Have You Played… Tharsis?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Tharsis spawned a miniature debate: are random number generators good or lazy design? Can they ever be fair?

That’s because Tharsis is a space ship survival game in which you’re in control of a crew on a mission to Mars. In the game’s introduction, your ship is damaged and two of your crew are killed, and it falls to you to direct the remaining men and women around the ship to repair the damage before the next disaster strikes.

Repairing that damage is performed by rolling dice, meaning that the outcomes are fundamentally random. You can of course employ strategy in the way you use the differently numbered dice, and how you protect yourself from total failure by ‘investing’ in securing food, or sleep, or other resources. But ultimately the game is powered by a dice roll.

I found it unsatisfying. The dice rolls are much more satisfying than an inexplicably missed shot in XCOM, but it’s a game about clearing up constant, repeated, unavoidable disaster. I found that I want the axis of my control to extend beyond putting out fires.

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  1. xyzzy frobozz says:

    It’s too arbitrary in that you pretty much win or lose solely on the basis of die rolls.

    Granted, once you get better at it, you can start to stack the odds a little more in your own favour, but ultimately success or failure is dependent upon the dice.

    I agree that the balance is so far skewed towards incident response that there is very little time to engage with other systems such as food growth and stress reduction, so that every game ends up as a death spiral.

    But having said all of that, I keep going back to it…

    • horsemedic says:

      “I agree that the balance is so far skewed towards incident response that there is very little time to engage with other systems such as food growth and stress reduction”

      The game balance isn’t skewed towards incident response, but your strategy probably is if you keep falling into high-stress death spirals. The game balance actually rewards you for ignoring some fires, keeping stress low and being creative with research and room bonuses.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        That is honestly where the real “luck” and problem with the game is though. The ENTIRE trick to winning once you figure the game out is to get one or two high value but low consequence incidents and NEVER fix them. The game will only spawn so many and one of the WORST things you can do is fix a not very bad problem. Let me point out this is not due to lack of resources even if you had infinite resources the way the game generates new events doesn’t write over past ones.

        It is very immersion breaking. Good game still. Worth beating once and hard enough that you will have to get your money’s worth to do so.

        • Festus McGee says:

          @Joshua Northy — That is so utterly wrong that you have rescinded your right to imply you have “figured the game out”. At least, you will never score over 1800, and will never win on a regular basis.

          Nobody listen to him if you want to learn how to get good.

          • Joshua Northey says:

            That is literally the key to winning the game and the easiest way to do so (or at least it was in the week or two after release). You have no idea what you are talking about if you disagree.

          • Festus McGee says:

            I have 214 wins, and a high score of 1852 on both Normal and Hard.

            I might actually know more about the game than you. It’s possible.

  2. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    The RNG thing is the reason i ultimately bounce off some games that I initially really enjoyed, such as FTL Darkest Dungeon. I often find myself getting exasperated with losing games for what I consider to be bullshit reasons. If I lose at a game like League of Legends, or die/fail playing Hitman, I know it’s because of my own twatty mistakes, whereas it’s quite likely that I’ll find myself looking at a game over screen in FTL and thinking “welp, there was fuck all i could do about that.”

    I know that challenge is a part of the fun for some people, but I feel cheated when I win or lose because of something which has been decided in part by luck.

    • xyzzy frobozz says:

      It’s pretty much why I can’t stand Blood Bowl.

      Because there is no strategy that will overcome the roll of the dice.

      Games just end up being a mess of player all over the board. There’s no strategy, just luck.

      • Aerothorn says:

        If you look at the consistency in Blood Bowl rankings, you will find that it is ABSOLUTELY not true that there is “no strategy, just luck.” Blood Bowl has a lot of dice rolls, but there’s an enormous amount of strategy around minimizing your reliance on dice, predicting future plays, etc.

        To put it another way: I’ve lost or tied 10 games in a row and that sure as hell isn’t “just the dice.”

        • Geebs says:

          It’s perfectly possible for a player to win or tie 10 times in a row, in a game with a random outcome. What humans think “random” should look like is a long way from true randomness .

          • Geebs says:

            (P.S. I apologise for being a massive pedant.)

          • Shar_ds says:

            I think that Aerothorn might be hinting that there are some really very good players of Blood Bowl in the RPS Divisions of Death.

            And they don’t win because they’re better at rolling dice.

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            cpt_freakout says:

            A lot of times people confuse “it’s possible” with “it actually happens”, which I think you’re doing here. Yes, it’s possible to win or lose just because of dice rolls in Blood Bowl, or Chaos Reborn, or Expeditions Conquistador, or whatever, but that doesn’t mean it’s the norm.

            Tactics in these games consist of knowing when to minimize and when to push your use of dice rolls. If you know the rules of the game, and if you have some basic understanding of the odds, then you will usually get your desired outcome. However, the game itself needs to be designed well, and has to let you have some tools you can work on your favor in case the odds go wrong. Blood Bowl has positioning and individual stats; Chaos Reborn has bluffs; XCOM has terrain/equipment kits… and so on. If a game that has RNG doesn’t provide you with a safety net (one that, importantly, doesn’t just cancel the RNG), it’s just badly designed.

            Anyway, I’m getting away from the main point, which is: don’t confuse “it’s possible” with “normally”.

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          Yeah, Blood Bowl is full of systems by which you can avoid or mitigate any reliance on pure chance. However, when Nuffle gives you two skulls it suddenly feels a lot less like a skill game.

          • Shar_ds says:

            But that does make for some fantastic stories though, and always gives the underdog a chance if they can keep forcing their opponent to have to make dice rolls that they don’t want to.

        • HopeHubris says:

          And regardless of how well you strategise, you can still roll nothing but Skulls and lose a game

    • HopeHubris says:

      I’ve had games of Darkest Dungeon where I’m breezing through a level, then I get 8 misses in a row, and the enemy crits multiple times. Those are the times I rage-quit and don’t come back to the game for months

    • PuddingTiger says:

      With FTL you can significantly increase your chances of success through intelligent play, to the extent that it’s doubtful that most times you lose it was just down to an RNG. Also given the fact the devs chose to include permadeath means that the importance of luck was very likely a design choice – one designed to increase the game’s realism and sense of precarity and fragility. You just can’t plan for all eventualities in life and shit sometimes happens. That made each voyage more special to me and made me focus on the journey rather than just winning.

      Also, in *any* game of imperfect information – including LoL, luck plays a role. If you can’t see what your opponent is doing and they can’t see what you’re doing, they might perfectly counter your choices by sheer chance or vice versa.

  3. xyzzy frobozz says:

    I actually wrote to the developer the following:

    “I hate your game. Yet, for some reason, I continually feel compelled to keep playing it.

    I hope you make more games that I hate”

  4. MadMinstrel says:

    There’s nothing inherently bad about using an RNG. However, if you decide to use one, you had better make sure there’s enough dice rolls going on to offset their random nature. Games where you may lose because of a few bad dice rolls are only acceptable in a casino. In any other context, player skill must be the deciding factor.

  5. Cinek says:

    RNG on its own is a lazy design.

    But Tharsis is approaching it in a different way – it’s a game about handling the risk, so in here RNG makes more sense than in most of the other RNG-based games.

    Problem is though – RNG still gets in a way of smart strategies. While using the exact same strategy you can have either an excellent games, where you end up with everyone onboard the capsule & a few free dices left, or you have a horrible games where your ship explodes around middle of the way through.

    Or at least – that’s my experience. I’m kind of torn with this game. On one hand I love how you have to weight every decision, but on the other hand – way too often I ended up loosing games right after making the safest choices possible, simply because RNG cursed me few times in a row.

  6. aepervius says:

    Tharsis is not a bad game but it is not a good one either. If you make a game fully dependent on rng with no strategy or very few strategy possibility for the player you failed, you may as well do let the game play itself. The trick is that you give player way to alleviate the rng nature and to establish a strategy. I think Tharsis was going in the right direction, but failed (in my opinion) because there was way too accentuation on removing agency from the player. The void dice , locked dice and on a lesser extent wound dice removed that player agency. Removing/locking dice the *element* of gameplay was an error IMO. They should have had a different effect which should have been less drastic, like increase the damage of the module, or disable the module or special ability usage. But removing the dices , THE element of gameplay and player action was not a good choice to me, and very rapidly and was not interested into gameplay, when having 6 dices 1 disappear 2 are locked and thus remove any agency from me. RNG game works. Just you have to make sure NOT to remove player agency and allow to alleviate RNG. This was not done enough in tharsis.

  7. DeepSpace69 says:

    Man, I have so many thoughts on Tharsis. In an alternate universe where I actually wrote about video games more I would make a big article on this. For now I will be content with vomiting my opinions here.

    I really enjoy Tharsis. As someone who has enjoys games with heavy risk management elements like FTL, XCOM Dankest dungeon, and so on, this is a little bit different in some important ways. It very much a compressed game, both in mechanics and time. Once you get down to it, there are not too many systems, research upgrades, or variety to the events in the game. Much more so than the other games mentioned, and the typical game is maybe 15 minutes.

    I find this refreshing. I am all about games with huge depth, but I am finding them too exhausting to play these days. Perhaps I am getting old, but the idea of slogging through a couple of hours in XCOM is just not as appealing as it used to be. Tharsis fills this little void for me with a much more brutal and short experience.

    The dice rolls are defiantly a higher factor in this game than in others I mentioned, but this is important. It reminds me of those magical first roguelike games I played years ago. The frustration of the random aspect of the game was eventually was overcome by the joy I got from playing them. For the first time the odds were truly against me, and I had to play cautious, slow, I had to weigh risks, and think. This was a very exciting and enjoyable experience, because it was a totally new challenge and forced me to think in ways games had never done before.

    Years later, roguelike and procedureal generation elements are common in games, and the thrill of permadeath, fighting against RNG and risk management loss its thrill for me along the way. Tharsis tips the RNG scale just enough beyond the point of other games to make me uncomfortable again. Here not even my FTL or XCOM levels of risk assement work, and I again have to change how I approach the game and think about what I am doing. I find that to be incredibly powerul and rewarding.

    I think I made my point, though perhaps a in a more verbose way than I had hoped. For sure, this is not a game I would recomend to many, espeicially those who like FTL and XCOM. It is a subtley different game, and I have seen many friends bounce off of it for the same reasons others and Graham discussed. The dice are heavy here. Good luck.

  8. Jalan says:

    So much cannibalism. Even unlocking the cannibal character requires eating 200 “human meals”. The game seems awfully comfortable with that aspect, despite what its character models (and bloodied dice) suggest.

  9. Unsheep says:

    Tharsis has the same problems most rogue-likes have: not enough depth and too little variety.

  10. denizsi says:

    Dissatisfaction with dice rolls and taking it for total randomness makes me reconstruct the initial scene of disaster from the film Gravity as a game:

    – Crew is fixing/installing external hardware on the space module.
    – Space debris inbound for impact
    – CHOICES:

    –> Continue mission, try to finish up quickly
    –> Roll Dice for outcome
    –> Abort mission, return to the module
    –> Take measures to evade/minimize impact
    –> Roll Dice for outcome

    And we all know where the first choice landed Sandra Bullock and the entire crew. If only she had listened to the Commander Clooney.

  11. Zaxwerks says:

    Can anyone suggest a good throat spray for when you make yourself hoarse screaming at your monitor in frustration after playing Tharsis for a few hours?

    I can normally “beat” the game (let’s face it when you win you don’t actually win) about 20% of the time I’d say, but if I’m tired or a bit miffed a play session can go something like this…

    Game 1: 3 assists to tackle void dice, first roll of dice… all 3 assists gone – scream “NOOOOOO!” at the monitor – ultimately lose game.

    Game 2: A little more miffed now, two injury dice and no assists, but event is a 3 ship damage and I can’t afford to roll more assists but not to worry I am using a character with a lot of health, first roll, dice all land on the 2 injury numbers, my healthy character immediately dies, scream “YOU F****** B*******!” at my monitor – there is no way I can win with only three characters – ultimately lose game.

    Game 3: I’m fudging royally peed off now, but I’m going to win a sodding game if it’s the last thing I do – three new events pop up to join the one event left over from last turn so that I could put myself in a good number of dice position with all the crew for this turn, one is 3 injury dice and 28, another is 2 injury dice 30, the third is an injury and void with 18, there is no 28 repair or similar research card in sight, scream “YOU F***** C****!!!!!” at my monitor – if I don’t stop these my ship will be destroyed – by the end of the turn my ship is littered with corpses and I have screamed about 50 swear words at a volume that would melt concrete – ultimately lose the game

    Game 4: Frothing at the mouth rabid anger and utter loathing and hatred for the game! The small part of my brain that is trying to think rationally knows I should just walk away from the PC and calm down, but I can’t hear it as the bigger part of my brain IS GOING TO F****** BEAT THIS F****** C***** F****** pile of S***** game!!!!!!! – now mid-game and not doing too badly but I need more assists, roll 6 dice all come in under 5, SWEAR, roll again, all come in under 5 again, SWEAR LIKE SWEAR WORDS ARE THE AIR THAT I BREATHE, MAKE UP NEW SWEAR WORDS SO THAT I CAN SWEAR SOME MORE – ultimately lose the game and throw my wireless mouse across the room ALL THE TIME SWEARING LIKE MR. McSWEAR THE MAYOR OF SWEARY TOWN!!!

    I am now utterly hoarse and in a foul mood.

    I know however that I will play the game tomorrow… and the day after… and the day after…

    …but at this rate I’m going to totally ruin my vocal chords.

  12. Festus McGee says:

    I have an 80% win rate on normal, using random crew. DragonDave17 has a 100% win rate on all modes.

    If you think this game is too reliant on RNG, you are terrible at it. Never before has such a great game been given such bad reviews by people who don’t understand how to play it.