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RNG and You: A Review of Tharsis

I made three resolutions this NY: stop eating cereal for dinner, drink only on weekends, and write a couple of game reviews every once awhile. Two weeks in and I find myself persevering with all but one of these resolutions - so here I am on this bright Thursday morning with a breakfast smoothie, the brand new indie game Tharsis, and a ten-dollar bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that I’ll be using to drown out what are sure to be table-flipping levels of frustration.

This review is more-or-less the end result of a coin flip used to decide between two high(ish) profile indie releases from the past couple of days: Tharsis, and That Dragon, Cancer, the latter being a narrative game about a little boy’s fight with a life-threatening disease which I hear is not so much a game but an emotional battering ram comparable to the ending of Requiem for a Dream times a billion. While I’m certainly no stranger to emotionally-charged narrative games (The Beginner’s Guide is great and if you haven’t checked it out yet please pause here and do so - I’ll see you in an hour, alright? ...Finished? Great, let’s move on.), there’s a real big part of me that has a preference for dice-and-turn-based-sci-fi-survival games (and I could not be happier that this is now a legit genre, actual opinion of Tharsis notwithstanding) over a couple of hours of tear-jerking around that disease-specter I try about as hard as most not to think about too much. But I figured I should let the coin decide anyway because I owe no allegiances to either developer and maybe there’s a bit of an unconscious “live-on-the-edge-more” New Year’s resolution 3.5 going on here. Who knows?


And there’s a reason I’m choosing to mention the coin flip. It’s because - and who woulda fricken’ thought it - your personal opinion of the human concept of luck and its relation to gaming is absolutely going to determine whether or not Tharsis is the game for you. Luck, or, as everybody from the Rank 20 Hearthstoners to the Binding of Isaac addicts (you guys should check out this neat thing called “methadone treatment”) to shiny Pokemon hunters knows it, RNG, now forms a core part of the discourse in contemporary gaming communities, and we’ve all got our own ways of thinking about it. We might rely on it as blame for our failures, as a way to discredit our opponents, or as a deity for our daily virgin sacrifices (praise be to the RNJesus). And it’s something we aren’t all totally in agreement on - specifically, how much RNG is too much RNG? How kind or how cruel should it be? What does the optimal relationship between skill and chance actually look like? Can RNG ever result in consistent levels of fun?

I’m not going to provide any quantifiable answers to these questions, partly because I ain’t done read none of them fancy learnin’-books, but also because these are questions that I think you should ask yourself before even thinking about forking over the fun-bucks necessary for Tharsis. And so now let me truncate this rapidly-expanding digression and, as the Zen Buddhists would say, get the hell on with it.

Tharsis is a game about a crew of four brave astronauts and their collective struggle to maintain a ship that is literally falling apart at the seams. There’s only ten weeks left in their Earth-to-Mars journey, but a massive accident has put the ship in a state of constant disrepair and now they’re going to have to work their little space-butts off if they want to make it to their destination alive. And with diminishing food supplies, increasing stress levels, and ruddy-frequent explosions to keep them on their toes, none of this is going to be easy. There’s a bit of a slow-burning story about an unidentified signal that develops over the weeks (or “turns”), but I didn’t really feel all that attached to it because a) the crew members are about as fragile as the astronauts from any given mid-nineties asteroid-based apocalypse movie (take your pick) as opposed to those actually-real astronauts who I hear are made of something other than soggy papier-mâché - point is, they aren’t really worth making the effort to relate to, because they gonna die, and b) well, the story isn’t hugely original or all that interesting anyway. So if you’re looking for a decent story, you’ve picked the wrong 3D-rendered single-player space-Yahtzee game.


In terms of gameplay, Tharsis will have you micro-managing your crew and slinging dice in a way that’s as inexplicably captivating as it is heart-poundingly intense. Basically, you’ve got ten turns to stave off doom while the game throws massive cock-ups the crew’s way - and plenty of massive cock-ups there are. At the start of each turn, a particular number of spaceship modules will decide to start performing about as well as [topical politician or Hollywood actor reference], and so it’s up to you to allocate the appropriate crew members to fix the problems. Depending on the nature of the problems, bad things will happen to either the crew or the ship at the end of each turn for each damaged module left un-fixed. If enough modules are left broken for a long enough period of time, ship HP will hit zero and you’re blessed with the option of sucking it up and starting a new game from scratch.


Crew members each come with a unique ability (the mechanic, for example, can restore one ship HP per turn) and a set of between one and five six-sided die. These dice can be rolled a set number of times per turn, and the resulting rolls can be used on crew-specific abilities, module-specific abilities, repairs, or research. Since the damaged modules (and there are always damaged modules) pose the most immediate threat, they’re always a priority: most turns require that at least one or two modules are repaired lest the game is over. So: we grab the crew member we need, send them to the module we need them to be in, and we roll the dice.

And this is where things get interesting.

Or confusing.

Or infuriating.

Look, this really depends on your general opinion of dice. And since they’ve been around for a few thousand years surely you’ve made up your mind by now.


Dice rolls determine your ability to do...anything. Let’s say you’ve sent a mechanic with four dice and two re-rolls to a repair a damaged module. You need to invest a sum total of eleven on repairs in order to fix the module. The astronaut’s unique ability requires a single die roll with a result of five-plus. The module’s unique ability requires three dice with equal results. If you roll a two, that die goes into “stasis” and cannot be re-rolled (because space), and if you roll a four, your crew member loses one HP on account of an injury sustained in the broken module (whether or not these penalty-rolls appear and what numbers they require are things determined semi-randomly, because space). You require at least two dice of different results to gain (or regain) an extra die for a single crew member. Also: dice can only be spent once. Because space.

There’s a little bit of light upkeep and management between turns which generally includes: neato pick-your-poison choices that grant buffs to some crew members while stripping others of dice or HP; distribution of usually-limited-as-heck rations; and the optional murder of astronauts for the purposes of sometimes-necessary cannibalization. These decisions are at-times pretty darn agonizing - is that one-die medic really worth keeping alive when the meat from their thighs can keep the rest of the crew maxed-out in dice for the next turn?


If all this sounds full-on to you, that’s because it sort of is. Committing all the rules and game elements to memory took me a solid half-hour, partly because with an accessible (or in any way “good”) tutorial Tharsis does not come. And even if you do manage to eventually cram all the little details of the game architecture into your brain, you’re still going to have a bloody mind-knotting time figuring out a strategy that doesn’t totally blow ass.

And if the game’s comparatively not-great Steam user rating is anything to go by, I think there are plenty of folks out there who genuinely believe that a non-ass-blowing strategy does not exist. Fact is, this game is damn hard, and as such, it’s apocalyptically easy to blame dice rolls on anything that goes wrong - after all, poor rolls as early as the second turn might put you in a position that is simply impossible to come back from.


But. If there’s something I know about playing games which rely heavily on RNG systems, it’s that the best players are not the ones who are “lucky”, but rather the ones who make the most effort to understand game architecture sufficiently enough to minimize RNG impact. They’re the kind of Hearthstone players who hit Legend every season because they’re able to do complex statistical mathematics on the fly. They’re the players who min-max by utilizing RNG systems which give them the best chance while simultaneously ignoring systems which stack the odds against them. Yes, there are plenty of players who might disagree with this, who in their eternal state of salt refuse to believe that RNG impact can be minimized, and that there is no such thing as a “good player” - there are only players who have been smiled upon by the RNJesus.


Tharsis is not for these players.

I’m in a bit of a bind here, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say this: if you weren’t phased (or bored) by any of the above, and you’re the kind of person who has the capacity to be patient and methodical in your approach to both mathematical and managerial problems, and you think space is at least kinda neat, Tharsis is absolutely the game for you. You will certainly be frustrated at times, but when you get to Mars (and you will, eventually), you’ll experience the kind of life-affirming satisfaction oft-expressed only by Dark Souls and I Wanna Be the Guy enthusiasts. This is because you’ll understand that good rolls in Tharsis only stave off destruction - a good strategy, on the other hand, is the only thing that can negate it completely.


To everybody else, I can recommend this game only if you possess a sincere curiosity regarding what your PC monitor would look like with your fist through it.

I’m Scott. Like my things? Here is a Twitter.

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