The Didact and the Analyst: Learning How to Not Get Screwed Playing ‘Tharsis’

The first time that I played Tharsis I lost in two turns. The first time that my friend played Tharsis, he won quite handily.

The first time that I played Tharsis, a 10 turn disaster management space sim, I lost the game by turn two. It took me over a dozen games to finally win this brief, but difficult roguelike.

In Tharsis, you are tasked with directing the actions of four astronauts attempting to survive a 10 week trip to Mars. On each of the game’s ten turns, bad things happen in various modules of a spacecraft and the ship’s crew basically needs to do its best to attempt to put out these fires, while, of course, more and more fires erupt each and every turn. Like I said, this is a disaster management sim played out in a brutally short time frame.

Both Nick Dinicola and I sung the praises of the game last week in two different posts. Both of us appreciated its difficulty and challenge, suggesting these as its most appealing elements. |I said about it and roguelikes in general: “These are the games that leave me feeling most accomplished when I beat them. Games that I know that I can lose” (“Welcome to Tharsis. You’re Screwed.”, PopMatters, 26 January 2016). Nick commented on how reviews of the game by Steam users have been as often negative as they are positive about it, noting that “some of those people think that Tharsis is too hard, or broken, or unfair. I think it’s actually the perfect difficulty” (Tharsis Is Casually Brutal”, PopMatters, 29 January 2016).

So after all of the noise made about how difficult the game is, I had a funny thing happen to me over the weekend. I gave the game to a friend to play. He doesn’t play many video games because he is put off by the demands of twitch based gaming, gaming where reflexes, not pure intellectual acumen, count. He’s a guy that I play board games with, which is actually exactly why I gave him the game. It’s a video game that plays an awful lot like a board game with its turn based structure and the need to simply plot and plan actions within a turn.

So, the funny part was that I gave him the game, explaining how challenging it was, and he beat it the first time. In fact, he beat my best score at the game by about 30 points.

I felt a bit confounded. I knew that I thought the game was difficult. I knew that Nick thought it was difficult. I knew that Nick was right and that a whole lot of people on Steam thought it was difficult.

Now, I also know that one of the complaints about the game is that because the outcomes of actions are determined by dice rolls that part of the difficulty of the game is simply based on the game’s randomness. Admittedly, in some games of Tharsis, the roll of the dice can doom you, and in some games, the dice can be your best friend. Still though, the game has ways of managing randomness, based on a re-rolling mechanic and on being able to hold dice in a few different ways. Also, I ha the knowledge that when I initially played it, I was doomed to disaster for the most part. However, once I changed my view on how to approach managing the game’s many disasters, while also developing some resources on the side, that my chances of winning improved. I felt assured that it wasn’t merely random happenstance that won or lost the game for a player.

In other words, the game is not quite as random as it might first appear. There are definitely some principles that you can learn that improve your chances of winning fairly significantly.

Actually, while the fact that my board gaming friend won the game his first time could suggest that the game is purely random, it actually could be seen as evidence of the opposite. My friend is a seasoned board gamer, having played games like Tharsis in an analog form for decades. In some sense, if someone was going to win Tharsis right out of the chute, it would be someone like him, a guy who has played resource management games and dealt with somewhat complex dice mechanics in a whole mess of tabletop games.

That being said, so have I, and it still took me over a dozen times to really get a good handle on the game. What exactly was the difference? After all, he and I have played against each other for years, and while there are clearly some types of games that he is better at than I am, the reverse is also true, and the truth is that he and I tend to go back and forth fairly regularly in winning games that we play with a small group of regulars.

Now, I had given him some suggestions during the first few turns, but nothing that I thought was especially far from the obvious, and really for the most part, I had tried to be somewhat sparing in directing him from then on, mostly because I wanted him to lose. The reason that I wanted him to lose was not actually because I wanted him to suffer defeat, but actually because I thought a loss would encourage him to maybe buy the game. He, like me, likes a challenge. If he won too readily, I thought that he might no longer have an interest in it.

Additionally, as far as luck goes, the random circumstances that happened to dictate his first turn were largely not too bad as far as a game of Tharsis goes. Also, the truth is that because the game is about managing a mounting amount of disasters, if you do make smart choices in your first few turns, your chances of winning improve enormously, and if you make bad choices in those first few turns, well, playing smart later may not matter. The problems on your ship may simply be so far out of your control by the middle of the game that no real strategy will get your fat out of the fire.

But, on some reflection, I don’t think any of these things were exactly the reason for his success.

More than “giving him advice,” I think what really helped him out was me simply explaining the rules of the game to him through my eyes, rather than letting him watch the game’s tutorial. Tharsis has a brief in-game tutorial, but for such a brief, seemingly simple game, that tutorial doesn’t really get at the heart of the way that that the simplicity of the game’s play belies a rather complex interaction of game systems.

After I played through the initial tutorial, I was left a bit baffled about how everything in the game actually worked. I actually opened up the options menu to see if there was more information available on about several things I was a little confused about. When I did, I actually found that there was a video that was available to learn a few more details. I watched it, thought I understood the game much better, then I began to play it.

Then I lost, then I lost again, and then I lost again.

Frankly, both tutorials failed to teach me a number of things that I ultimately only learned by playing over and over again and trying out some options that I was confused about. I didn’t quite understand what the benefits of some rooms in the spaceship were, I didn’t quite get how certain crew members special abilities worked, that is, until I experimented with them myself to get a handle on them and began to consider how they interacted.

These were details that I didn’t simply advise my friend about. These were details that I emphasized when I introduced the game to him. His experience was not so much influenced by my overall strategy and tactics, but simply by my clarity about the details of the rules provided by my experience with failure and success.

In a nutshell, what this experience got me thinking about was how we learn games through the developer’s eyes and how we learn games through players’ eyes. Because I play board games, I read a lot of rule books, and I have to say that it’s always weird to play a game for the first time. You “get” the game on some level, the basic rules of how to play, but I really learn a game, both by playing it, by watching other people play it and seeing how they manage those rules, and then by talking about it with them as we play more and after we play it.

I have played League of Legends for years, and when I first started playing that game, I depended on the initial tutorial, playing games against AI players, and by reading about the abilities and items available in the game on the game’s official web site and on other informational web sites.

I don’t think my game really improved, though, until I started watching people play the game on YouTube, people who were not merely entertaining me with their witty banter as they played, but people who operated like analysts, discussing their choices and what they were doing as they played. I needed to see the game, not through the game’s developer’s eyes — though they certainly technically know the rules of the game — but through the eyes of the players, whose analysis is more than merely a factual accounting of the rules, but instead an analysis of their function based on their own trial and error accounts of how they function.

Perhaps, I am overestimating my influence on my friend’s first game of Tharsis, but I think that what I may have provided was not merely a tutorial for the game, but an analyst’s view of what is most important in the game. I may be splitting hairs (then again, that is what analysis is essentially all about), but that level of perspective is simply one step higher, perhaps, than bare didactic information. The analyst, in other words, trumps the didact most of the time, if not every time.