There’s a special class of games that I’ve taken to calling “risk management” games. These were pioneered by the XCOM series and, more recently, popularized with Darkest Dungeon. Whereas most games are wholly or mainly skill-based, risk management games lay your fate at the mercy of the random number gods. This isn’t to say they don’t take skill into account, but rather that skill plays a very different part in winning.
I’m yammering about this because Tharsis is a particularly vicious risk management game, and if I’m going to recommend it then you need to know what that means. Tharsis is the story of the unluckiest expedition to Mars ever, even moreso than Ice Cube and his crew. A signal has been detected on the Tharsis plateau of the red planet, and en route to investigate the ship gets hit by meteorites. This destroys the supply stores, kills two of the crew, and gets you through the tutorial and into the action. If you’ve ever seen the film Sunshine, you’ll feel right at home.
The action here, mind you, is dice rolling. You have 10 weeks to survive to reach Mars, and every week a host of problems crop up on the ship. Each of your four remaining crew members can move to a problem and try to fix it, by rolling dice and trying to beat the value of the disaster. Dice roughly translates to stamina in this game, each of the crew can have up to five dice to roll but deploying them each week costs one die for the following week. Dice can be used for other actions as well, as each section of the ship has a different purpose like restoring dice or repairing the hull. Your crew also has special abilities that can be activated with a die at 5 or 6, and there’s a research system where you can bank one of each die value to spend on special effects. Most crew members get one re-roll per turn as well, and dice can be held between rolls if you like how they came up but need to see how things shake out before spending dice.
As you may have gathered, there’s a ton of simple systems that add up to a wide array of interconnected options. And you’ll need them all, because the situation is often stacked against you. Disasters can take over 20 points to resolve, and wreck your ship if you fail to reach the quota. Disasters can also put special effects on rolls like injuring crew or deleting dice (which can be countered by Assists granted by yet another ship system!). And if you don’t address a problem one week, it carries over to the next. Your crew also has health and stress to manage, killing them if the former bottoms out and making them dangerous an unpredictable if the latter gets too high. Between weeks there are also trade-off choices to make, usually between health, hull, stress, and dice. You can also grant food rations to restore dice, or resort to cannibalism if you’re desperate. I haven’t tried eating my crew yet, but it adds a nice bit of flavor (heh heh) to the game.
The fact that all of these options are limited by dice rolls is the key. It would be simple to work out plans and assign resources if all of your actions were of static value. But you will absolutely have situations where you send a crew with five dice to resolve an 8-point problem, and they roll all ones. This is where the risk management element comes into play, because you’re not playing to solve every problem. You’re playing to minimize your losses and prepare for the worst. Sometimes your crew is going to fail you, and it’s going to mean someone will die, and the challenge will be finding a way to mitigate the damage and soldier on. There are no perfect runs in Tharsis, and that’s the way it’s meant to be.
For people rubbed the wrong way by that, a recent patch DID add an easy mode that I managed to beat on my second attempt ever, so I imagine it’s balanced around being very beatable. My first attempt at normal was also a success, but the second spiraled out of control in a way that I’m not sure I could have recovered from. I don’t know if every game is winnable or not, but I’m also enjoying learning and experimenting until I get to the point that I can determine that. You can unlock additional crewmembers to use, along with spookier portraits for them. There are also ten challenge scenarios to attempt as well, so it’s not like I’ll run out of people to kill or ways to kill them.
The presentation is polished and inviting, with fully 3D ship dioramas and horrified crew to enjoy. The menus are equally clean, with clear buttons and descriptions of what they do (a must in a game like this). Sound design is appropriately somber and technical, striking just the right tone for eating your shipmates so you have the strength to stop the fire in life support. In the end, the only question that really matters is, do you have the patience for a game like this? There is skill to the gameplay, but moreso even than XCOM or Darkest Dungeon your success is measured in how far the dice rolls will go to meet your skill. Sometimes you’re going to lose, and you’ll feel helpless in the face of annihilation. If you’re not cool with that, give this one a pass. But if you want to tax your problem-solving skills, and live on the razor’s edge of a dice roll, Tharsis delivers the goods.