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Heat: Pedal to the Metal - Review

Designers: Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Artist: Vincent Dutrait
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Player Count: 1 to 6 Players
Play Time: 30 to 60 Minutes

Racers, start your engines! In this review of Heat: Pedal to the Metal I overview the zoomin’ fast gameplay, highlight some of the impactful predecessors that helped shape this game, and explain how to get the most out of solo mode.

heat pedal to the metal board game box cover USa track player boards board game review heat review Asger Harding Granerud days of wonder Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Heat: Pedal to the Metal box cover

Gameplay: Floor it to the Finish Line

In Heat: Pedal to the Metal players take on the role of 1960s racers behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car as it zips around the racetrack game board. A classic racing game, the objective is simple: cross the finish line first. Players must push their car to its absolute limits in order to lead the pack, but should also be wary of over-exerting their engine or taking a curve too fast and spinning out.

Each turn, players play Speed and other cards from their hand to move their cars forward a number of spaces according to the value of the cards played. Stress cards are essentially Speed wildcards, simulating extreme pressure on the driver. Players may also take advantage of optional Boost and Slipstreaming actions that propel them forward a little further in the right circumstances, while the optional Garage Module opens up some bonus content for more advanced players. But otherwise, racing around the track is really a straightforward process; play cards, add up their value, and move that many spaces.

Heat is a card management, push-your-luck game about winning the race no matter the cost. And as players are drawing, playing, and discarding Speed cards, they will also be spending Heat cards from the Engine space on their player board—designed to resemble a vintage 1960s race car dash—as resources to take actions that strain their vehicle. For instance, at the beginning of each turn, players choose the Gear they are driving in; this determines the number of cards they play from their hand that turn. Players may shift gears up or down one (between first and fourth gear), or spend one Heat to shift up or down two gears, simulating a harsh change of speed that tests the car. Players can also spend one Heat to take a Boost action (revealing another Speed card from the top of the draw pile and moving that many more spaces) each turn, and must pay the difference in Heat between their Speed and the Speed Limit if they take a corner too quickly. If a player runs out of Heat overshooting a fast turn, they Spin Out. Heat is what allows players to … well, put the pedal to the metal.

heat pedal to the metal board game player board speed cards heat cards USa track player boards board game review heat review Asger Harding Granerud days of wonder Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Green player board with draw deck, Heat cards, discard pile, and gear token

Heat cards are spent from the Engine space on the player board into the discard pile, which is reshuffled whenever a fresh draw pile is required. This means that Heat cards will eventually end up in the players’ hands where they are effectively useless and eat into the number of functional Speed cards a player has to choose from that turn. And they are not so easy to get rid of; players cannot play or discard Heat cards outright. The only way to return Heat from hand to Engine is to Cool Down. There the Heat can be used again to take aggressive actions or pay Speed Limit costs.

Players can get Cool Downs in a few ways. Driving in first or second gear allows a player to return one and three Heat back to their engine respectively. Certain Upgrades in the Garage Module also allow the player to Cool Down. Finally, the player(s) taking up the rear can use an optional free Cool Down as part of their Adrenaline bonus. If a player fails to Cool Down and ends up with a Cluttered Hand of Heat cards, they effectively stall out on the board.

The strategy in Heat: Pedal to the Metal is really all about successfully cycling Heat cards between zones, keeping a positive flow of resources back to the Engine in order to take more exerting actions. The victorious player is the one who can most successfully balance pushing the car to the limits and taking timely Cool Downs to replenish their resources.

Solo: Racing Against Legends

The Advanced Play and Championship System rulebook contains the Legends Module for solo racers seeking stiff competition on the track. In solitaire Heat, the player will compete against skilled racers known as Legends, simulated by an automated movement system. Raising or lowering the number of Legends in the game has no impact on the fiddleyness of solitaire play, but more automated racers will make victory more of a challenge. For a true championship challenge, use all available cars and fill up that starting line!

The solitaire player first sets up their own player board as usual, randomly places all the cars on the starting spaces, sets the Legends Board next to their own, shuffles the ten Legends cards, and places them on the far left spot. That’s it. Setup is radically uncomplicated and gameplay is just as straightforward.

Legends board with Legends deck and flipped Legends card on France map heat board game Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen days of wonder board game review
Legends board with Legends deck and flipped Legends card

After selecting their gear and playing cards from their hand each turn, the player will flip the top card of the Legends deck. This card details movement instructions for each Legend according to their current location on the racetrack. The process for checking the speed of each Legend becomes instinctive after just a few turns. If the automated racer is between the Legend Line and the next upcoming corner, they will move a number of spaces equal to the Speed Limit through that corner, plus a bonus noted on the Legend card. If the Legend is positioned before the Legend Line of the next upcoming corner, they will move a number of spaces instructed on the Legend card unless it would cause them to round the corner, in which case they stop just shy of it. Essentially the automated racer will move further if they are on a straightaway and slow down to take corners.

Although the player still has access to bonuses like Slipstream and Adrenaline, Legends cannot take advantage of any of these added boons. But they are also unaffected by Heat—or rather not having enough of it in their engine. Legends do not pay Heat rounding corners quickly (and thus cannot Spin Out), cannot Boost, and so have no need to Cool Down. On one hand, this means the solo player does not need to manage an entire player board for each Legend. But it also makes the competition somewhat unintelligent.

Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen heat pedal to the metal italy map car racing game board game review
Cars rounding a corner on the Italy map

Thoughts: A Modern Racing Game in High Gear

Heat: Pedal to the Medal is an excellent entry point into modern tabletop gaming. Part of this is due to its painless mechanics. The bare bones game can be set up and explained, and the first turn started in about five to ten minutes. Few components need managing each turn, and the economy of actions available to a player is presented both rationally and clearly. Although each player must carefully make optimal decisions to successfully race to the front of the pack, they are not inundated with endless open-ended choices. Rather, when a player takes an action in Heat, the outcome is readily known and predictable—playing X cards will move the car Y spaces forward. This helps keep gameplay quick and clear-cut, so players can focus on the objective, rather than dawdling to contemplate every possible consequence of their turn.

The game’s contemporary take on a classic genre also serves to make Heat an attractive one for newer and curious gamers. It’s a racing game, where the simple objective is to win by being the first one to cross the finish line. This is a broadly recognized concept that folks can comprehend without needing to understand abstract gaming genres and theories, meaning most players will be able to come to the table with some comprehension of how the game ought to work. Heat leans into this by focusing players’ attention on play, rather than the metagame. Explanations and examples in the rulebook often refer to gameplay concepts in more colloquial, common terms, rather than gamer jargon. For example, the elaboration of how Heat works is presented in terms of its material impact on the car and the race, rather than in purely statistical, push-your-luck gameplay terms.

A frequent problem with racing games is the runaway leader effect, whereby gameplay engines will favor the player in the lead, functioning to extend their lead over everyone else. This can lead to somewhat deterministic end results if there is not a corrective tool in place. Heat prevents this dilemma with Adrenaline, a boon given to the player(s) in last place (depending on the player count). Qualifying for Adrenaline provides the player with an optional free Boost and an optional free Cool Down. This balancing mechanism ensures that Spinning Out or a Cluttered Hand does not completely eliminate a player from contention. This little gimme can be just enough to make up ground and rejoin the fray.

Heat owes a great deal of its tuned-up mechanics to influential predecessors. For instance, the gear selection action at the start of each turn is a streamlined derivative of how players shift gears in the remastered edition of Formula D. Similarly, the two-lane track, movement order from front to rear, speed determined by card value, Slipstreaming (though implemented differently), and Stress cards can all be found in analogous forms in the popular bike racing game Flamme Rouge—also heralded as a fine introductory game. But this does not render Heat a mere imitator. In fact, though clear lines can be traced between its gameplay engine and other popular racing titles, the designers of this game efficiently removed elements that led to rote strategies—like the leader gaining exhaustion in Flamme Rouge—while producing a gameplay experience that feels very on theme.

Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen heat pedal to the metal italy map car racing game board game review
Cars entering a short straightaway on the Italy map

While the basic game presented in the first rulebook invites new players into the race and gives them the minimum they need to start their engines, the rest of the box contains a great deal of rich gameplay to be explored. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the first time I played a demo of Heat that the standard box contains two double-sided game boards for a total of four playable race tracks—USA, Italy, Great Britain, and France. This offers players some variance right out of the box. In a time when it is not uncommon for games to be released in tandem with expansions that absolutely should have been included in the core box, the simple act of including four playable maps in the base game is commendable.

Further additions like drafting customized car Upgrades in the Garage Module to explore new strategies, a Weather and Road Conditions Module that can variably adjust the challenge of the track, and an elaborate Championship System that transforms Heat into a light legacy game all deepen the game’s replayability. After playing through a full Championship Season solo, I can absolutely envision high-stakes, competitive-level events emerging around this game at conventions and the like and would jump at the chance to join some sort of organized play tournament league near me.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Heat with my gaming group and expect it to make further appearances at game night. Most of my plays through the game, however, have been with the Legends Module—the solo play rules contained in the advanced play rulebook—to mixed results. Taking advantage of the advanced Upgrades from the Garage Module, solitaire Heat is a grueling race to the finish line against a capable, consistent slate of automated opponents. However, just using the basic rules, some fairly blatant balance issues emerge.

Legends have a significant basic movement advantage over human players. Since automated racers are not affected by Speed Limits the same way that the solo player is, and do not need to worry about managing Heat, their consistency is fixed. Within a wide margin, they are always going to be able to cover significant ground on a straightaway and pass through corners reasonably quickly. Legends are not subject to drawing a bad hand, will never have a Cluttered Hand, and will never Spin Out. But the player might, and if they do, they have to really push their luck with Boosts to catch up.

Let’s look at the numbers. On a straightaway, the Legends are going to move between ten and 19 spaces each turn, which on average is more than the player will be able to drive, even in fourth gear with an excellent hand. Similarly, rounding a tight corner, the Legends always move at least the Speed Limit of the corner. Without relevant Upgrades available only in the Garage Module, the player will quickly exhaust all Heat from their engine just to keep up. This is further compounded by the fact that movement rules will always place Legends in an optimal position to pass through the next corner as far as they can. This means that on maps like Great Britain with several close, low-speed corners, the automated racers are regularly going to make huge gains over the player who would never be able to pay that much Heat so quickly to keep pace. Plus, unlike the player, Legends have no gear limitations, allowing them to safely take a corner at three Speed one turn and gun it up to 19 the next. The Legends’ base movement advantage and their performance consistency (remember, they will never Spin Out) means that the player has little room for error and must play aggressively in order to keep up. So how does the player beat the Legends?

Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen heat pedal to the metal usay map car racing game board game review legends mode
The USA map is a great starting place to learn the Legends Module

At the end of the race, it is likely going to come down to just a few spaces between the racers, so Slipstreaming effectively and often is a critical bonus action that the player can use that the Legends do not have access to. The Garage Module’s advanced Upgrades also equip the player with the ability to don boons specific to the layout of each track to help close the gap. For example, on the Great Britain map, three proximal low-speed corners will drain the player’s Heat far faster than it can be Cooled Down if they try to keep pace with the Legends. Perfectly timed upgraded Tires or a Cooling System may just be the right answer.

And that is why I do not recommend playing the Legends Module unless you will also be utilizing the strategic advantages afforded in the Garage Module as well. It is not that beating the Legends with only the basic rules is impossible or out of balance, but the strategy becomes quickly tiresome and deterministic. There are parts of the track where Legends will always be faster and parts of the track where the player will always be faster. Some portions of certain maps (the corners in the Great Britain map and the long straightaway in the Italy map) really emphasize this dilemma. The inclusion of more potent Upgrades and even track variance from the Weather and Road Conditions Module can correct for this, opening up new strategic opportunities for the player. But more importantly, they just make the game more exciting!

Heat is not trying to trick players into thinking that it is deeper than it is. In this game, really cerebral gameplay and meditating about optimizing the action economy would only distract a player from the fun, light racing game that the designers have put together. From design to theme and teachability to replayability, it is no wonder why Heat: Pedal to the Metal is often regarded as one of the top games of the year. It is not necessarily a game you pull out if you are looking for grit, but it is one of the best all around racing tabletop games I have played and it will be a mainstay on my game night shelf for some time to come.

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