Heat: Pedal to the Metal is something extraordinary — it’s a table-top racing game with an actual sense of breakneck speed. The designers achieve this both through the brilliant deck-building mechanics, and also with clever mechanisms that accelerate the actual process of play. In fact, Heat might be the best racing board game ever designed, surpassing recent standouts and seasoned classics alike.
The setting here is 1960s Grand Prix, and the core of the design is clever hand management. Each player secretly chooses a subset of their hand to play for movement each round. The number of cards you play is limited by your current gear. So, if you’re in second gear you play two cards, third you play three, and so on. Add up the value of the cards, and that’s the number of spaces you scoot your little car down the track. Want to move further? Then shift into a higher gear so you can play more cards and tear up the road.
Corners gum it all up and function as speed bumps. They force you to slow your speed and downshift. Each corner presents a number which is the maximum speed you may cross it without penalty, speed being the total number of spaces you are moving that turn.
You can push your car and take corners without stomping the brakes. This comes at the cost of the titular heat. Heat enters your deck when you blow through corners or when you rev your engine and boost additional spaces after a movement. These cards are functionally dead, unable to be used or even discarded once they enter your hand. Instead, you must slow down and allow your engine to cool if you want to vent them out of your deck.
In sum, this system is magnificent. It’s simple, yet it forces agonizing tactical and strategic decisions. You must assess your hand, current gear, position on the track, and even the makeup of the rest of your deck. Heat is a resource to be used as opposed to totally ignored. Pushing through a corner and tearing up your vehicle may be the correct gambit, but timing is crucial.
Once you’ve accumulated heat, there’s a constant tension as you know those cards sitting in your discard pile will make their way into your draw deck and finally your hand. Your car feels appropriately fragile, as if it could fall to pieces at any moment. At some point you will have to ease off the pedal, but you better hope like hell you can time that moment to occur near a corner so you don’t forfeit the opportunity for massive gains on a straightaway.
As you gain and release heat, the act of deck-building is fluid and gripping. Heat, functioning as a burden to be dealt with later, also obfuscates the current status of the racers in a similar way to hidden victory points in other games. Simply leading the pack does not mean a car is actually in an enviable position, particularly if their deck is clogged with heat and their competitor’s isn’t. It’s fascinating how simple and smooth the deck-management is as a tactical process.
Despite the streamlined play, Heat’s biggest obstacle is the learning experience. It’s a simple enough game, but internalizing the processes can take several rounds. The flow is partially obscured by the player board, which offers a poor set of iconography representing the phases. However, after a single lap most drivers will be comfortable white-knuckling the steering wheel and letting loose.
There is such a tremendous sense of momentum here. It’s illustrated through the card play but equally expressed through several physical and procedural flourishes. For instance, all of the planning for the round — including shifting gear and choosing cards to play — occurs simultaneously. This is half the game, plotted and resolved in a couple of moments with little downtime.
Another smart touch that speeds up the typical soft moments of racing games is the numbering of spaces so that you can see how far you are from the next corner. This means you don’t need to keep counting spots on the board for planning or when actually moving your plastic car. It’s all so quick and snappy and folds into Heat’s strong pace of play to build that sense of velocity.
My biggest criticisms revolve around Heat’s lack of verisimilitude. While it nails the feeling of ’60s auto racing, it lacks somewhat in simulation. This is seen with cars in higher gear moving slower than those in lower gears when the driver plays a number of reduced value cards for the round. It’s also clearly evident in the catchup mechanisms. The game just flat out gives a bonus movement to the last place car, writing it off as “adrenaline.”
Additionally, slipstreaming is a key component, allowing you to slide additional spaces if you end your turn adjacent to another vehicle. This works to model a core element of the sport, but it serves primarily to allow cars farther back to spring ahead. That may annoy some as contestants tend to cluster around each other, but it does result in dramatic moments with constant jockeying for position. It’s also not impossible to burst ahead of the pack with strong play, even if it’s uncommon.
If this was the totality of Heat, it would be enough. But it’s not. This product feels rich, not just in its ability to deftly capture Grand Prix racing, but also in its offering of content. It comes with two fold-out double-sided tracks which present various tactical challenges. Several modules are also included to mix up the rules. It has weather effects, changing road conditions, and even exceptional AI controlled opponents which allow you to fill out a lower player count or even play it as a solo board game. But Heat fully realizes its potential with the championship mode.
This is league play where you embark on a three-race series. Points are earned based on finishing position, and whoever possesses the most at the conclusion of the third track is the winner. This approach mimics an abbreviated career mode in popular sports titles like Madden. You actually modify your car each race, adding new cards to your deck. The number of upgrade options is tremendous, which results in asymmetric builds and automobiles with legitimate personality and identity. Additionally, you can earn short term rewards from sponsors by showing off on the track and performing daring maneuvers. There is such a wealth of options that it feels as though Days of Wonder delivered the game with an included expansion, one that is highly effective.
Heat: Pedal to the Metal is fantastic. Designers Asger Granerud and Daniel Pederson’s exceptional card system comes across as a revision of their previous hit bicycle racing title, Flamme Rouge. That is a fantastic game in its own right, but it’s not Heat. The brilliant capturing of motion at the heart of this genre is an unmitigated achievement. Pair this with such a complete and thorough product, and we have an absolute champion.