Quarrel XBLAThink of an educational game that was actually good. No? So, in all your years of gaming, you haven’t once played an educational game that you actually want to play? Tragic, isn’t it. Such wonderful, untapped potential there, but I guess because it’s not such a lucrative market  it simply doesn’t receive the kind of production dollar it should.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the idea that videogames have much to teach and can, at their best, offer an unrivalled educational experience. However, that experience is one that is more than likely a by-product. For example, World of Warcraft has a lot to teach about cooperation, resource management, teamwork and pure maths. Even titles such as Battlefield have potential to help us learn and practice problem solving in situations few of us would ever encounter in real life. Largely, this ‘education’ isn’t particularly valuable; it’s not as if playing Gears of War could, in any way, be conducive to decent marks at school, or work in your favour in the workplace. When an educational title like Quarrel comes along, it’s worth shouting about it a bit.

Let me qualify what I mean by ‘educational’. I’m sure Quarrel wasn’t designed with education primarily in mind. However, you can’t avoid engaging the part of your brain responsible for language learning while you play it. I’m a 32-year-old guy who’s been writing professionally for over a decade, and I learn a new word every time I play Quarrel. You’re constantly bombarded with words, challenges and situations requiring difficult thought under pressure. You can almost feel your brain shifting gears as you play. No, what I mean by ‘educational’ is that while there isn’t really an educational focus to it, you can’t help but learn while you’re playing.

Quarrel imageQuarrel is essentially an even mix of Scrabble, Risk and Worms. You get a jumble of letters and you have to unjumble them. However, depending on how good you were with your strategy, you can determine how likely you are to win any given confrontation. It’s a multiplayer title, for up to four players online, and has a number of single player challenges that pit you against CPU opponents of ever-increasing skill. Starting, a la Risk, with a game board of territories spread amongst the players, with each territory controlled by up to eight of your minions, you have to attack, defend or reinforce the areas under your control and gradually take over the entire board. The Worms element comes in the form of the cutesy visual aspect, giving each character a unique minion type.

As a game, however, it’s lacking some of the best elements of each of the games it borrowed from. For example, you can’t customise your minions, which I think would have offered a good deal of longevity to it. Similarly, and more importantly, there isn’t much in the way of bonuses and game-changing mechanics. In Risk you are given a card every turn in which you successfully attack an enemy. These cards can be traded in for more reinforcements. Quarrel has something similar, but it’s not quite as useful. Every territory has treasure, and collecting enough of it gives you a bonus reinforcement of one minion to use whenever you want. While this does have its uses, it’s not the game-changing element it could be. Some more imaginative uses of this mechanic might have been nice, such as a shorter time limit for your opponent, more letters to chose from or some other distracting element. While there is a clean simplicity to this, a more intricate bonus system would have eked a little more out of the strategy side.

There are also some small problems with the lexicon of the game. I have had a few words, such a ‘zen’, which I am pretty sure exist in the English language, that simply don’t appear. There are over 110,000 words in there though, each with a dictionary definition, so this is a fairly minor problem.

Quarrel Xbox Live Arcade Review ScreenA far larger problem comes from an element that is somewhat unavoidable, namely, other players. Play online, and I can pretty much guarantee everyone else is cheating. I had a couple of games online, and using a particular browser-based anagram programme, I was able to look up the best anagrams in any confrontation. However, I found that in most cases, the person I was playing against came up with the exact same word. I can’t be 100 per cent sure, but I’m guessing they were using the same technique.

Quarrel is a hugely enjoyable title that, while occasionally frustrating, offers a genuine challenge and wholesome exercise for the brain. I can imagine a family sitting down to play this on a Sunday afternoon, excitedly shouting answers to daddy in vibrant chunky knitwear, and while I understand that is never likely to happen, it still fills me with warmth. Possibly the most enjoyable ‘educational’ game I’ve ever played, so I guess that’s about as high as I can rate it.

Score: 8/10 – Very Good

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