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Death is random, but so is survival: Learning to love random chance in Tharsis

There is no sure path to victory

We’re all going to die.

We don’t like admitting this fact, and usually the games we play at least attempt to mask this brutal truth. Most games treat death as just a prelude to a loading screen and a second, third or even 15th chance. In most games we are the hero, and the odds are stacked in our favor.

Tharsis turns that idea on its head. The game puts you in control of a likely doomed expedition to Mars, where you can only survive by repairing your ship as bad things happen and keeping your crew alive long enough to reach the red planet. You have to learn the game’s many systems and understand how to lower the risk inherent in each round, but your success or failure comes down to a literal roll of a differing number of dice.

In life you can work out every day and still get hit by a bus. Your characters in Tharsis can, similarly andunder your control, make every right decision and still be wiped out by bad luck.

Solid strategy will help you, but it can’t win the game. You’re ultimately at the mercy of chance.

It’s not shocking that many players hate this.

Give chance a chance

"Tharsis is definitely the most divisive game I’ve ever been a part of feedback-wise," game designer Zach Gage told Polygon. He designed the framework of the game’s systems, although he’s quick to point out everyone on the small team had their hands everywhere in development.

"We got a really amazing positive response from streamers, board game players, developers, some journalists and non-video game-focused publications, and a really negative response across the board from video game-focused publications," he said.

"Which is actually pretty weird when you think about it, especially when the complaints are usually ‘this is too hard because of the randomness," Gage continued "It definitely makes me feel like the issue at the center of Tharsis (aside from the admittedly poor tutorial) is often a player's taste for randomness, and the context they're coming to video games in."

Tharsis must be maddening if you’re the sort of player who spends as much time as possible mastering a game’s systems in order to perfect your play. You can’t min-max your way to a perfect game. A perfect game may in fact be impossible, or at least unlikely enough to be as good as impossible.

But is that bad?

"I definitely think chance, and gambling-centric mechanics have a bad reputation in video games in general since they’re usually used to disempower players and give the illusion of agency while fleecing players for their cash — you can see that going on in casinos obviously, but also in many free-to-play mobile games," Gage said.

"I think these kinds of games have maybe trained players to be weary of randomness and assume that it’s just a way for lazy game designers can make things harder or manipulate the player. It feels like a lot of players spotted the randomness in Tharsis and sort of just shut off."

The terrible losses, the unexpected wins

The randomness is one of the best parts of the game. It feels like gambling, but safely inside the structure of a premium game. If you lose you haven’t lost anything but time, but you learn a bit more about the game’s systems and how to juggle everything more effectively. If you win, you win the rush of staying alive for one more turn while pushing for a high score and, ultimately, to arrive at Mars.

The fury over making a smart play statistically only to lose due to a bad roll of the dice is completely matched by the rush of a desperate roll being much more effective than you expected. Tharsis has the addictive quality of a roulette table where you can grind out your own house advantage by playing smart.

The game also cleverly plays with the odds in ways that aren’t immediately apparent, although they make sense once you take a deeper look at its systems. Tharsis doesn’t generate random numbers and then present them; the dice themselves are physics-based. This removes some of the rather unintuitive realities of games that rely on luck.

I go into each round expecting to lose

"It turns out that if you tell a player they have a 90 percent chance to succeed and then they fail, that player will feel ripped off and confused," Gage explained. "So in Civ games they pull some trickery to weight odds so a 90% chance actually wins a lot more often than 90 percent." Gage once saw a talk discussing this odd bit of player behavior and psychology by the eminent designer Sid Meier. But what if you want to make a game that doesn’t fudge the numbers?

"I was thinking about how this doesn't apply at all to dice — if you tell someone that they’re going to roll a 10 sided die and they’ll succeed if they don’t roll a one, nobody thinks the dice cheated when they rolled a 1. Quite the opposite actually, most people marvel at the sheer bad luck. It’s why ‘snake eyes’ is a thing in our culture. It’s just so unlikely you have to step back and be impressed — it’s almost exciting to roll so epically poorly."

Which feels like strange psychology: A player will expect a random number generator to give them the win every time they have a 90 percent chance, but they don’t bring that sort of unrealistic expectations to rolling dice. But Tharsis only uses six-sided dice. Which brings up another odd quirk of chance: Dice aren’t as random as you think

"Dice very quickly fall into a curve of results depending on how many you roll," Gage told Polygon. Catan players and anyone familiar with Vegas odds know this. With two dice the most likely outcome is seven. Anyone familiar with Vegas odds will also be very much aware of this reality. The next likely roll is a six or an eight. "Unfortunately when you’re making a game about sending people with different numbers of dice into events to repair them, these curves become a problem."

Tharsis does some clever things to make sure you don’t just hope for higher rolls. Each challenge has modifiers, such as injury rolls that may take a unit of health from a character if they roll a six. In that situation a higher number of dice from which to pull your plays becomes dangerous; there is a higher chance of getting hurt, or even killed, and a higher roll is detrimental.

Tharsis 2

The research bar at the bottom of the screens also allows you to bank up to six dice, but you can only bank each number once … so you may need to roll a one in order to add another unit to your reserve. In that situation you’re hoping for at least one of your die to roll low.

"We did want to make sure that on the dice higher numbers were better, but dice get no fun when higher numbers are always better, when that is the case then you really don’t have a lot of agency, you’re just hoping you roll high." The game makes sure there are situations served to the player that cause you to look for lower rolls. It’s situational, and that situation can change rapidly from round to round.

Embrace the fact you're going to die

The randomness may why so many people hate the game, but this aspect of the play sets Tharsis apart in the world of gaming. The game does nothing to help you win, and in fact you can be punished for no good reason other than the dice not rolling your way. The game often creates situations that feel as if Matt Damon’s astronaut in The Martian fell over, broke his arm, and died of starvation. And it was due to dumb luck. So sorry, reload and start over.

I go into each round expecting to lose, which is why a series of smart plays mixed with good rolls feels so rewarding. After a few turns as you get closer to Mars you may even feel the tiniest bit of hope, but you’re always aware your success or failures are somewhat due to your play, but also due to the dice rolling in a favorable way. Nothing can be taken for granted, nor can you ever relax.

"It’s almost exciting to roll so epically poorly"

"The downside of randomness is that you can’t control everything, but the upside is that you can’t control everything!" Gage said. "Sometimes losing isn’t your fault, as soon as you get comfortable that the story of Tharsis is one of almost inevitable failure, you’ll start to appreciate your tiny triumphs."

And there can be heartbreaking stories that play out in the game, even in the final moments of your mission.

"My favorite ending to Tharsis is when you do your best to miraculously pull out of a terrible situation, but then can’t make it into Flight Control at the very end, and you miss Mars," Gage said. "There’s just something beautiful and respectful about it. Sometimes you try your best in life and things don’t work out, but sometimes failing teaches you more than when things work out."

Roll the dice enough times and you’re bound to get wiped out. It’s true of life as well. None of us escape alive. The best you can hope for is a bit more time.

Tharsis understands that cold truth, and it’s a better game for it.