By Ferry "Sadhonker" Adams on April 14, 2020
Have you ever heard people talking about having to roll the dice before doing something potentially dangerous or unwise? Well, usually they're not talking about actually rolling a pair of dice and seeing what the outcome is. They just mean they'll have to take the chance and risk it. But sometimes, just sometimes, rolling the dice might just mean exactly what it says...
This is definitely the case with Tharsis; a game of outer-space survival that relies heavily on the outcome of the aforementioned dice. Tharsis is developed by Choice Provisions and was originally released on January 12, 2016 for Windows, OS X and Playstation 4. As of April 11, 2020, the game is also available on the Nintendo Switch. So, what is Tharsis, exactly? Well, just imagine yourself being the leader of a group of brave astronauts that are on a voyage to discover who or what is behind a mysterious signal, originating in the Tharsis region on Mars. During their quest, they will have to face some of the many dangers that come with traveling through space, where every collision with something might be the last you'll ever witness... Luckily, you will have a team of experts available to you and you can use them to avert oncoming catastrophes.
So, okay, we have a spaceship and we have our crew. So what do we do next? Let's take a look at our ship first. Our space-faring vessel id divided into several sections, each with its own purpose. For instance, there's the greenhouse section, which is used for food production, or the med bay, which can be used to restore health to characters. Each section of the ship has its own function and can be used to make the most of your journey through space. Then, there's our crew. Each of our crew members has their own ability and number of dice they can roll. Using them to your advantage will mean the difference between reaching your goal or dying a gruesome death in the cold vastness of outer space. Getting to know your crew and using their abilities just may save your collective lives.
Each round of Tharsis starts off with placing event markers for incoming dangers all over your ship. When you just start out on your adventure, this will just be one danger at a time. However, as you progress through the game, more and more of these danger markers will appear in one round. Also, each disaster zone has a number, showing how many points it takes to avert incoming damage and save that section of the ship. These event markers also show what damage the ship and crew will sustain if the event in question is not resolved before the damage phase of the round sets in. Some events may cost your crew health, while others simply damage the hull of your ship. Said hull has a certain integrity, which is depleted if an event is not resolved. When your hull integrity reaches zero, the entire ship explodes and your mission ends in a disaster, forcing you to start over.
Let's take a look at an event. Say there's an incoming damage event in the Greenhouse and its value is 17. This means you'll have to send one or more of your crew members to the Greenhouse and they'll have to roll a total of at least 17 with their available dice to avert the damage this event would cause. If successful, the event will disappear and no damage will be sustained as a result of it. But if your crew fails to reach 17 points with their collective dice, the event will deal the damage listed on its marker and will stay in place for the next round. So resolving events as quickly as possible is something you'll definitely want to achieve. Now, just say you manage to negate the damage, but you've still got some dice left. What should you do with them? Well, you can also use them to strengthen your defenses against future events or reinforce your crew. Take the Greenhouse as an example. The damage is negated, but you still have dice left. Why not use them to power the current character's ability, or put them to use in the research department?
Let's try out our character abilities first. When resolving an event, you might send your engineer in first. If he doesn't succeed, you can send the doctor in next to make up the last of the points needed. After doing so, you might end up with a few dice to spare. When one of these dice equals 5 or six points, you can use that dice to restore some health to every crew member in that location. Other characters will let you strengthen the ship's hull with left over dice, or reduce stress for the crew. Apart from using your character abilities, you can also invest dice in the location abilities. Take our trusty Greenhouse, for example. There are three slots at the right side of the screen. Filling these slots with dice of the same value, gives you some food. If you have enough food and your character ability isn't needed at the moment, you can also invest in research. At the bottom of the screen, there's a research bar, which can be filled with six dice, valued 1 to 6. Filling up this bar means you can spend dice to acquire items that will help you overcome potential disasters.
Now, rolling dice is all good and fun, but it's not as straight-forward as it sounds. You see, due to cosmic radiation and other mysterious outer-space anomalies, dice might not quite do what you expect of them. Sure, rolling the numbers doesn't actually change, but what certain numbers have as results may not be what you hoped for. You see, with each event comes a certain set of hazards for the values on the dice. There are three such hazards: Stasis, Injury and Void. During an event, one or more dice will be shown at the top of your screen, each with a certain value. Underneath these dice is the type of hazard they constitute. When it says "Stasis", this means that the value on that die will result in any dice rolled with a matching value will be in stasis and can't be re-rolled. When it says "Injury", it means that any rolled dice with that value will damage the player's health. When it says "Void", this means that any rolled die with that value will be lost in the void of space and can't be used for anything.
In order to counteract these hazards, you can gain assists. You can have three assists at any time and each hazard that gets overruled will cost you one of them. After every event on your ship is done (by either solving it or let the thing take its course), it's time to check up on your crew. Some may have lost health, or even dice from their dice cache. You can use food to give a character back a maximum of three dice at a time. Just be careful, because food is scarce and there's not enough for everyone. Decide who needs dice the most and distribute food accordingly. Also, this is the time to focus on side projects that usually have a positive and negative effect on (parts of) the crew. You might replenish some health for certain crew members, but this will mean that they or other members will have less dice to work with. There's also the option to cannibalize deceased members of your crew when food runs out, but be wary; this means that your max health will drop one point per cannibalistic act, as well as raise the crew's stress level significantly.
All in all, I really enjoyed playing Tharsis. The game itself is a mix between tactics, luck and moral decisions. The tactical part stems from the fact that you'll have to choose who of your crew to send to what oncoming disaster. The luck part comes from the extensive use of virtual dice and the moral part of the game comes into play when you have to decide who gets food and who will have to grow hungry due to a shortage in supplies. Plus, if one of your daring space cadets dies, will you let all that meat go to waste, or will you use it to feed the rest of your crew. Yes, I know this is a gruesome decision to have make, but choosing wisely might just save your life.
You will most likely not reach the end of your journey during your first playthrough. Tharsis is constructed around the "try and try again" principle. And it pulls this off quite successfully with its randomized events and dice mechanics. But don't be fooled, it's not just the dice that decide your fate. Expertly using every ability at your disposal and keeping tabs on your crew are just as important as having lots of luck when rolling the dice. Of course, being lucky with dice won't harm your chances, but that's not all there is to this game. So, captain, what are you going to do? Will you reach your goal and unravel the mystery surrounding the Tharsis signal, or will your spaceship be ripped apart by meteor showers and other destructive forces that cross your path to Mars? It's your call!
January 12, 2016 (PC / Mac / PS4)
April 11, 2020 (Nintendo Switch)