REVIEW: Tharsis

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Title Tharsis
Developer Choice Provisions
Publisher Choice Provisions
Release Date January 12, 2016
Genre Digital Board Game
Platform PC Steam
Age Rating ESRB M for Mature
Official Website

One debate that has raged over almost the entire history of gaming is whether games must be fun to play. This was particularly prescient during the time of the arcade, where it was a fine balance to make the game difficult enough to squeeze those quarters out of your audience, but fun enough that they still wanted to continue to play. The recent games of the studio From Software have definitely brought this topic back to the fore, as they tend to really split the gaming audience. Some people avoid those games because they are too difficult, and others seek them out specifically for their difficulty. But that is only one side of whether a game is fun or not. There is also the narrative question of whether the story is fun and fulfilling or not. This game, Tharsis, brings to mind both of those conflicts. It is fairly difficult to play, and due to the randomness of dice rolls you are going to fail a lot even after you learn the mechanics, but its narrative is also brutal instead of fun.

Tharsis | Astronaut

In space, no one can hear your scream. Well, except through your mic.

There is a new, possibly alien, discovery on Mars. You and your crew are on a mission there to discover the cause and report it back to Earth. The question is: can you survive long enough to reach Mars? And that is a question of paramount importance, as apparently Apollo 13 type events happen every day to this crew. The spacecraft, it seems, was put together on a shoestring budget from spare parts and duct tape. As your ship continuously fails around you, the crew will have to make life or death decisions in order to survive and ensure that the mission itself will succeed, even at the cost of their own lives. If you thought growing potatoes using human waste was hard to swallow (The Martian), wait until you have to go all in on cannibalism.

Tharsis | Sophie's Choice

This particular decision isn’t too bad, but just you wait, it gets horrible.

There has been a renaissance in the past decade with artisan board games, as anyone who is a fan of Penny Arcade no doubt realizes. And, especially with the rise of digital gaming, those new ideas have also extended into the video game space. This is very much a digital board game that is single player and the computer is basically your DM (Dungeon Master). You must use a lot of strategy, and a bit of luck, to navigate the hazards of space and get as many astronauts to Mars as possible. You will start out with 4 default classes, each having their own perks that will help you either manage the ship, or the food, or assist the other characters. As you complete the game, you will be able to unlock new classes, but I frankly cannot imagine beating the game without using the Captain or the Doctor. But it does add in some new elements and replay value.

Tharsis | Tutorial

There is a tutorial, but either practice or online videos are more useful.

The tutorial does give you the basic functional knowledge you need to navigate the board. But really practice or online videos are the best way to go to learn the ins and outs of the game. Basically when a turn happens, some sort of catastrophic damage will occur to multiple sections of your ship. Your crew must repair them or when your turn ends your ship will receive that damage in full. If your ship runs out of life points, mission fails. Your characters are juggling their life points and the number of dice they have to roll. Stress also builds up and adds to the overall difficulty of repairs. Classes have their own special abilities that can either help you repair or help heal health or so on. Realizing how important it is that you will take damage when moving from a module to one that is damaged becomes very important, as does learning when you can just let damage go for a round in order to invest in your future. If you only concentrate on repairing all damage every round, you will still end up losing, so you also have to start looking towards the long view of things. And that is not at all spelled out during the tutorial. But even then, when you combine the fact that certain damage types can alter or destroy your dice rolls, and just relying on luck to roll dice anyway, you can still end up dying even after a lot of practice.

Tharsis | Casualty

Meat is back on the menu…

Don’t get too attached to any of the characters. I have yet to complete a run where I didn’t have to use cannibalism at some point. And, while it is possible, it is rare to arrive on Mars with a full crew. Yes cannibalism does increase your team stress, but food supplies are one resource that ended up going by the wayside in the efforts to keep the ship fixed and people alive. Having the Captain keeping people’s dice rolls up and the Doctor keeping their health up left me with really only two maintenance workers and little chance to farm for food. There is a Hard difficulty, but I honestly never bothered to even try it. This game is brutal enough even without the extra difficulty.

Tharsis | Moods Souring

Yeah, that will happen when your ship is built like this one.

I do like a lot of difficult games. When it comes to Souls games, or bullet hell shooters, or fighting games, you will definitely find me having a ton of fun. So why did I not really enjoy this game? Well, for two reasons; one is that the randomness of the dice makes success sometimes out of your reach, and the other reason is that the story is so depressing that I just did not want to go back to it often. I am a huge proponent of NASA and space exploration in general, I’ve even had a job in astrophysics several years ago, and if anything, this story turns off that side of my interest instead of awakening it. This is frankly not how space exploration goes, and if it did, humans would not engage in it for long. So I have a hard time recommending this to people who are interested in the story here, unless they really get off on humans being in over their head and failing more than they succeed. You can get better at reaching the goal, I’ve watched videos of people that made it with all their crew intact (even though I never did), but even then, it was a really depressing trip for them that required cannibalism.

Tharsis | Impending Damage

Impending damage, I honestly would have named the game that, you will see it a lot.

There is a crowd of people that like brutally difficult board games, and I would say that this title is probably for them. Certainly the makers of the game chose to invest their time into developing it, so it was definitely made for them. On the technical side they mostly succeeded, it never bugged out on me but the menu selections and loading screens were always very long on my PC for some reason, but that could just be exclusive to my own chip configuration or the OS I’m using. The art is okay, pretty standard compared to other digital board games that I’ve seen, and the music is very generic, but that’s about what I would expect. To make it to Mars, it only takes about an hour or so play time, so it’s pretty easy to pick up and play, which is to its benefit. That puts it soundly within the tighter board games, not lasting forever like some board games can. So really, if you are in that crowd, and don’t mind a very brutal unforgiving story, then there are worse ways to spend your $14.99. It’s just frankly not a game that I would have ever wanted to purchase for myself. Hopefully others will have more fun with it.

Review Score

Review Copy Provided By the Developer


About William Haderlie

Born in the 1970's, I've been an avid participant for much of video game history. A lifetime of being the sort of supergeek entrenched in the sciences and mathematics has not curbed my appreciation for the artistry of video games, cinema, and especially literature.