- John Bush
Game Review #500: Tharsis (Nintendo Switch)
Reviewer: John B Developer: Choice Provisions
Category: Simulation, Strategy, Board Game, Puzzle
Release Date: 4.11.2020
Watch the Trailer
Buy Tharsis from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
Tharsis for the Nintendo Switch was a tough one to get into at first. I didn’t have any issues trying to get into the game’s story; it’s certainly a little thin, but altogether it packs quite a punch. The game puts players in charge of a ship bound for Mars that starts blowing up with ten weeks left on its journey. Players must lead the four remaining astronauts aboard the ship the rest of the way to the red planet by managing the cascading array of catastrophes that keep befalling them. Seriously; these are the unluckiest astronauts since the crew of The Nostromo. Or maybe The Event Horizon is more accurate? Anyway, without getting too spoiler-y, if you like mind-bending horror, you’ll be well pleased with Tharsis – or the story, anyway.
Survival Is A Crapshoot
Tharsis plays like a board game, by which I mean it’s played with six-sided dice and randomized elements. Your Astronauts have three stats and one unique ability that corresponds to their class. You’ve got your life points, action dice, and stress meter. If an astronaut runs out of life points, they die and you can’t use them anymore – well, you can, but… more on that in a sec. If your stress gets too high, your astronauts start freaking out and/or refusing to work. That kind of stuff. Their action dice counter is how many dice they can roll when they take an action; more is better. You can build a reserve of up to five dice for each astronaut, and every time an astronaut takes an action one dice is subtracted from their pool.
The Ship, The Ship, The Ship Is On Fire
The ship has seven modules in total, and each one can be used by your astronauts to farm different supplies. Every turn two or three catastrophes befall some of your modules; the interesting part of the game’s strategy is that you can still use a module even when it is undergoing an emergency. You can move your astronauts between the pods and they can each take one action each turn; when they roll their dice, you can choose to apply their rolls to either resolve the ongoing emergency, use the astronaut’s special skill, use the module’s ability, or donate the dice to your research pool. If you get a bad roll, every astronaut class can reroll their dice once.
Ongoing emergencies have a point total that must be met to be repaired; if you fail to resolve an emergency during a turn, its negative effects will be applied. Leaving an emergency unresolved will either damage your astronauts’ health, damage your ship’s hull, add stress to your astronauts, or erode your resources and dice totals. Astronauts’ special abilities can do things like repair the ship’s hull, restore health or dice to your other astronauts, and getting to reroll an additional time. Using a module’s ability is like using an astronaut’s ability, except you can also mine resources like food.
The Hazards of Space Travel
If Tharsis was just about rolling dice, it wouldn’t be near as challenging as it is. It’s also about rolling the right dice, or at least not rolling the wrong dice. What I mean by that probably-too-confusing statement is that some (most) times an emergency emerges, it comes with hazard numbers. If you roll the number on the hazard dice, you have to pay the penalty associated with the hazard. Hazards come in three varieties; injury dice take one health point away from your astronaut, stasis dice cannot be rerolled but can still be played, and void dice make the dice disappear altogether and therefore unable to be played in any way. Void dice suck. You can avoid paying the hazard penalty if you have an assist point, which can be generated from a module or one of the game’s astronaut classes.
Do The Research
Hazards can also be countered by buying certain research cards. Research can be paid for by placing unused dice in your research area; you can have up to six dice in your research pool, one for each value of a dice. Research cards instantly grant hugely useful abilities for the right price. They can repair the ship’s hull or resolve an emergency, or they can do even more useful things like blocking certain hazard dice for a whole turn without using any assists.
There Will Be An Intermission
Between every turn, your astronauts will propose different actions for which you can reap rewards after you pay a price. You have to pick one course of action, however, so you can’t just bail on the benefits to avoid the penalty. Once you’ve picked your poison, you can feed your astronauts if you have food. Food restores three dice to that astronaut’s dice pool. You can harvest food from a module, and sometimes you can get it from intermission actions. You, uh, can also resort to cannibalism, if that’s your thing. If one of your astronauts dies, they become meat in your fridge; you can also choose to kill them on purpose in the intermission. I’d recommend just trying to farm food; aside from being morally wrong (if you care about that), cannibalism also deprives you of that astronaut’s dice rolls for the rest of the game. Cannibalism also restores fewer dice and reduces that astronaut’s maximum health points, so, really, it’s a last resort for all sorts of practical reasons. And moral ones.
You Can Practice Dying Horribly Too
The main campaign of Tharsis lasts ten turns; if you can survive ten turns (and have at least one astronaut in the pilot module at the end) you win the game. It’s, uh, HARD. If you want a more specific challenge than general survival, though, there is a mission mode that provides ten different scenarios to complete. Generally, you’ll have a preset selection of astronauts (you can choose your crew from unlocked character classes in the campaign mode) and some restrictions on your actions that will make the game even harder, which… good God, who hates themselves enough to want to make this game harder?
When I Said Crapshoot, I Meant A Literal Crapshoot
The first few times I started a game, I got discouraged and distracted by the unforgiving dice-based gameplay and some crappy rolls, but as I moved forward I began to notice the game’s more strategic elements (HOARD DICE LIKE THEY’RE TOILET PAPER) and the game’s systems became more intriguing. The difficulty is obviously by design to more accurately reflect the dire situation, but you can give yourself a leg up by preparing properly. You can still get randomly derailed by too many bad rolls in a row, however, and that ultimately knocked the game down a peg, but it still isn’t bad. The art design isn’t terrible, but it’s a little generic and really not what’s going to keep players engaged for the duration. If you like thoughtful, strategic games, and don’t mind getting screwed by chance now and then, Tharsis deserves to be on your radar, and more importantly, on your Switch.
Buy Tharsis from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
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*A game code was provided for review purposes