Overview: Remember that old video game Smash TV? It was supposed to be a futuristic game show where the contestants battled each other to the death while winning cash and prizes. Pressure Matrix doesn’t have all the monsters and guns, but it’s also a futuristic game show where contestants run around in a series of rooms, trying to trap the other players while collecting cash.
Ages: 14 and up
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Rating: Not as high-pressure as I’d hoped, but it depends a lot on the players.
Who Will Like It? If you like dystopian future game shows, you may be disappointed that this doesn’t actually feel like a game show. However, you do get to antagonize your opponents. I think the game works best for people who can make decisions fairly quickly and who don’t mind reading a bit during gameplay.
Although Pressure Matrix can be an interesting game, it doesn’t really feel like a game show. The idea is that you’re running from room to room, collecting cash and dealing with the increasing “pressure level,” trying to box in the other players. But playing the game feels a little more like a mathematical puzzle, optimizing your movements for the best outcome. I felt like there was a bit of a disconnect between the theme and the gameplay. It might have felt differently either with different artwork to help emphasize the theme, or text on the tiles that actually played up the game show aspect rather than just stating the effects.
50 two-sided matrix tiles, 5 plastic runners, 3 dice, 30 control markers, 80 blackout markers, score track. All the components (except for the runners) are made of sturdy cardboard, which gives the box a good deal of weight. You don’t use all 50 matrix tiles in each game—at most you’ll need 25, so the extras are to randomize the setup and keep variety in the game. The artwork on everything is fairly minimal; sort of an industrial-looking “metal” look to the tiles but it’s mostly just text and icons.
The board is set up as a square of randomly-chosen tiles, with the size dependent on the number of players. Each player starts with 10 Credits (marked on the scoring track) and 5 Control Markers, and first player is chosen by secret bids. There is also a Pressure Level, which starts at Green but will increase or decrease during the game. Each board tile has four squares with different instructions on it, but the tile acts as a single space (not four). Your turn consists of a Movement Phase, and then a Pressure Phase.
During the Movement Phase, you roll three dice and then choose one for movement based on the current Pressure Level. At Green, you use the lowest die. At Yellow you use the middle die (or the odd one out if two are tied). At Red you use the highest die. What this means in practice is that the higher the Pressure Level, the more spaces you must move—and the key here is that you cannot step in the same space more than once per turn; nor can you step on any tiles that are totally “blacked out” (see below) or occupied by another player. If you can’t move the number of spaces on the die, then you stay put and discard a Control Marker.
The Pressure Phase allows you to “black out” one of the squares on the tile where you ended your movement. You pick a square, place a blackout marker on it, and then follow the instructions on the square. There are a host of different actions: win, pay, give, or steal Credits; flip a tile over (which changes the available instructions on it); teleport to another tile; and a few other special instructions. Some squares allow you to place a Control Marker on them, to be used at a later time—for instance, it may allow you to affect a die roll, or discard another player’s Control Marker.
If a player has no Control Markers in hand before their die roll, they are “frozen” and if there is no way for them to reclaim any Control Markers off the board then the game ends immediately. Whoever has the most Credits wins the game.
The first time I tried the game, it was a 5-player game and a few of the players were less than enthusiastic about it. They took a long time deciding where to move, what square to black out, and so on. It really took the “pressure” out of Pressure Matrix. But then I played a few 2-player games with a friend who was a quicker player, and then I really did get a sense of rising tension as the Pressure Level increased and more and more squares got blacked out.
Part of the strategy involves keeping a path for yourself open while blocking in other players so they can’t move, but you have to be sure to have the most Credits before the game ends. Depending on the random selection of tiles, sometimes there are lots of ways to get more Credits, and other times there are only a few—so it’s important to figure out where you’re going to go. The other piece of that, though, is that once a square is blocked out, then you have to choose from the remaining actions next time you land on the tile. At the beginning of the game, everyone grabs the good stuff, which means in the latter half of the game most of the available squares cost you money.
I liked the basic idea of the game and I did have a good time playing it in the 2-player versions. The designer, Jonathan Leistiko, is also the guy behind The Isle of Doctor Necreaux, which I’ve really enjoyed, so I was optimistic about this one. However, I was a bit disappointed in the disconnect between the theme and the gameplay. Even the flavor text on the box—”the game ends with the last man standing”—isn’t accurate because it ends with the first man down.
Still, I think with the right set of players this could be a fun, fast-paced, exciting game. I think Pressure Matrix is best for players who value gameplay over appearances and don’t need to take lots of time reading every single square before making their moves. It’s not at the top of my list, but I’m definitely hanging onto it for now.
Wired: With the right players, a tense game of ratcheting tension on a claustrophobia-inducing board. Bonus: lots of extra tiles to keep the game fresh.
Tired: With the wrong players, a dull wait for your turn. Theme doesn’t match up with the gameplay.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.