by Lee Valentine
Published by Alderac Entertainment Group (2010)
Designed by Jonathan Leistiko
Contents: 50 two-sided Matrix Tiles, five plastic Runner miniatures, three dice, 30 Control Markers (six of each color), 80 Blackout Markers, score track
Pressure Matrix is the second game by Jonathan Leistiko that has
been published by Alderac Entertainment Group. In Pressure
Matrix, runners in a futuristic game show race around a game board
tagging specific points which generate either bonuses or penalties for
the runner (or his competitors). The one with the most credits (i.e.,
money) at the end of the game show is declared the winner.
Contrary to what the above description may lead you to believe, this is
not a boardgame version of The Running Man – nobody is chasing
anyone with an electrical blaster or a chainsaw. You can block other
runners, occasionally force them to move to specific squares, and often
make them lose some credits, but that is about the level of threat
potential to the runners in the Pressure Matrix. Other than the
box's cover art and some runner miniatures, the game is entirely
abstract in nature.
The game is played on a square grid made up of tiles ("Matrix Tiles").
Each tile is itself made up of a small grid measuring two spaces by two
spaces. A typical three-player game plays with 16 such tiles for 64
board spaces total. At the beginning of the game players put their
runners on the corner tiles, and a first player is chosen by a blind bid
auction (the winner going first but starting out with fewer credits).
Every space on the board has game text on it.
At its core, Pressure Matrix is an elevated roll-and-move game.
The game has three levels of "pressure" on the runners: green (walking),
yellow (jogging), and red (running). On a player's turn he rolls three
dice to determine his movement distance. At the green level he moves
the number of tiles listed on the lowest die. If the pressure level is
yellow he moves the value shown on the unmatched die if two of the dice
tie, or otherwise moves the value of the middle die. If the pressure
level is red the runner moves the value of the highest of the three dice
rolled. Movement is orthogonal, and you cannot enter a tile occupied by
another runner or re-enter a tile that you have previously touched on
that same turn. You always have to move the full value of the movement
die if you can.
When a player lands on his destination tile he chooses one of the four
spaces on the tile he lands on, places a Blackout Marker on the space in
question, and carries out the game text there, which is typically
something like "Win 3 credits" or "Give another player 3 credits".
Subject to other specialized game effects, any space that is blacked out
can no longer be activated by anyone who lands on that tile in the
Each player has five triangular Control Markers to spend during the game
(plus a sixth used to track your score). Some special game spaces are
not activated immediately when they are blacked out, but are instead
blacked out and marked with a Control Marker. The player who owns that
Control Marker can later retrieve it to trigger the associated effect
when he needs it. These specialized effects can, for example, force the
dice to be re-rolled or modified or may even allow a character to
teleport from one space on the board to another.
If all four spaces on a tile are blacked out then generally runners can
no longer pass through that tile. Between this rule, the dice rolled,
and the position of other board runners, a player may have many
different tiles to chose from, a few, one, or even none. When a player
has no legal moves based on his dice roll and the board configuration
then he is "frozen" and must return one of his Control Markers in hand
to the box. If a player has no Control Markers in hand when it's his
turn to roll for movement, the game ends. The winner is the player who
banked the most credits over the course of play (although players do get
one bonus credit for each unused Control Marker remaining in hand at the
end of the game).
Each time all four spaces on a tile get blacked out, the pressure level
moves to yellow. If a runner is frozen, the pressure level immediately
escalates one level (from green to yellow, or from yellow to red).
Other game effects can raise or lower the pressure level. So, as the
game progresses and things become more congested, it is to the score
leader's advantage to drive up the pressure level, forcing people to
become frozen, run out of Control Markers, and end the game.
There are 50 double-sided Matrix Tiles to choose from when building the
board, so each game will be different. Because the board is randomly
built, sometimes the selection of game effects will be fairly singular
in theme – almost every space you land on will cause you to lose money.
In other games, options like teleportation, stealing money, and passing
through otherwise blocked tiles become options. Sometimes the board
allows for more significant strategy. At other times, however, you end
up with powers that allow the player in last place a 50% chance to
exchange scores with the leader if he lands on the right tile, draining
any serious long-term strategy out of the game when that happens.
The board size varies based on the number of players, and this directly
impacts the number of choices for each move as well as partially
determining the length of the game. A two-player game (which is played
on a smaller board) can last 20 minutes, while a three-player game can
last up to an hour. Occasionally there's some down time during another
player's turn if he has a lot of movement options and feels obliged to
read every space on every tile he can potentially land on.
Components & Packaging
The game comes in a rather attractive, sturdy box that could make a
consumer think he's purchasing a more deeply themed game than he really
is. As I noted earlier, Pressure Matrix is really an abstract
game with a roll-and-move system and lots of reading involved. The
tiles that make up the board are thick, full color, and easy to read.
There is, however, no substantial board art other than the background
image of the tiles. So there is no sense that you are flipping
switches, stepping into traps, or engaging in any sport, racing, or
reality game show themed task other than moving around a square grid
with numbered tiles and text. What's there is attractively laid out,
but is not in any way evocative of the theme.
There is also a nice thick score board that is used to track score from
round to round, featuring pictures of numbered gold coins (credits).
This has part of the box art image on it, giving it a little more theme
than the tiles themselves.
The box has an insert tray to hold the five runner miniatures that come
in the game. Oddly, the pictures of the runners in the rulebook have
different poses and color schemes than those of the actual miniatures.
Two of the colors for runners are orange and yellow, but the shades
chosen are so similar to each other that players might get each other's
miniatures confused in a five-player game.
There is a small insert to hold the Control Markers, but it will not
securely hold the mountain of Blackout Markers that come with the game.
Nor does the box segregate the tiles to hold them securely. Thankfully
there was enough space in the box for me to bag the tokens in gripseal
bags to separate them and pack them away.
The rulebook was full-color, glossy, and well-written overall. I had
only one or two questions after reading it, and they were minor at best.
Contrary to its name, I never feel under any pressure while playing
Pressure Matrix. At the red level of pressure you are often
frozen in place. Late in the game if the Matrix Tiles have mostly
negative effects left on them, it's better to be frozen than to run
around at an insane pace landing on them. At the green level of
pressure you are often moving only one or two tiles in distance with few
options. The result is that there's little or no psychological pressure
of any kind on you, since your movement distance is determined by dice
and you cannot guarantee where you next move will end up – only perhaps
where it won't end up.
This game sits in an odd niche. As a two-player game it plays like a
short filler game with some light tactical choices. Longer-term
strategic choices exist only if you see a trick your opponent doesn't
and you are lucky enough to land in the right places at the right times.
As a three-player game there are more options, but the game can
sometimes run a little long for what it is, depending on the tile
selection being played with. I have not tried the game with four or
five players. If there is any deep thinking, most of it is positional
(knowing how to block your opponents and freeze them). The rest of the
decision-making is often quite transparent – would you rather win 5
credits or pay someone else 3? When the board features specific options
to control the pressure level then the strategy is increased, but not
all the tiles allow for this option. Once the pressure level is turned
up to red, particularly late in the game, strategy is often reduced to
near nil (unless you have stored Control Marker powers) as players often
end up frozen. This would be a tougher game to play under tight time
pressure (like that provided by a sand timer), but there was no such
time keeping mechanism provided with the game.
I do not feel that there is enough meat to this game for adult gamer
geeks, and perhaps a bit too much counting and reading for an adult
party game. As one of my friends, Joseph Gagnepain observed, it looks
like the kind of game I might have enjoyed when I was ten or twelve
years old. That is not to disparage the game in the slightest. I think
this is a fine game for parents to play with their kids, and I can
recommend it for those readers raising the next generation of gamers.
It will do a fine job teaching counting, spacial relations, reading, and
quick decision-making. For adults, however, I suspect that this is not
going to go over as well with your gaming group as Small World or
Pandemic. If you want to play Pressure Matrix with that
crowd, buy a sand timer, play with more people on a bigger board, and
watch people sweat, begging for more time to read the board – then you
may feel some actual pressure.
Pressure Matrix has awesome box cover art, a great product name,
and solid advertising text on the back of the box. That may generate
some real curiosity about the product among people just browsing in your
store. An overview of the two-player game can be demoed quickly, even
at the counter if you are so inclined. As I noted before, however, this
seems most likely to appeal to younger gamers or families. If your
store has inventory designed to appeal to younger gamers, Pressure
Matrix could do well for you, particularly if you demo it. In the
long run, however, I expect demand for this game among adult consumers
in the hobby game market could decline rapidly based on word-of-mouth
about the potential unsuitability of the product for that audience.
Overall: B (for kids or families only; lower for adult gamers)
Game Play: B (for kids or families only; lower for adult gamers)
Components: A- (nice, sturdy components, but two fairly similarly colored miniatures)
Packaging: B (sturdy, but doesn't adequately segregate different types of components)
Appearance: B (great cover art, but most of the rest of the game seems largely abstract and unthemed)
Rules Clarity: A-
Retailer Salability: B+ for impulse buys (because of packaging), but B-
for long term item sales unless targeted toward "tweens" and families