Here’s an interesting concept: the first space flight to Mars is struck by meteoroids, leaving the ship damaged, members of the crew dead and resources very limited. You need to ensure the crew survives, and you do so by rolling dice. It might not sound especially thrilling, but this is a roguelike strategy game that sees you making tough decisions in the vain hopes of having your crew make it to Mars.
We spoke to Mike Roush, co-founder of Choice Provisions and developer on the game to find out more about rolling dice in space, creating a digital board game and balancing a roguelike’s difficulty…
GameWatcher: Tharsis is such an interesting concept, how did you come up with the idea?
Mike Roush: So, the original concept, the core of it was based off of essentially what inspired Herman Melville from Moby Dick. There was this ship called The Essex that was a whaling ship that actually got sunk by a whale and then floated around the sea for a bit and everyone had to abandon ship and try to survive with all the resources that they had, and then they floated around on dinghies trying to find land and they ended up eating all their shoes and stuff and eventually eating each other. That was the core inspiration for the theme of Tharsis. I basically knew that we wanted to have this survival game, but the core of the dice mechanic was basically that we could see that board games were sort of welling up and become a thing, so we were really interested in that. Our systems designer on it - Zach Gage - is very into reinventing basic pub games and stuff, he’s done a couple - Sage Solitaire for iOS, and a couple of other pub games. He was really interested in dice and the dice mechanic. Ultimately we put that together and it is a very unique sort of concept for a game but we made it anyway.
GameWatcher: It’s a completely different type of game to the previous games you’ve made, was that something you were eager to do?
Mike Roush: Laserlife is actually in the sort of same universe as Tharsis. The games are connected loosely through the narrative, but if you look at Laserlife when compared to an original BIT.TRIP game then Laserlife is akin to that sort of game, but also closer to Tharsis in the style of the art and more glowy and modern and all that stuff. There is a sort of a progression there, but I agree it is very different to anything else we’ve done. The reason for that is twofold. Years ago we didn’t want to get typecast into the BIT.TRIP genre and 8-bit style of our games, so we’re trying to break away a little bit. And also it really sucks just working on BIT.TRIP games for six years, you want to do something new and different and spread your wings.
Tharsis looks more complicated than it actually is. You roll the dice and allocate them where you see fit, resolving events, researching or using class abilities
GameWatcher: You mentioned earlier about board games becoming more popular, but using dice as a mechanic in a videogame isn’t. It used to be that they would be used in strategy games or RPGs, but not so much now - why did you decide to use this mechanic?
Mike Roush: There was a couple of reasons. We could’ve just kept the dice mechanic behind the scenes and had some other sort of meter or reader but ultimately we kind of assumed that everybody on Earth knows how to use dice, and so it was kind of a decision - and also based off what you said - we haven’t really had games with dice recently, so we kind of felt like it fit. Now that being said, of course there is a funny concept there of rolling dice in space because really there is no gravity to stop the dice. There are a couple of things there that are - for us - kind of like a funny little ribbing to the game, to us it is kind of humorous that there are dice in space.
GameWatcher: Board games as a concept are generally more multiplayer - how did you design it to make it more single-player orientated?
Mike Roush: There are not many single-player board games in general, so in some ways Tharsis ends up feeling - or I think this anyway - but to me there’s a feeling of playing Solitaire when you play Tharsis. It’s not really about winning, it’s about your gameplay from point A to point B, so it kind of ended up being the type of thing where it felt appropriate to develop in the way we did with the dice. We get a lot of people assuming that because it has dice it is going to be a multiplayer game. We had talked about this earlier on, it was something that we kind of wanted to do because it’s so rare to have a board game or a dice game that is single-player, so it was also just a challenge for us. It wasn’t ever really thought of, we just went into the game making.
GameWatcher: Is there a worry that because a game like this is so original that people won’t get it?
Mike Roush: We’ve been doing a bunch of shows recently with Tharsis so I’ve had a lot of chance to playtest it with the public and one thing that happens over and over again is that people are hesitant or they’ll go into it with a little scepticism. Once they learn how to play it, and for a player without tutorialisation it takes about two games and with tutorials it’s about three rounds. Once people get it, everybody gets it and it clicks and people just absolutely love it. So I think the hard part for us is not that the game is unique, I think the hard part is having people sitting through the tutorial or investigating how to use our systems a little bit deeper.
Each round you’ll be given a set of randomly selected events. It’s up to you to figure out what is most important, and where to send your astronauts
The unfortunate thing is that at face value Tharsis seems very complex, but the fortunate thing is that it really becomes quite easy. I said earlier, everyone understands the concept of how to roll dice and how to put dice into a location. I’m not necessarily worried about that, if we wanted to make something super successful it would be guns and multiplayer. But going out on a limb and making something very unique, there is a risk that nobody is going to be interested in it or it’s going to be weird for some people, but I think at this day and age people are very hungry for something new and fresh. And I hope that people see Tharsis as being like this.
GameWatcher: Have you found it particularly difficult to make the gameplay entertaining at all? It’s essentially just rolling dice, after all.
Mike Roush: Ultimately I don’t know. We didn’t have 1000 playtesters, but that being said because dice are random you get something new every time. We have so many things that you can do with the dice, so when you roll you’re like ‘okay, what am I going to do? Am I going to put it into the module and use that ability, or am I going to put it into the crew and use that ability, or am I going to put it into the research cards? Am I going to pay dice into the event?’ And then you get a second roll, and some characters get a third roll - so there’s also the gambling aspect. I think when you add the gambling aspect - unfortunately because of the gambling mentality - there’s always going to be that sort of chance-based gameplay. I’ve been playing it for two years and I’ve never been too bored with it too much yet.
GameWatcher: A game like this can’t be too easy and it can’t be so difficult it puts players off, how have you found that balance?
Mike Roush: So balancing Tharsis took us quite some time. There’s a roguelike-ian element to Tharsis, and part of the balancing was sort of like ‘okay, I got dealt a good game this game’ and that’s always going to be there. But a lot of the balancing happened just by playtesting and just by the team saying ‘okay, you know what, I think we should turn this down just a little bit’ or ‘I think we should make this stage, I think the random events that get dealt to you should have a bigger percentage of having a bigger event card dealt’. Ultimately it ended up being the type of thing where it was just us playing and playtesting but originally I wanted a player’s first experience to be able to get to round three when they die and the next turn five, and then seven and so by your third or fourth turn you’d be able to get as far as seven. And whenever I’ve playtested it with the public, within their first five games they’re able to get to that round. So I do feel that all that playtesting helped us tune it to get us to what I wanted out of it.
If you have the opportunity then growing food is extremely helpful. Food not only gains additional AP per round, but it’ll help stave off the need to resort to cannibalism
GameWatcher: Have you found that the depth of the game gives gamers something to get stuck into?
Mike Roush: Yeah, there are many layers. You can play the game as intended, but once you start figuring out your own personal strategy that’s when you actually find the depth of Tharsis. Another little anecdote here is that I didn’t let my business partner Alex play the game for about a year and a half, and that includes a lot of the other members of the team. I finally let it go on the team - and we were 20 people at that point - and I would watch people play and I was totally taken aback by how every member of the team had a super unique strategy that I had never seen or never even thought of. There is a lot of depth there.
GameWatcher: Did that make you want to add more potential options in there?
Mike Roush: It’s something that’s been talked about quite a bit. Tharsis, however, was supposed to be a six month dev cycle and so it ended up taking two years to make. We very much do want to ship it; the game has essentially been finished for the last month or so. We’re sitting on it waiting for release, but DLC and some pretty interesting updates will be coming as well. We’re really hoping to do daily challenge stuff, because we find that it is amazing for a game like Tharsis. The problem with Tharsis - this is a good problem, by the way - is that you play and you’re like ‘we could just do this, and this could make this happen’ and so that’s sort of why it did take two years because we kept seeing this potential and we kept adding to it.
Tharsis is a turn-based strategy game where you must help your crew survive the difficult trek towards Mars. It is releasing in January 2016 and will see you managing resources, overcoming realistic dangers and resorting to eating human flesh.