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Review of
Strategy Heads

StrategyHeads screen shot Published by: Theatrix
Year: 1997
Suggested Age Range: 10-14
Platform Information: Mac and PC
Reviewer: Andee Rubin
Image © Theatrix. Used with permission.

Is the Game Mathematical?

Strategy Head's three puzzles present significant challenges to the player, particularly in the area of geometric visualization. The mathematics in each goes beyond simple drill and practice to complex and interesting puzzles that require significant problem solving. The structure of all three games allows for considerable math-related conversation, and there is no time pressure. These puzzles are potentially quite hard and while the level of each can be varied with a difficulty "slider," even the easy versions can be confusing and, at times, frustrating. There is both an advantage and disadvantage to using the computer for geometry puzzles. On the one hand, computers are good for visual display and can show multiple views of 3-dimensional objects. On the other hand, when the player is stuck, there is little she can do to manipulate the objects herself to figure out what's going on.

An example: Eye Gotcha is a Hollywood Squares-type game show with 6 geometric categories: shadows, patterns, 3D views, fold and cut, transforms, and tie and dye. Each question is presented as a picture, e.g. a 3D building whose "footprint" has to be chosen from three alternatives or a fold and cut operation similar to those snowflakes some adults may have made as kids, where the player has to predict the outcome of a series of folds and cuts. In addition to letting the user know which is the correct response, each answer is "explained," usually with a picture and sometimes with an animation. Some of these are quite helpful, but many of them would be incomprehensible for someone who didn't already have a good idea of what's going on. Being able to turn objects in a 3-dimensional space would give players the ability to truly problem solve on their own. (In this particular puzzle, helpful tools -- such as arrows to change the perspective on a figure -- are made available if the player doesn't answer promptly.)

Mystery Theater asks players to visualize the effects of different transformations in order to "unscramble" a transformed picture by choosing the appropriate three transformations in the appropriate order. While this is an interesting idea, the implementation has substantial problems. What one has to do is difficult to figure out; one player who didn't know the puzzle ended up solving it by guessing the sequence of three lights, like the game Master Mind -- without any consideration of the transformations they represented. Even understanding the purpose of the puzzle, it is difficult to sort out the effect of each transformation and getting the right combination often feels like educated guessing, guided by the hints provided.

The third puzzle, Mondo Mazes is a game of 2-dimensional visualization and strategy. The object is to move yourself through a maze to pick up "goodies" (stars). You navigate the maze and try to prevent your opponent from picking up stars by rotating tiles to alter and make new passageways. This game is well-implemented and makes good use of the computer's capabilities.

Is the Game Equitable?

With one glaring exception, Strategy Heads is equitable in terms of gender; none of the puzzles relies on gender-related themes and there are characters of both genders throughout the game. Since players can create their own characters, kids can choose to be any gender they like. The unfortunate exception is the comments the program makes when the player chooses to be a male or female: "You make me feel like a man/woman." or "You bring out the woman/man in me."

There is some ethnic diversity among the possible heads, although most of the heads are cartoons and thus gender- and ethnic-neutral. In our observations, the Get-A-Head channel appealed strongly to girls, and there is some evidence that this kind of design opportunity may in fact be more popular with girls. Players who want an opportunity to puzzle through the games at a less than breakneck speed will feel comfortable with this game, since there is no hand-eye coordination required, and there is no real time pressure. The player can choose to play Mondo Mazes either timed or untimed, and Eye Gotcha gives players extra chances after they supposedly run out of time.

There are three levels of difficulty for each puzzle, which should make them accessible and interesting for a variety of players. In some cases, however, even the easiest level is somewhat incomprehensible and makes one wish there were an even more elementary set of problems to make the rules clear. Once you're in the swing of things, though, it's useful to have more complex problems.

The game is structured to allow for competition; one of the first screens asks if one or two people are playing and the games are modified accordingly. But otherwise, it is quite possible to play the game collaboratively -- as we mention above, the lack of hand-eye coordination and time pressure allow the opportunity for thoughtful discussion.

Unfortunately, this potential is not always realized, as players often get distracted by the other lures of the game -- especially the Get-A-Head screen, where considerable time is spent trying on new bodies and heads. Another distraction are the commercials that pop up before every game and at other seemingly unpredictable times; while they are wryly mathematical, often consisting of mathematical puns and jokes, they are probably not appreciated by most adolescents. While the hyperactive quality of this game will probably appeal to many players, it may also be distracting enough that some children will not be drawn to it -- and will not be able to play for long. For players who need a little longer to think -- or to confer with someone else -- the constant chatter and urgings to "choose an answer" may make mathematical thinking impossible.

Is the Game a Good Game?

The overall energy of the game is attractive, especially to members of the MTV-generation and the puzzles are, in general, fun. However, there may be little motivation for players to continue playing, since they are only playing for points and, therefore, money which they can use to "soothe their troubled souls" on the Shopping Channel. Here they can purchase a strange collection of commodities, including additional heads, bodies or hair styles, puzzles to solve (some are labelled as "Geek Games"), and geometric transformations (which are demonstrated, rather than made available for the player to use). It seems unlikely that players would continue to play solely for the opportunity to go on a shopping spree. In addition, the point/money exchange rate is difficult to figure out (and may not even be consistent) and could be a source of frustration for players who are trying to keep track of their progress or earn enough to buy that special head.

Note: For information on the first in the Heads series, see Math Heads.

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