Developer Choice Provisions has brought turn-based strategy to the ruthless conditions of outer space in Tharsis, a board game-inspired survival story that sees a team of Mars-bound astronauts shipwrecked in space. Distressed and hungry, the crew must be guided through their journey as they try and fix the numerous problems with the spaceship, utilize the scarce supplies, and try their best to stave off cannibalism so that they can make it to the red planet in (mostly) one piece. But is this a voyage worth tagging along for?
The setup to Tharsis is incredibly simple, and it’s that easy-to-learn simplicity that becomes its main strength. In a brief tutorial, it’s shown that a meteor shower bombards the ship while the crew’s botanist is doing some maintenance work, causing the pantry, the unfortunate botanist, and the majority of the food supply to be blown to smithereens. With still ten weeks left before they reach Mars, the remaining crewmembers are forced to do whatever they can to survive on the severely damaged ship, which has more and more of its parts failing each week. There is a bit more story in the form of short comic book-style cutscenes between each turn that narrate the team’s escalating despair, but these are more likely to become more of a nuisance once you have seen them all as they play in every single run-through.
Tharsis features an interesting concept, bringing tabletop elements to its survival gameplay. If there is one thing you will be doing a lot of, it’s rolling dice. Each playthrough will start off with four characters, who all begin with a certain amount of dice. There is a total of nine characters in the game, four of which are available from the start—Doctor, Captain, Specialist, and Mechanic. The rest are unlocked upon the completion of tasks and the gathering of enough resources.
Each turn, which represents a week in the story, new damages will be inflicted on different sections of the spacecraft. These are referred to as events, and they each have a damage value that needs to be reduced to zero by accumulating that number through dice rolls. Every character will need to embark to the affected modules and roll their dice in an effort to repair the damage to the ship. The higher the number, the more the damage will deplete.
The number of dice each character has ranges from one to five with a set number of rerolls allowed. It becomes crucial, therefore, to keep your crew’s dice stock as full as possible at all times by providing them with food, a task that becomes increasingly difficult as the game progresses. If events aren’t completed before the end of the turn, they will carry over into the next one, making it very easy for you to get overwhelmed ridiculously quickly in Tharsis.
However, the dice aren’t just used for decreasing damage. When entering one of the events, you are faced with a number of options on how to distribute the value of each rolled dice. Every character has a class ability that can be activated if the requirements are met, which usually means rolling a five or higher.
For instance, the Doctor can heal everyone in the module’s health by one, and the mechanic can repair the ship. Likewise, each module also has an ability that has effects similar to the class abilities, except the rewards tend to be greater. You can harvest food to replenish dice in the greenhouse or max out the assist bar to block hazards in the laboratory. You can also use the dice to gain research points, which are used to gain power-ups.
The most irritating parts of Tharsis‘s gameplay are the hazards. These are specific dice values for each event that, if rolled, will trigger something bad. These include stasis (assigned to lower numbers) that will prevent the dice from being rerolled. Even worse are the injury and void effects, which take away hit points from the character and make the dice completely vanish from play respectively. The hazards can be blocked through the use of assists, but you can only have a maximum of three assists at a time, and they can be quite hard to earn, especially when you’re also trying to gain food.
One thing the game does a brilliant job of emulating is the feeling of desperation that comes with being isolated in a deadly location. It is impossible to avoid: you will continuously have to make a series of tough decisions over sacrificing one precious commodity for another. You will often have to forgo your crew’s sanity for the sake of gaining one extra food or rebuilding the ship, and you will inevitably have to resort to cannibalism, dining on your less fortunate shipmates so that you don’t end up the same way as them.
The sense of dread over each choice is diminished, however, by the simple fact that playthroughs don’t last very long, about half an hour if you make it to the final few turns. So if your chances of survival are starting to look slim, don’t worry—in a couple of turns, you will be able to make a fresh start with a new set of events.
On a visual level, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of character to show off. The faces of the astronauts all look, for the most part, relatively interchangeable. Apart from a limited number of facial expressions that accompany some actions, they remain lifeless, which may seem appropriate considering how they are the equivalent of board game pieces. The interior design of the ship boasts slightly more detail. The developers were inspired by sci-fi television off the seventies, and it shows through the vessel’s simple, colorful rooms. Other extra little touches enhance the atmosphere, such as the blood-drenched dice that appear for a character if they have turned over to the dark side of eating human flesh for sustenance.
It’s unavoidable that a game built around rolling dice will have a lot to do with chance, and this is where Tharsis falters. Space certainly is a frustrating place. No matter how much strategy you apply to the gameplay, you will always end up having to rely significantly on pure luck. You can help yourself out with the well-thought-out delegation of tasks, but all the organization skills in the world aren’t going to help you if Lady Luck isn’t on your side. The game’s astronauts are always a few dud rolls away from unsalvageable disaster.
On the one hand, this is a great representation of the dangerously precarious situation you may well find yourself in if you actually were on a failing space shuttle stuck in the dark reaches of space. On the other hand, judging it as a game, it is incredibly maddening. Yes, the game is very difficult, and you will fail many, many times before eventually getting to Mars, but a lot of those failures won’t feel like your fault at all, and neither will some of the successes. When I did manage to beat the game, I felt it was more down to a few good early rolls rather that any noticeable changes to my strategy.
The predominant luck factor of the gameplay can lead to some punishingly unfair outcomes and might be too unforgiving for a lot of players. That said, Tharsis just about manages to get by on its pure addictiveness. Each round’s short length makes the game designed to be played over and over, so there is always the temptation of having just one more game. Some rounds may be complete wipeouts, but those just make you even more determined to try again. The quick rinse and repeat nature makes it very easy to keep going and going, encouraging you to be always developing and trying out new tactics. I found the game to be consistently infuriating to say the least, but, like a bad gambling addiction, I felt compelled to continue in the hope that the next roll of the dice would be in my favor.
Overall, while I did somewhat enjoy my time with Tharsis, the game is too short on content and too reliant on chance to make it worth an enthusiastic recommendation. If you are a fan of tabletops and don’t mind the component of chance in such creations, then there are a few hours of enjoyment to be squeezed out of Tharsis, and it’s the type of game that you can easily drop into for a quick round or two between playthroughs of larger epics.
This review is based on the PC version, which was provided to us.
Its simple rules coupled with the brief length of its rounds make Tharsis very easy to pick up and get addicted to...for a few hours. Unfortunately, so much of its gameplay is reliant on luck, which can make for an incredibly frustrating and unforgiving experience.