When I originally heard about the concept of Tharsis, I was intrigued. The idea of a digital board game about getting a disabled spaceship to Mars where you’re actually throwing dice each turn was interesting enough. However, add a little space cannibalism into the mix with a brutally challenging game on top of it, and I could not get the game out of my head. As an avid fan of extremely difficult PC games such as Darkest Dungeon and FTL, Tharsis sounded directly up my alley. After watching Stack-Up streamers Milty and Kevin bang their heads repeatedly against the game, I reached out to the developer and demanded a code. I had to see what this game was about.
FLYING SPACE TRASH
As stated, in Tharsis, you are a team of six astronauts floating on your way to the presumed empty Mars to investigate a bizarre distress signal. On your way there, your ship, the Iktomi, is hit by a micro-meteor storm which blows out some of the capsules on the ship thus killing two of your crew. The rest of the game is the slow, steady disintegration of the ship and the remaining crews’ desperate attempt to hold it all together in the ten weeks (ten turns) it would take to crash land on Mars while also discovering the source of the distress beacon.
In other words: you’re forced to deal with a real shit show.
SO ABOUT THAT DIFFICULTY LEVEL
The game play sounds simple on paper. You have four crew members, and with every turn a new event occurs bringing 2-3 random incidents onto the ship that your crew members have to deal with. If the crew is unable to repair the random events before the end of the turn they happen on, they do a random negative effect. The event is assigned a number between 8-30, and your crew needs to go to the capsule and roll above that number to make the “repair” across all their combined dice. These negative effects can range from a little bit of structural damage to the hull of the ship flat out damaging all crew members. Bottom line, you need to clear each event each turn or things get out of hand very quickly.
If that was all there was, then maybe things would be reasonable to deal with. But, of course, that would be too easy. Every time you use a crew member, they lose a die for die rolls unless you feed them at the end of the turn”¦which, surprise, there’s a shortage of food. No worries! You can always cannibalize dead crew members and lose maximum health to restore some dice. On top of that, there are random stress levels slowly going up as you make decisions and things go sideways causing even more to go wrong. However, it doesn’t stop there. Each event has numbers on the dice with random occurrences: roll a 4 while you’re trying to roll four dice to get over a 22, and your crew member takes an injury. Roll a 2, and the die just plain old disappears. These numbers change as the events come in, but they’re always bad. The more dice your crew has, the more likely they are to roll these negative events.
MAYBE IT’S NOT ALL BAD?
There are a variety of mechanics Tharsis throws at you in an attempt to soften the blow. Members of your crew have a specific skill like Mechanic or Captain, which can provide bonuses such as adding health or dice to the crew. Each of the modules have their own abilities. For example, the hydroponic section provides you food and the med bay will heal any crew members. Then, of course, you can research a variety of skills such as being able to completely repair a damaged capsule, heal a crew member, or reduce stress. The problem is that while these mechanics are great, they all require those precious dice of which you rarely have enough, and I do mean rarely.
DEFEATING THE RNG GOD
Tharsis is all about being unfair and seeing how far you can go. I’ve seen screengrabs of people who have made it all ten weeks, so it is doable. However, the Random Number Generator (RNG) God is well in effect here. I’ve had first rounds where I’ve cleared both starting events only to have three more impossible to clear events pop up the next round and wipe me out in one turn. I honestly have no idea how anyone would go all ten weeks in Tharsis.
While I love a challenge, Tharsis teeters on a line of being just unfair, and I’m certain it is going to cause some problems with the general acceptance level of this game. Most gamers want to feel they stand a chance at getting further or better with each play through, but you are at the mercy of the dice every time. It’s a brilliant concept for a game and makes me yearn for more like Tharsis. I’ve found myself staring off into space thinking about playing just one more round which usually takes between five and fifteen minutes. What could I have done differently? Maybe I could have done X, Y, or Z? The problem is none of it matters; you are beholden to the dice. You can do everything right and still get boned.
I love Tharsis for what it is: an unapologetic nightmare of watching dice land on the numbers you do NOT need them to land on. However, I also like when games at least give me the feeling I can beat them. Tharsis is not that game. If you plan on picking it up, just be prepared to be angry”¦often.
Oh, and here’s the punch line: Tharsis has a “hard” difficulty.