Tharsis is a digital, single-player board game about four astronauts and their harrowing journey to Mars. Like all journeys to Mars, theirs devolves into hysterics, brash decision making, and uncomfortable sacrifices for the greater good of a questionable mission. Has any fictional character ever traveled to Mars without losing their mind? I will one day Google the answer, maybe. Probably not.
Tharsis is more fascinating, anyway, as a metaphor for adulthood. Every day we grown-ups roll off the bed and play the mundane game of self-preservation, choosing which personal fires to extinguish, and which can be allowed to burn a little while we work on Personal Betterment. The experience of playing Tharsis is like a funhouse mirror image of ordinary daily decisions, and the game can be summarized as follows:
Tharsis: it’s just like life — except for all the cannibalism.
Tharsis’ board is a tubular spaceship divided into discrete rooms — control pod, medical bay, veggie laboratory, and so on. The player may assign each of the four astronauts to one room per turn, and each astronaut and room offers its own potential reward, like growing food rations or healing a colleague. So far, so easy. Before each round, a random collection of rooms are put in danger, like breaches in the ship’s hull or electrical fires, which if ignored, could cause fatal damage to the ship and its crew. Fixing problems, earning rewards, and taking damage are all decided by the roll of the die (read: luck) available to each astronaut. In turn, the game becomes gambling with warm bodies, trying to game declining odds in your favor, and knowing how to make the most of a losing hand by murdering an injured crewmate for his precious, edible proteins.
Cannibalism is an option, a shocking mechanic for a board game until we consider Monopoly is about the intentional perversion of the housing market — a statistically more lethal and anecdotally more familiar tragedy. Anyway, food is valuable in Tharsis, and humans double as MPS (Meat Preservation Systems). Food grown within the spaceship rewards on astronaut three additional die to roll, but is hard to come by. Human organs, of which a few can be harvested from a single corpse, reward an astronaut two die if eaten. In either case, dining means better odds of extinguishing a fire or repairing a ship on the precipice of obliteration.
As a theoretical prompt — what you would do should you find yourself stranded in space with nothing to eat but man gristle? — Tharsis is unsettling, partly because you choose to commit the act, but largely because the dice cannibals role are henceforth covered in thick blood, staining the screen as they clack about. As a risk-reward option, though, cannibalism is all but encouraged. The punishment isn’t so severe, permanently reducing the astronaut’s health meter by one — a health meter that’s unlikely to entirely filled anyway. Between rounds, the game reminds you that yummy yummy human meat is just waiting to be sliced, dried, and munched.
Tharsis locks focus on survivalism by leaving the dull board game math to the computer. Each turn impacts the health of the ship and astronauts, adding or subtraction bars from their individual meters. Decisions also impact the "stress" of individual astronauts, a less clear metric that impacts how safely the astronauts can navigate the space station. Stripping away the manual arithmetic allows each game to move at a clip, girding the tension from devolving into monotony.
But I think the play can always sense a tingle of the concealed monotony that powers Tharsis, and that’s what makes the game so affecting and relatable. The life and death stakes, narrative chicanery, and moral no-win scenarios are neat, but they’re not what make the game so damn satisfying. What’s rewarding is that sense of seeing time well spent. Watching your ship not fall into ruin because of the priorities you made, oh my how it feels good. When I finally achieved a successful mission to Mars, I felt like I could do anything, namely make better use of my day.
Tharsis is now available on Windows, Mac, and PS4.