Tharsis: danger, dice, and cannibalism – oh my!

I sat in on a demo of Tharsis with Choice Provisions Co-Founder Mike Roush at PAX, and it may be one of the most interesting games I’ve gotten a preview of during my time here.Tharsis is a turn-based, perma-death, realistic space strategy game that puts the player in control of the first manned mission to Mars just as it’s struck by a meteor storm.

Tharsis plays like a hyper-strategic digital boardgame that forces the player to weigh risk versus reward, manage a small crew of astronauts by keeping them fed, sane, and alive, and completing repairs and a variety of other tasks throughout different areas of the spacecraft. You start out with four crew members, each with a different role and specialization, and as you play you unlock more characters with different abilities.

Roush says that everything that has happened to the ship in Tharsis is based on real events that have occurred within NASA’s history, including fires, water leaks, holes in the ship, and threats to the food supply. These issues are able to be addressed through dice rolls. “What we wanted to do was to have a way of fixing these issues using dice.” Roush says that the interesting part of using dice is that you receive a random roll, but that systems are in place in order to add depth and strategy to that randomization. Each roll in a specific module of the ship can be put towards work, research, or a variety of different extras. Managing the dice, deciding whether or not to re-roll, and determining where each die would be best spent calls for an almost stressful level of demanding strategic evaluation, particularly with the perma-death aspect hanging over your head.

There is also the aspect of cannibalism, and I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on that as it is such an interesting and well-presented mechanic, with believable impacts on the crew. Tharsis is very much so a resource management game, and humans are a viable resource. In the game, food is represented by dice. In the real world, if you were in space with limited resources to keep you alive, you would do whatever necessary in order to ensure your survival. The interesting addition is the impact that cannibalism has on the crew member engaging in it. Once you give human meat to a member of the crew their eyes get wide and their stress levels increase. Like you’d expect, if you really ate your co-worker. In addition, every post-cannibalism roll of the dice leaves blood splatters on the board. This is one of many examples of the attention paid to even the smallest of details in Tharsis.

Tharsis’ use of a demanding strategic structure presents a challenging game for players, while also making it a fair type of challenge with the varied options for applying dice in any particular module. There are multiple ways to play, with the decisions you make paving the way towards one of three possible endings.

Tharsis is expected to release this fall for PlayStation 4 and PC.

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