Over the last year, if you ventured anywhere near a board game forum, store, or convention then you’d know that only one game was on everyone’s mind. It’s been a 9-month journey of out-of-stock emails and delivery delays but I finally got my hands on that game: Heat: Pedal to the Metal.
So let’s hit the track and see how it works.
In Heat: Pedal to the Medal, also known as Heat, you’re racing around one of four racetracks over a series of rounds, trying to cross the finish line first. You’ll use a deck of speed cards to pick how far along the track you’ll move, and heat cards to push your car beyond its normal limits.
But before that, you need to select what gear you’re going to be in for the round. This is also how many cards you must play each round. If in first gear, you’ll play one card that round, while in fourth, you’ll play four.
Then you, along with everyone else, pick the cards from your hand that you want to play. Keeping them facedown until everyone is ready to reveal them together.
These speed cards, numbered from one to five, are how fast your car is moving that round. The higher the total number of these cards, the closer you are to leaving Lightning McQueen in the dust. Kachow.
Not all the cards are this straightforward though. Stress cards introduce randomness as playing them forces you to draw a random card from your deck. Meanwhile, heat cards can’t be played. So unless you can get rid of them quickly they’ll clog up your hand and slow you down.
From here on, players take turns from fastest to slowest.
First by moving your car equal to the cards played. Then you decide if you want to add a heat card into your deck to gain a boost or remove a heat card from your hand by cooling down your engine. Although, you can only cool down in first or second gear.
Next, you check if you can slipstream another car and if so, gain an extra two spaces. Then check to see if you sped past any corners. In the event that the number total of the cards you played is greater than the speed limit of the corner, then you must add that many heat cards into your deck.
In the not-so-unlikely event of you not having enough heat cards to do this, you spin out. Causing you to shift back to first gear, killing your momentum and adding a stress card to your deck.
That ends your turn, and the next player moves their car and runs through the same process.
Keep going until everyone crosses the line.
Excitement and strategy combine in glorious metal
From the moment you set the racing car miniatures on the starting grid, you feel the heat. The pressure of the race, the pressure of Ricky Bobby’s dad saying, “If you ain’t first, you’re last”. Because of its very clear victory condition, Heat: Pedal to the Medal loudly tells you if you’re winning or not.
And so you feel an excitement bubbling in your stomach as you look at the track. You’re either in the lead with players hot on your tail, or you’re desperately trying to figure out how you can close the gap. Either way, you’re trying to will your car to go faster than the laws of physics allow.
This shouldn’t be possible, but with heat cards, nothing is ruled out.
These cards allow you to perform the supernatural. Breaking the laws of the game for the small cost of adding one or more heat cards to your deck. Whether that’s going up and down multiple gears, speeding around corners, or using them to boost every turn. Whatever your poison, heat lets you do it.
However, everyone starts with the same amount of heat and the same amount of possibility to do the impossible. This is why heat management is at the core of Heat: Pedal to the Metal. Well, that and having too much heat fill up your hand with useless cards until your car explodes. Literally.
So figuring out when to use heat to zoom past your opponents, and when to downshift gears to cool off is crucial but not easy. Especially when you’re abuzz with the excitement of the race.
But that’s what makes Heat: Pedal to the Metal such an outstanding board game. It combines the rush of smaller luck-focused games like Spots, where everything hinges on a dice roll, with more strategic mechanics like Dale of Merchants.
Therefore, it feels like a fast and loose game of hooning around the track as fast as you can and taking every chance you get. Yet the gameplay is quite measured. You spend most of your time managing heat, and living life one corner at a time.
These corners are a danger, but also present opportunity. The speed limits act as a soft barrier, stopping players from the aforementioned hooning. Players usually want to use all of their speed in the straightaways and pull up just in front of the corner. So they can maximise their speed and save their heat by obeying the speed limit on the next turn.
However, if everyone is doing the same thing, then your chance is to blow right by the corner at the cost of heat. Letting you accelerate into the next part of the track one round ahead of everyone.
But then you can only pull this maneuver off a couple of times before you empty your heat reserves and need to slow down.
Why you won’t like Heat: Pedal to the Metal
Heat: Pedal to the Metal is going to be a game that we’re going to be talking about for years to come. But that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to enjoy it.
This is especially true if you don’t buy into the excitement of the race. Because it’s that excitement that sits on your shoulder in a devil costume encouraging you to make bad decisions throughout the race. Then it’s these bad decisions that keep things volatile.
Without the volatility, Heat: Pedal to the Metal can quickly feel samey. After all, every turn you have boils down to: how fast can I go? It’s not like your typical strategic game like Suburbia where you can chase different paths to victory. There’s only one path, and everyone is running down it as fast as they can.
Additionally, the catch-up mechanic of adrenaline is quite heavy-handed. Although that means the ending is almost always going to be a spectacle, it can feel artificial.
In a similar vein, slipstreaming rewards you for staying in touch with someone. When you’re way out in front or way behind, you’ll struggle to keep the same pace as a pack of tightly coupled racecars. I wouldn’t change the mechanic in any way, because it opens a lot of strategic opportunities, but it can feel futile sometimes if you’re trying to lone wolf it.
What’s in the box?
There is so much within the Heat: Pedal to the Metal game box that it deserved its own section. Starting with the four distinctly different maps. Italy is filled with tight corners and slow sections, while Great Britain is a high-speed track that lets you put the roof down and feel the wind in your hair. Each track is unique in how you need to approach it.
Next up is the Weather and Road Conditions module. Letting you alter sections of the track to provide benefits such as increasing the speed limit around corners. Or hindrances like denying drivers from using slipstream during sections of the track. These are randomised at the start of the race and change the way you think about the race.
In the Garage Module, you draft three different upgrades prior to the start of the race. These are more advanced cards that usually offer a benefit, at a cost. Take, for instance, the Tires card. It allows you to cooldown three heat when you use it but reduces the speed of any corner you pass by one. So you really have to slow down to pass a corner.
Although it does take a bit to get used to all the new symbols. Playing with these cards drastically changes Heat: Pedal to the Metal, because it adds a caveat to the question you’re always asking. No longer is it, how fast can I go? It’s how fast can I go, and what will it cost?
Lastly, if you’re up for it, you can put all of these modules together in the Championship System. A series of races over the different tracks within the game. Before each race, you draft an upgrade for your car, add weather effects to the track, and carry points won from the last race over.
Those are the main modes, but it’s worth mentioning that there’s also a Tournament Mode. As well as a solo (or bot) mode that adds the fully self-driving cars Tesla promised a couple of years ago.
With all of these modes, it increases the amount of thought and effort required to play the game. So although the base game can be played with people just entering the hobby. Any of these modules will put it way out of their reach.
Days of Wonder at it again
As a big fan of board games, it’s great to see another hit from Days of Wonder. Outside of their 600 versions of Ticket to Ride and Small World, it’s been a while since they dominated the hobby with their Five Tribes/Yamatai doubleheader. Games I still adore to this day.
So while it might be too soon to claim they’re back, Heat: Pedal to the Metal is up there as one of the best board games I’ve played. Days of Wonder knocked it out of the park with the production, and the mountains of content within the box.
Although perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Heat: Pedal to the Metal is that one member of my gaming group is part of the Supercars Championship. They were incredibly impressed with how the game modelled the real-life racing sport. Particularly the contracting and expanding of the cars as they reached the corners and straightaways.
For me as a board gamer, I was just happy to watch cars go fast.
All the waiting I did for Heat: Pedal to the Metal was worth it. It has been one of my most played board games of 2023 and requested every game night I’ve had since it arrived.
Designers: Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Publisher: Days of Wonder
See how Heat: Pedal to the Metal compares to all of the other board games I’ve reviewed.