Relying on the luck of the dice roll can be an infuriating experience and Tharsis is no exception. The space-based interactive board game can be extremely rewarding but at times, sometimes you’ll wonder why you even bother playing and want to throw your PC out of the window.
Tharsis takes place on a doomed mission to Mars and picks up after the first of many disasters on board your ship. You have lost the majority of your crew and are tasked with holding things together enough to limp to your final destination. The ship is falling to pieces one module at a time and your four remaining crew members have limited time to patch up the ship.
Each turn begins with a set of problems you have to resolve. Each problem comes with an outcome and it’s your job to manage these to the best of your ability. This could be the likes of a coolant leak which will cause hull damage, or a problem in medical which will damage all of your crew. Do you contain the hull breach and keep the ship’s health up, or allow your crew to take the damage and eventually succumb to their wounds?
Managing the crew and the ship is one thing, but you also have a number of systems available on the ship that could be the key to your long-term survival, adding another level of depth to your tight resource management. Medical offers to heal a crew member if you are successful, while the hydroponics bay offers a promise of food for your crew.
Tharsis never allows you to feel fully in control. There was never a time where I felt I was making the right decision at the right time. I spent a lot of time agonizing over a single decision only to have it backfire at the roll of a dice.
It is the single roll of a dice that decides everything. You’ll roll to decide whether you repair a ship module or generate some food. The dice roll across the screen bouncing around as you would expect from a board game and sounds rather cool. In a very D&D fashion, these dice rolls are a simple method of checking whether you’re successful at an action leaving every part of Tharsis to literal chance. You’ll send a crew member with three available dice to roll a combined nine and he will hit a five. It’s frustrating in the worst possible way.
Each crew member has an allotment of dice they can throw with each roll. Each time they take a turn this number goes down making every turn a risk. There’s no auto-replenish on the dice rolls either, as you will need to either generate food using one of your modules and sacrificing a crew member (who could be on repair duty) or cannibalise recently dead crew members to refill the amount of dice available. This sends stress levels rising amongst the crew and can make the last parts of the game even more challenging.
Unfortunately and eventually, you stop agonizing over your decisions because it never truly matters. Whether I was going to succeed or not was down to the clatter of those tiny virtual dies. Often enough you’re left feeling like you have been absolutely screwed out of a victory because you did everything right and things are going swimmingly until your entire crew start rolling a one or a two on every single roll. They let you down. The system let you down.
The Cut-scenes between each day feel great the first time through however with the amount you replay the first parts of the game over and over they quickly become tiresome and repetitive. Although I did enjoy the motion comic feel of them, I just didn’t want to see them after three retries in a row.
Taking absolute control from the player is always a risk and Tharsis struggles to manage this in a way that makes it fun. In fact, it sometimes feels like the game is having fun at your expense a lot of the time. You are tricked into thinking your decision matters when in the grand scheme of things no expert resource management is going to win a thing if the dice doesn’t come up your way. There is enjoyment to be had in Tharsis and those times I hit a high dice roll exactly when things were at their bleakest made me feel on top of the world but those moments were few and far between.