Scrabble, like football and dealing with roommates, is all about controlling territory. Anyone can drop letters on a board to make a word. Bug! Nation! Crass! Veal! Expressly! But you’re not actually playing Scrabble until you’re watching the triple score squares as closely as you’re watching your tiles. QatQi, a new iPad game that understands the importance of the territory under the letters, takes worldplay to unexplored depths.

After the jump, yeah, it’s called QatQi and no, I have no idea what that means

QatQi, which would be worth 23 points to most people but as many as 69 points to anyone who understands Scrabble, is not a multiplayer game where you fight over territory. Instead, it’s an exploration game, where you use your tiles to feel your way around the screen and suss out the shape of the board. And then you search the nooks and crannies for gold coins hidden around the board. Imagine Scrabble on a Minesweeper board, but arranged like a dungeon with rooms and halls. Maybe Scrabble meets Seven Cities of Gold. Designer Chris Garrett says it all as he explains his progress in one of the advanced levels:

I explored this donut-shaped room, I created the word “reengineering”, the word “haplessness”, worked my way all the way to the top of this room, which was filled with gold coins.

Although QatQi is like a dungeon exploration game, it’s far too self-respecting to actually avail itself of any dungeon theming. Instead, the presentation is hypnotically elegant, perfect for the kind of zoning out you’d do in your mind while considering a crossword puzzle. The overall structure is a funky circular calendar, in which the easier levels are Mondays and the later days of the week are harder. In other words, a quiet shout-out to anyone who does New York Times crossword puzzles.

At first, you’re playing short puzzles. It’s easy, forgiving, a little too inconsequential. But as you work your way into the later days of the week, you start playing elaborate constructs drawn out over multiple sessions. And you start seeing the scoring system at work, not just in terms of finding the hidden coins, but also in terms of optimizing which letters go where. Dig this screen of crazily wonky scoring, metrics, and leaderboards at the end of each level:

You can tap on each of those spokes for closer analysis. This is a game that loves its postgame analysis and metagame stat tracking.

If it turns out you like QatQi enough to delve into the harder puzzles, you’re going to run into its more serious design flaws, which seep into its business model. QatQi wants to play like Scrabble by presenting you with a slate of tiles. But because you’re not taking turns, each tile is replaced as soon as you use it. And since you’re expected to make liberal use of an “undo” feature to take a tile back into your hand, much of the game is about looking ahead at what letters you’re going to get, and then maybe backing up and redoing something you put down ten moves ago, at which point, what letters were you getting again? It can be prohibitively tedious on the harder levels, or when you want to optimize your score. Furthermore, if you play too much, you can exhaust your stock of undos. Oh, look, QatQi will sell you more thanks to the miracle of Apple’s in-app purchasing feature. Et tu, QatQi?

3 stars