges triumphantly.
Going against the grain of perceived wisdom that says you can't have real gaming on a touch-screen because the controls make it impossible, the concern coming into the XBLA version was how well the controls would hold up without the immediacy of a touch-screen. The answer is: extraordinarily well, and you'll barely notice the transition from touch to stick-twiddling as you navigate both the game map and the strip of letters available in each round.
The meat of the mobile game's progression was in the Domination mode, a series of matches that ranged from one-on-one battles to full, four-player face-offs. It's replicated here too, as you progress through increasingly challenging (and numerous) opponents as you seek to dominate the islands of Quarrel.
The Challenge mode is split into four sections that offer focused, devilish takes on the mechanics of the game. One sees you staging a fightback from a position of heavily reduced territories, another presents you with a series of eight-versus-eight megaword challenges. Others task you with stealing a set number of prisoners or blazing a trail of successive victories.
"The sedentary StarCraft for the pipe-smoking gamer."
Last but not least for the single-player modes, Showdown takes you through the whole tier of AI competitors, from the dull but endearing Dwayne all the way up to the harbinger of evil herself, Kali, in a series of one-on-one face-offs. It can be tense and terrifying stuff as you inch closer to victory against your currently unbeatable nemesis. As with the other modes, there are Bronze, Silver and Gold award levels that mark your victories, adding further replay value.
These AI opponents combine a selection of basic characteristics to present a very individual challenge in each case. Kali's irritating because she's both fast and good, whereas if you've spotted the killer word containing the all-important high-scoring letters, the elderly Rex can be depended upon to forget where he is for a few moments before making a late call on the same word. And when it comes to Quarrel, nothing puts joy in my heart like the sight of an animated old man sobbing.
Unlike the exasperatingly prudish Bookworm, Quarrel doesn't assume the position of moral arbiter with the dictionary and deny you words deemed too fruity for our fragile sensitivities. Calling someone a w**ker may not be very nice, but that doesn't stop it being a valid word and an object of fair play in a dictionary-driven game.
Or at least, that's the case in the single-player modes. Would that we could flag ourselves beyond offence in our Quarrel profile, because Xbox Live play's only disappointing niggle is its refusal to accept naughty words that might upset or offend the more delicate eyes that are online. Anything in the Collins dictionary is fair game throughout the solo modes, but in the heat of competitive battle you'll need to factor this danger into your word-crafting - a pity, given that speed can often trump complexity when showing your hand (if points are drawn on the battlefield, the fastest-fingers rule determines the winner).
So while there's a small caveat in my wholehearted recommendation to buy this game today, right now, just as soon as you can, multiplayer still adds something no AI opponent can ever offer: the illicit rush of an opponent's very human fallibility - Kali never chokes. Even your most triumphant rampage across the battleground can be undone by the kind of mental collapse that often presents itself when pride is not just on the table, but under the pressure of a ticking clock.
As in solo play, when more than two players are involved in a match, those left on the sidelines in each head-to-head have the challenge of solving the eight-letter anagram for the reward of a entire extra soldier, one that can be called in to assist in any future battle. If you don't quite crack the full anagram, then the points you do achieve - as with all words created in Quarrel - go towards filling up a meter that offers the same reward.
As well as a fraught but satisfying competitive game, this is also an eminently charming one. I can't describe the sound of a Looney Tunes character tiptoeing past someone sleeping soundly, but you can hear it already - and it accompanies the pause button in Quarrel. Online matches are put together in the Gobby Lobby, and there are amusing asides in the loading screens ("War, what is it good for? Eight points"). The soldiers themselves are comprised of cartoon Valkyries, robots and stubbled GIs who chirp and burble away at you in the menu screens. It's all rather wonderful.
Quarrel is still the horribly compelling single-player game it's always been on mobiles, with an extra dollop of polish and a few new tantalising game modes for the console release - and all for the laughable sum of 400 Microsoft Points. It's with the addition of ranked online multiplayer, though, that Quarrel's finally evolved into the sedentary StarCraft for the pipe-smoking gamer that it always promised to be.
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