Heat: Pedal To The Metal Review
Heat: Pedal to the Metal (just ‘Heat’ from hereon in) was the fanfare game from the most recent Essen Spiel. Following in the footsteps of Ark Nova the year before, it quickly sold out everywhere and saw people paying silly money to snag a copy, lest they not be riding the crest of the hype wave for a week or two. The initial hype has died down, my self-imposed don’t-buy-into-the-hotness window is clear, so I picked up a copy at a much more reasonable price. The big question you’re dying to know the answer to is probably “Is the game as good as people say it is??”, and the answer is actually yes. Yes, it’s pretty darned awesome, although there might be the odd pothole to watch out for.
There are surprisingly few pure racing board games. Many games use a race mechanism to decide a winner, but it’s abstracted from the theme of the game. Reiner Knizia’s The Quest for El Dorado (review here) is a great example. If you strip it down to the nuts and bolts of the game, it’s a card-driven hand management game, with the goal of being the first to the end. Heat takes the same approach, but puts it in the classic race environment of a road race. Other games do the same, such as Formula D, Rallyman, and the current de-facto recommended racing game, Flamme Rouge.
Heat dons the livery of classic 1960s-style racing cars. I don’t know which car the minis in the game and on the cards are based on, but they look like the Lotus 25 or Eagle Weslake to me*. Engines and wheels with a human strapped to them, and nary a spoiler in sight. Playing Heat is super simple – check which gear you’re in on your player board, play that many cards from your hand, add up the points on those cards, and move along the track that many spaces. I’m not over-simplifying things here, that genuinely is all you need to do to actually play the game. The trick (you knew there was a trick coming) is in which cards you choose to play, and which gear you’re in at any given time.
If you end your movement directly behind or beside another car, you slipstream past them and move in front. Let’s say you’re in a race and two cars are neck-and-neck, side-by-side on the track ahead. If you land directly behind them you’ll go whizzing by, like a moron in a Range Rover using the hard shoulder on the motorway. All while maybe only using two or three points of movement. It’s a pretty glorious feeling, I can tell you. The biggest consideration to make comes in the corners, where entering with too much speed can cause you all manner of grief, and cause you to spin out.
* I have no idea about racing cars from the ’60s. I Googled these to sound knowledgeable.
The game’s name – Heat – is more than clever wordplay to bring about the atmosphere of hot tarmac, or even the heats of a race series. Heat is a crucial component in the game. Certain actions in the game, such as shifting too many gears at a time, or going too fast through a corner, add Heat cards to your deck. Heat cards are useless, you don’t want them. All they do is clog up your deck. In addition to gumming up the works, if you try to do something that would add a Heat card to your deck and – alas – there are none, you spin off the track! You don’t want to spin out, take my word for it.
Heat is mitigated by driving in lower gears. Lower gears result in cooldown, where you can move heat cards out of your hand, and back into your engine, which is a gorgeous thematic touch. Other cards represent the stress of racing, and the chance of a lapse of concentration messing things up. Playing one means drawing a speed card from your deck and playing it immediately, not knowing how far it’s going to send you. It’s just another example of the theme which has been applied like so much motor oil to every moving part of Heat’s engine. It all goes towards giving a wonderful push-and-pull feeling to the game, which once again, just slathers on more theme like dirty, greasy frosting.
The simplistic nature of the gameplay is both its strength and its weakness at the same time. After a few games with the base rules and with the same players, you start to see the meta rise to the surface. If the players know one another well enough, they can predict who will do what when they come to a corner. It can get really cagey, and it’s fitting that the game gets compared to Flamme Rouge (which is about cycling), because those cagey races are like watching a road race, waiting to see who’s the first to try to break the field and move ahead of the pack alone.
If you do tire (no pun intended) of the base game, there’s a feast of extra modules to throw in. Weather and race conditions, and a Garage module are the ones you’ll get the most value from. The Garage module has a round of upgrade drafting before the race starts to give players slightly asymmetric decks and different abilities, which is really cool. Other than that there’s a full campaign-style Championship module, and the Legends module which adds AI-controlled cars to the mix. The AI is extremely simple to run and makes for a great solo experience. It’s also worth adding in a couple of drivers to two- or three-player races, because Heat is at its best with a full complement of racers.
Racing with a flat?
The cars in Heat don’t have spoilers, but in spite of this, there are a couple of things that can really spoil the experience. If you spin off the track it can be really difficult to catch up with the pack. There is a catch-up mechanism called Adrenaline that gives the last racer (or two in a 5+ player game) an extra movement each turn and increases your cooldown. Despite these, it can still be pretty difficult to catch up. When you’re up among the other cars it’s relatively easy to stay in touch, and you only need one or two slipstreams to stay at the front. If you get dropped, however, and end up with more than one corner between you and the others, it’s really difficult to catch the front runners, and it can be a pretty miserable experience. That extra speed given by Adrenaline is often offset by the slipstreaming happening in the pack.
I played a four-player game of Heat where someone spun out on a corner, and had to push so hard to catch up that they spun out again soon after. One player won, and I came in second. The player in third knew there was no way they could be caught, so both he and the player in fourth just stopped playing. It was a really anti-climactic ending which took the wind out of everyone’s sails. I’m sure that with another play with the same people, things will be better, but it’s fair to say that Heat is definitely a game that benefits from a little shepherding if you’re playing with a mix of new and experienced players.
The other main bit of grit in Heat’s gears is the rulebook. On the whole, it’s good, but there are some ambiguous or misleading bits in there. For instance, when you play a Stress card or take a boost, you turn over cards from your deck to find a speed card. However, it’s easy to miss the fact that the value 0 and 5 cards you start with don’t count as speed cards. only the 1-4 cards. In almost all ways these cards all look the same. There is a symbol on the cards to denote it is a speed card, but it’s far from obvious. These little obfuscations are causing enough confusion that there’s a complete unofficial FAQ over on BGG (link to FAQ) and the promise of an updated rulebook from the designers.
I don’t have many racing games. Looking at my shelves, I see Cubitos (review here), Jamaica, Long Shot: The Dice Game (review here), and The Quest for El Dorado (review here). Heat is certainly the only car racing game I have, and it’s a game that’s going to stay in my collection for a long time. It’s such a simple concept, but so well executed. Sure, it has its snags, as I mentioned above, but what game doesn’t? I’m really pleased to see that there are four tracks included in the game on two double-sided boards. Days of Wonder haven’t skimped on anything in the production of Heat.
The little plastic cars are a little piece of genius in my opinion. They help Heat straddle the line between game and toy, and they also get players doing those things in games which you haven’t done since you were a kid. You’ll go ‘brrrrrmmmm’, make screeching noises as you turn your car into a corner, and pick up your car and tap it along each space, counting your movement. You never need to – the distance to each corner is printed on the board – but you’ll do it like you were playing Snakes and Ladders as a five-year-old.
I’m not sure I’d choose to buy Heat if I knew I’d only ever play with two or three players. You can throw in the Legends module for some AI rivals, but it’s at its best with five and six players. Racing games are personal. It’s about beating the other players around the table. Yes, it’s satisfying getting a great piece of movement done, but it pales next to leaving someone eating your dust as you take the chequered flag. I fully expect to see Heat being played all over the place at conventions for the next couple of years, when people get the chance to play it with a full grid. Deceptively easy to learn, tons of fun, and plenty of scope for expansions and more tracks in the future, Heat is here to stay, and it’s great.
Review copy kindly provided by my retail partner kienda.co.uk. Thoughts and opinions are my own. Register for an account by visiting kienda.co.uk/punchboard today for 5% off your first £60+ order.
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Heat: Pedal to the Metal (2022)
Designers: Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Art: Vincent Dutrait
Playing time: 30-60 mins