Tharsis is an interesting one. On one hand, it’s space cannibals on a broken ship going towards Mars. On the other hand, it’s a strategic dice rolling game. Which seems like an oxymoron to me, but I’ll let that slide for now. It’s definitely a weird combination, which is what got me intrigued in the first place, but the biggest question is if the game is interesting enough to keep you pushing through it despite its incredible difficulty.
As mentioned, Tharsis is a turn-based space strategy game that uses dice as a main way of determining randomized events. It seems a bit counterintuitive to have a strategy game so heavily based on the blessing of the RNG, but it somehow works together quite well. The premise of Tharsis is that your crew is part of the first manned mission to Mars. There are six crew members when your ship is struck by a meteorite, causing two of your crew and your food supply to be sucked into the vacuum of space. Two members down, starving and injured, with systems failing, your goal is to get to Mars in one piece. Expect causalities.
Tharsis has you managing your ship and its crew by duct taping the ship back together while simultaneously keeping everyone alive, and fully stocked with dice, which is a diminishing resource in this game. The way it blends turn based strategy with dice is by having parts of your ship explode in weird ways at the start of every turn, with you having until the end of the turn to fix it before the effects are suffered. Sometimes, you will take hull damage if you let the system fail. Other times, your food stores will be compromised, you will take damage to your crew, or your crew will lose a die or two. The strategic part of this game is leveraging what resources you have and making tough decisions. Are you are better off letting one of your systems fail so you can snag some extra dice for your crew? Do you let half of your crew die so you can keep the ship from falling apart and floating into nothingness forever? Or do you ignore the health and dice damage you are about to take and send your crew to make more food in an undamaged module? This is where the dice come into play.
The dice are one of your core assets in the game. When a system is damaged, it is given a counter, and you have to use your dice rolls to reduce that counter to zero to repair that system. The way you do this is using the dice that your crew members have. Thankfully, whatever the target may be, it doesn’t have to be reached with just the one unit, once a counter is reduced, it doesn’t go back up. On top of this, dice are also used to activate crew class abilities, such as heal everyone in the module, or repair the ship, as well as module specific abilities like replenish dice or harvest food, and also to use research projects, which I will talk about a bit later.
However, that’s not all. Tharsis then goes ahead and gives you what I can only describe as status effects for your dice. If you roll certain numbers on certain modules, you can be hit with one of three possible effects; Stasis, Void and Injury. Stasis makes that dice unavailable for re-roll, Void makes the dice unavailable by sucking it into a black hole, and Injury, well, injures. To counter this, and add yet another layer of strategy, you are given Assists, which will stop one status effect per use, with you being able to stockpile a maximum of three. These are critical to say the least, especially when it gets to the last two rounds and all your crew are sitting on one health with every module having Injury effects waiting for you.
If that wasn’t enough, Tharsis also has you manage stress. Stress determines the end of round bonuses, if you can call them that, that you can choose from. They rarely are all positive and most of the time are +1 Dice, -1 Health or something equally as horrifying, with no ability to take none. As your stress increases, the benefits are outweighed by the drawbacks. I have lost at least three runs when the end of round bonus is -30% Stress, -3 Health to all crew, with no option to choose anything else. A way to offset some of these is by using the research system. If you have spare dice you can put them into the research bar. Only one of each number can be added to the bar at a time, and are removed when a research ability is used. These abilities range from added dice to the crew, to repairing the ship or the current module.
That said, we still haven’t touched on one of my favorite elements of Tharsis, Cannibalism. If you have a crew member die, you get to put their corpse to good use. Each “portion” of your former friend you eat replenishes your dice stock, but also decreases your maximum health, so it isn’t something you want to overuse. As an added “OH GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?!”, your dice turn to a bloody red after you taste the sweetness of human flesh, reminding you what you have done for the rest of your existence.
All of that was me explaining the depth of this simple to pick up game, which says a lot about the way it is set-up, but it begs the question: does it work? Is the game still fun to play? Since RNG plays a heavy part of this game, the strategy element needs to be balanced perfectly to avoid any potential customers just not bothering because they are a passenger in the RNG’s car. Surprisingly, the balance is very good here. Yes, there will be times where you need to get a three and roll a two, and there is little to nothing you can do about that. Given the game’s theme, you can perhaps expect the odds to not be in your favor every now and then.
It does becoming frustrating, especially if you were to survive to the final week of the trip and need to roll a one to survive, and you end up getting hit with a dice void and you lose, but that’s what makes it fun. After you pick up your head off the table, you start again, and you don’t care that you just got so close to victory you could taste it. The way the dice economy works, with the amount of dice your crew members have being of great importance really increases the strategy involved, making you really think if you want to put someone with five dice in a room that will only net you one hull repair.
It seems like a frustrating concept, and if my time playing it is any indication, it really is. There is nothing more frustrating than needing a two or more to save your crew from certain death, and rolling the sixes and a one, only for the one to be an injury effect with your crew member perishing as a result, leaving you with absolutely nothing and then you throw your keyboard into your screen and you have to buy a new monitor. That didn’t actually happen, but I definitely woke up in a cold sweat more than once thinking about Tharsis, but it never stopped me going back. There is something that really draws you back in, something about getting so frustrated you want to throw your computer across the room and plugging everything back in just to have one more game, one more run.
As a result of all that, this game gets a tick of approval from me. I haven’t mentioned anything about how the game looks or sounds, but they don’t entirely matter. That isn’t saying Tharsis is ugly, which is certainly isn’t, but the gameplay is the only thing that matters in this case. It’s simple, challenging, replayable, fun, and frustrating like you would not believe. The way the dice work beyond just rolling them is very well thought out. They aren’t just a means to an end, they actually have an economy to them and require lots of thought to what you are doing, which makes the game just that much more fun to a strategy nut like me.
Tharsis was reviewed on Steam using a key provided by the publisher. It is also available on PlayStation 4.
What do you think? Is the game too RNG focused for you to bother, or does it remind you more of a cool interactive board game? Let us know in the comments below!
This game has elements that make people like me smile and rage at the same time, but being objective, I can see how people may not be too enthused by that concept. This game is great for people who can stand praying to the RNG more than usual.