Tharsis — Our Survival or Humanity?

Board games are an exciting subject for me to write on. They bring new gameplay elements that are otherwise not usually implemented in video games. There are digitised versions of board games, and there are also video games that emulate the unique mechanics of board games. Evolution: The Video Game is a solid and fun entry from the former, and Tharsis provides a somewhat accurate simulation of the random dice rolling mechanic as a board game simulator video game (say that three times fast).

I write from my home, in one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. I have not left the house since the Movement Control Order (MCO) came into effect on March 18. Whilst I was able to keep busy for most of the time, the uncertainty of the pandemic’s outcome frightened me. Days became weeks, and weeks turned into a month. Now as the MCO enters its second month, I am beginning to feel the mental duress. Choice Provision’s Tharsis came at an opportune moment, as I have reviewed a similar board game simulation game in Evolution: The Video Game.

Tharsis is what I would consider Yahtzee in space — with cannibalism! You use your dice to manage resources, keep your crew healthy, and generally avoid disaster. It starts you out with a basic tutorial on how to operate the various mechanics of the game with a bit of lore on the Iktomi’s mission. You are on a mission to investigate what seems to be a signal coming from Tharsis, a huge volcanic plateau in the western hemisphere near the equator of Mars.

 

I’ve come here to run a ship and chew plants — and I’m all out of plants.

Post-tutorial, you have four crew members, each of them has a set amount of dice to roll. Each member has a special ability as well, which assists in gameplay. The entire game lasts for 10 in-game weeks (rounds), and unfolding in-between are events that cause damage to the Iktomi — your spaceship.

Between managing the damage caused by these events, your crew has to be well-fed and kept calm. Tharsis provides an interesting stress mechanic, which functions similarly to a sanity check in board games. The more stressed your crew is, the more likely they would present choices that would harm themselves, other crew, or the Iktomi.

Also, cannibalism is an option, when the post-game voice-over informs you that the body of a crew member that perished in a disaster is well-preserved enough to be eaten. You get more dice as a result of eating your dead crew member, but there are consequences to eating a dead human being, even in space.

Oh no, I’m on fire!

I ended up playing Tharsis with the feeling of impending dread as the events were progressively more damaging, and my crew began to feel the heat. The bloody dice that came from cannibalising one of my own wasn’t a pleasant experience either. Getting to the end of the game can result in three different outcomes — all four making it to Mars and surviving long enough to investigate, less than a full band making it, or everyone dying before they even reach Mars.

As the game relies mostly on dice rolls, the AI-based RNG may seem unfair at times, especially when your best-laid plans can be shredded to pieces in the blink of an eye. To me, it is reminiscent of board games that rely on dice rolls to obtain resources and perform checks. Indeed, Tharsis was more of a board game simulator than a video game on its own. The gameplay had varying levels of difficulty and more challenges for advanced players.

There is a very interesting twist at the end of Tharsis, and it depends on the number of people who make it to Mars. All I know is that it really threw me. I don’t think I will be going through the more challenging rounds yet, at least until I can tell the difference between this and the next.

You can buy Tharsis on Steam, the PlayStation Store, or the Nintendo EShop

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