New Year 2017: Tharsis and Monster Loves You

By Shamus
on Jan 26, 2017
Filed under:
Spoiler Warning


Link (YouTube)

This is the final segment of the show we did for new year. Tharsis bugs me in the same way that Xcom-2Or X-Com 2, or Xcom 2-, or XCOM2, or whatever the stupid name is that I’m sick of looking up every time I have to type it. does. A game with this much deliberately random noise in the outcomes is completely uninteresting to me. “Oh. A low number. I lose. Oh! A HIGH number! Lucky me. I get to not lose this turn.” Random number generators are not interesting adversaries. Losing to them is annoying, and winning feels meaningless. Yuck.

Up tomorrow: The 7th anniversary of the show. I can’t tell you what game we’re playing, but I can promise it will focus on us driving into poles over and over again.

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Footnotes:

[1] Or X-Com 2, or Xcom 2-, or XCOM2, or whatever the stupid name is that I’m sick of looking up every time I have to type it.


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From the Archives:

  1. Syal says:

    So, a racing game set in Antarctica. I’m intrigued.

  2. David says:

    From a video game perspective, I can definitely understand Shamus’s complaints about Tharsis. But from a board game perspective, I think it’s very good. It reminds me of sort of a cross between Alien Frontiers and Space Alert. I like that the computer is able to keep track of the complex bookkeeping, which leaves the player more able to keep track of all the other mechanics and make smart decisions. Looking at some other opinions online, it looks like there’s a definite split between board-gamers and non-board-gamers regarding this game. Also, drunk Josh was possibly not the best way to introduce a game like this.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      Having played it and being into board games, Tharsis has problems beyond its dice. I think it’s not a very good board game either.

      It suffers from the common snowballing problem where being ahead lets you get further ahead while being behind screws you further, but the real problem is that you only get to make strategic decisions when you’re already ahead. If you’re behind, you’re too busy putting out fires (sometimes literally) to make any interesting decisions, it’s all “Well I have to do X or someone will die”. If you actually have the luxury of choosing “Do I want to grow some more food or top up this guy’s morale?” then you’ve stabilized and it doesn’t matter which you pick because you’ve already won.

      • ehlijen says:

        I’m not sure if this was just this specific game here, but it did strike as though the consequences of the disasters were all fairly samey variants of ‘you die’ (ie. look at the hull damage, the rest doesn’t matter much). One of the big things of against the deck board games like Battlestar Galactica and Shadows over Camelot is that there are multiple ways to die and the players have to make judgement calls as to which type of problem needs stopping first. Other than hull damage and complete crew death…what can end the game here?

        I like the game’s idea, even the mechanics (sometimes a simple boardgame against the computer is fine, it doesn’t need to be a super simulation all the time), but I think other games in the genre have more to offer.

        • Ninety-Three says:

          Other than hull damage and complete crew death…what can end the game here?

          Well you also have to keep up on food, otherwise you start taking penalties to your dice penalties which leave you unable to do repairs and you’ll suffer the above hull damage or crew death. So really it’s just hull and crew damage. You run around playing whack-a-mole with ship problems, and because of the narrow scope of the problems, when you have to choose fixing one of two problems, it’s trivial: This problem with do 2 damage if left unfixed, that one will do 3, so go fix that one.

      • Echo Tango says:

        Hearing about your and Shamus’ complaints about Tharsis, and with my recent experiences with Invisible Inc, I think more games need a system like the “Director” in Left 4 Dead. With that system in place, it means that in L4D/L4D2 the difficulty setting of the game affects how much effort/stress/etc you’ll have in the game on average; In other games, the difficulty setting can only affect how soon or late you start snowballing, or if you spend the whole game getting further and further behind until you lose. I’d much rather have the former than the latter. :)

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      I haven’t played Tharsis myself but I was thinking in term of boardgames too. Of the titles I played Red November sounds very similar in premise and Ghost Stories shares the core concept of playing against the board and putting out the randomly spawning fires (or in this case banishing ghosts). It’s true that once you master the mechanics it becomes a matter of RNG screwing you over or not but it can still be fun experiencing the tension (gambling exists for a reason I suppose). That said I’ve generally played it with a bunch of other people and Tharsis is single player… on the gripping hand I quite liked FTL.

    • Geebs says:

      I feel that dice rolls in board games only really exists as a way of choosing the outcome of some test of skill which can’t be simulated by anything in the board game paradigm (like, say, taking a shot).

      Since the main advantage of video games over board games/CYA books etc. is that they can directly incorporate player skill, I find the use of dice rolls for big decisions to be a failure to play to the main strength of video games as a medium.

      • Echo Tango says:

        A good reason to have randomness, is to increase replayability. I’d have been done with FTL, The Binding Of Isaac, or Spelunky after my first playthrough if they had nothing randomized, but instead I get to play a different game every time. Of course, those are games that implemented the randomness in a very good way; Many games fail, and end up with player frustration instead.

  3. Daniel England says:

    I’m the same way when it comes to RNG heavy games, but I listened to an interview (Talk podcast?) with the devs that was really interesting, since once a player gets used to the game systems, there is a lot of times the RNG is reduced. Y’all can watch the interview here.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Or X-Com 2, or Xcom 2-, or XCOM2, or whatever the stupid name is that I’m sick of looking up every time I have to type it.

    Its X2 actually.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      That would be this game actually.

      On a slightly more serious note at least the original second game had the “Terror From the Deep” thing so it helps to differentiate between the games.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        That would be this game actually.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xECUrlnXCqk

        On a slightly more serious note at least the original second game had the “Terror From the Deep” thing so it helps to differentiate between the games.

        XCOM2:We lost.

        • Sleeping Dragon says:

          It may be just me but you seem to be getting this “someone doesn’t get or explains the joke” thing a lot recently. In my defense for some reason the X series is considered ridiculously obscure in my circles.

          Frankly I think I still prefer the lack of any sub titles to the nearly inevitable “Xcom 2: Human Resistance” or something equally cheesy.

          • Droid says:

            Hey, another person who knows Egosoft! What a shame that Rebirth was such a bland, buggy mess!

            But maybe I’m being too harsh on them: By now, they probably patched it to v15.0: “Just a bland mess now”.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            It may be just me but you seem to be getting this “someone doesn’t get or explains the joke” thing a lot recently.

            Becuase I stopped pre-explaining them with links.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    While I agree with you that LOLrandom is not very fun to play,it can certainly be fun to watch.Thats why I enjoy watching some of the whackier heartstone videos,even though playing that game is not really appealing to me.

  6. Rack says:

    Xcom2 is hardly lolrandom though, it’s always about keeping that risk of failure as low as possible, and it’s often possible to keep it at 0% Randomness is only a major enemy if you aren’t playing well.

    • Ranneko says:

      I suspect that, much like FTL: Faster Than Light, convincing people who don’t enjoy the game that the randomness is something you can mitigate with preparation and risk assessment will be pretty difficult.

      Both games can feel like you are relying significantly on luck at times because it is harder to see that you are only in those circumstances because you made a series of more subtle mistakes earlier on.

      • Geebs says:

        I found FTL compelling at first, but the more I played it, the more I just couldn’t be bothered because it became more and more obvious that it didn’t really matter what I did. Either I would get lucky and steamroller everything (boring) or be unlucky and die of a thousand cuts (slightly less boring).

        The combination of the this and the completely bullshit, one-dimensional end boss meant that the much-vaunted “mitigating the effects of the RNG” basically just meant playing the same way every time. Take the away missions with the spider-things for example; there’s, what, a 75% chance of losing a crew member? Do I want to a) try a crew member of a different species, and potentially waste another hour of my life when that dooms the current playthrough or b) just never do that mission?

        I don’t think any game that encourages the player not to bother with trying new stuff is particularly well-designed.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        The problem with this type of randomness, as I see it, is that it makes it much harder for the game to communicate which part of your play needs to improve.

        Usually, it’s “The boss of level 4 beat me by striking straight after doing the thing, so next time I need to be sure not to be right in front of him when he finishes doing the thing.” In RNG-heavy games, it’s “I need to find the thing I had no idea existed in level 1, so I can beat the level 3 boss harder, which gives me enough points to skip the level 4 boss because that guy is actually almost impossible to beat”

        Or, to but it in another way: In non-random games, punishment is easy to spot and often comes soon after the error, or it’s at least easy to trace back. In RNG-heavy games, the punishment consists of being exposed to random problems. Which means it may or may not happen swiftly, and whatever form your final fail takes, may be entirely unrelated to the thing you did wrong. So many people will try to read the game and think they need to invest into defending against whatever the RNG sent their way (as opposed to other things it could have sent their way, and will send their way next time), while really they should rather invest into side-stepping all those possible adversities.

        That’s a bit (though not completely) like playing Monopoly: The game is won and lost within minutes of the start but it takes an hour or more until all the losers have been bankrupted. Most of the time is just spent watching the inevitable play out. That’s why it’s such a bad game. The difference to FTL (was just going to write TFL…good joke) of course, is that in FTL you can influence who wins, whereas in Monopoly, that too is mostly luck (yeah yeah, build three houses, get the orange streets first… that’s still pretty shallow and only achievable by luck).

        • Zak McKracken says:

          Actually… after actuall watching the game, I’m beginning to think that Josh just didn’t really think along.

          There’s really not that much randomness. And the more dice you have in your dice hold, the more research you do, the easier it becomes to always have some assists and enough food, and the less random danger you have to deal with. Also, don’t give food to people who have three dice because that’s wasteful.
          What else? Try and let the doctor always go to repair sites where somebody else didn’t quite finish the job. That gives her a chance of healing someone. Same goes for the other people with support abilities.

          I suppose this is really not the type of game to play while drunk, in front of an audience. Kind of want to play it now.

      • Retsam says:

        I didn’t particularly like the randomness in FTL (really liked its combat though), but I really like Tharsis. The difference between the two is that the RNG in FTL is a blackbox, while Tharsis is transparent about its RNG.

        In FTL, I get the same event, and depending on which choice I pick, I get a random outcome. Maybe there’s a 70% chance that A leads to a good outcome and a 40% that B leads to a better outcome… but there’s no way to know, (except if you play the game a ton of times and get enough samples to estimate a probability). It made the choices feel pointless and the outcomes truly random and out of the player’s control.

        Whereas, Tharsis it’s just dice, and I know how dice work. If I’ve got a crew member at 2 HP and I walk into a room with an injury hazard, I have a very good idea of the exact odds of killing that crew member. (If I cared, I could sit down and figure out the exact odds)

        Also, the length of Tharsis worked better for randomness. It’s like a 30 minute game, and when I lose, at worst, I’ve just lost about a half-hour; whereas FTL games tended to run between an hour or two.

        I mean, this site is “twenty-sided” and while I know that’s largely vestigial of the tabletop RPG origins of this site, but Tharsis doesn’t strike me as that different than a tabletop RPG. Sure, sometimes you get screwed by a particularly misbehaving die; but that doesn’t mean that D&D is entirely random.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Grazing shots.

  7. Christopher says:

    Monster loves you is the only new year’s segment I watched the entirety of so far. It was fascinating watching that blob go through every stage of life and making decisions every minute. I liked it better than the Yahwg, for sure.

    Not sure about the replay value. While you could do a lot of adventures in whatever order you wanted, I can’t imagine any ending better than UNIVERSAL PROSPERITY. It seemed surprisingly easy to get considering Josh didn’t really gaining much in the first couple phases of his life, but I suppose it could have been lucky rolls.

  8. baseless_research says:

    Josh had an excellent reading voice for the Monster Loves You segment. Well done

  9. MikhailBorg says:

    “Random number generators are not interesting adversaries. Losing to them is annoying, and winning feels meaningless.”

    This is exactly why I keep rage-quitting Space Hulk.

  10. IFS says:

    It’s funny that you make the Tharsis/Xcom comparison because as a board game Tharsis reminds me a lot of the Xcom board game (which is quite good, if rather difficult). Both of them seem to draw their fun from a constant tension and overcoming low odds by playing to your outs.

    I have watched a successful run of Tharsis, and while certainly a good amount of luck was involved there are a lot of things you can do to help mitigate the RNG. Putting a lot of points into science to get various things (ship repairs, the ability to ignore bad dice rolls a few times, etc) was something the player did a lot in that run and it saved his ass numerous times.

  11. Retsam says:

    Debate over how RNG it is aside; some practical Tharsis advice: the best way to win the game consistently (I’ve got like a 95% win rate on normal) is to roll as many dice as possible, and to use as many of them as possible.

    So, prioritize keeping your crew with as many dice as possible: ideally, at the least you should have 3 people with 4 or 5 dice (and the other person with 3). The life-support room is great, the Captain’s ability is great, food is obvious important, cannibalism can be useful, if it doesn’t put them over the top on stress. (I’m now on some sort of watch list for that last sentence I’m sure) Particularly the first few turns; try to get dice as quickly as possible, even if it means ignoring a crisis for a turn.

    And, for using dice, that means generally means research: getting a lot of low dice on a roll isn’t always bad, because research consumes the lowest dice first. You can roll a 1 – 2 – 1 and put the 1 and 2 in research, then research, then put the 1 in the now-open research slot. Being in the life-support, farm, or maintenance room can be a good way to deal with low dice rolls, too, since the number doesn’t matter for those room abilities.

  12. DGM says:

    Aside from the shear length of such games, extreme RNG is why I’ll probably never touch X-COM again. I like the way Invisible Inc uses randomness much better: it’s used to set up problems or to punish you for disturbing the guards, but it doesn’t screw with your immediate actions by, say, causing an attack to just miss. You get to come up with clever plans and have them work reliably.

    Just don’t use Faust.

  13. Jeff says:

    This sums up a big part of why I don’t like the modern XCOM franchise nearly as much as one would expect. To my eyes, the problem isn’t really that it’s random (even if a little weighted in the player’s favor on lower difficulty), but that the consequences of said randomness are wildy asymmetric: A bad RNG roll isn’t a big deal for the AI, because it has no time or resource constraints, so to arbitrarily lose a mission, a soldier, etc. when it did everything “right” doesn’t cost it anything. For a human player, this is not the case, and it’s even worse because success or failure tends to snowball.

    Possibly the easiest answer would be to adjust the curve just a little bit, so that the best possible shot set-up for a player would have a true success chance of something like 105%, and the worst would be 5%, all presented to the player as the true value minus 5%. That would still allow the game to benefit from the dynamic stories caused by the randomness, but it would also make it possible for skilled tactical play to actually assure success in a specific moment.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      The best answer is just to be more like the 90s X-COM. In that game, yes every shot is random and a protracted firefight is throwing yourself upon the mercy of the RNG, but playing 90s X-COM is all about trying to avoid a protracted firefight. Unlike XCOM 2012 which actively punished scouting with its silly “Triggered alien spawns” thing, X-COM’s dominant strategy was to scout heavily, while trying to hide your team from wandering enemy patrols. Skilled play was all about controlling the terms of engagement and only starting a fight when your position was so advantageous that the dice didn’t matter.

      90s XCOM was also a lot more forgiving of mistakes: A much larger squad size and the absence of a “You must fight aliens many at a time” spawning system meant that losing one or two guys didn’t leave you with insufficient firepower to proceed.

      XCOM 2012’s triggered pods system often created the feeling that the only way to avoid getting fired upon, and thus the only way to avoid a risk of instant squaddie death, was to wipe out a pod in one turn. That leads to a lot of “I need to make three out of the next five dice rolls to kill this pod. Oops, I didn’t, so a surviving alien shot my guy through hard cover and instakilled him.” When my units died in 90s X-COM, instead of cursing the RNG I was usually left thinking “In retrospect, that was a bad place to put him.”

  14. Fizban says:

    The randomness in Tharsis isn’t the dice, it’s in what events the game throws at you. The game is resource management and deployment. On later turns/higher difficulties the game will throw rooms at you that will kill you just for rolling the dice (2-6 injury= nigh impossible to fix through luck), making it clear that the dice aren’t what kill you- it’s the room RNG hitting you when you’re down.

  15. Jarenth says:

    My favourite bit of Tharsis was the part where Josh lost humiliatingly and publicly on-stream, and then I won quietly behind the scenes a few minutes later.

    Never you mind that there’s no way to verify this.

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