They Are Billions pits a steampunk village against a giant zombie horde. While it might look like a reskinned Age of Empires, that surface hides a strategy game that strikes all the right balances. Every time a wave of undead obliterated my encampment, the only thing I wanted to do was restart and try again.
The game came out of the holiday season as one of the top sellers on Steam despite being in Early Access, and it doesn’t take long to see why. The mode players currently have access to is called “survival.” It’s basically the traditional skirmish mode from other real-time strategy games like StarCraft, but instead of facing a rival alien faction you’re up against a mass of zombies who launch attacks at various intervals. They can’t build anything, and you can’t negotiate with them. They just destroy, consuming everything in their path and converting your villagers and fighters into mindless brain-eaters along the way.
At the start of every match you select a difficulty and then spawn on a random map filled with zombies. In the center is your main building, the one that generates your starting resources and which must be protected at all costs. With it you can create new structures and begin expanding while also using a few starting archers and soldiers to scout out your surroundings and kill whatever’s nearby. These activities are the bulk of the game; build stuff, kill stuff, build some more stuff, kill some more stuff. While the object is to last a certain number of days as registered by an in-game clock, doing so is only possible by continually growing.
In order to survive you need stronger buildings and better units, both of which require controlling more land and gathering more resources. The latter includes things like gold, food, and wood, some combination of which are needed to build new things like houses and fisheries as well as protective walls and barracks. Focus too much in any one area and you’ll hit a barrier and discover you’re short on something else. Maybe you build a bunch of houses to get more villagers to make you more money and who can cut down trees or mine rocks, but all of a sudden you’re short on food.
From there you might go to build a new hunting outpost but realize you’re out of land. This requires you to venture outside the walls and take over new areas in order to continue growing. They Are Billions doesn’t let you construct new things just anywhere either. They need to be connected to your power grid, which originates at your village center. Building Tesla towers extends this grid and allows you to extend your walls and go harvest resources farther afield. Unlike your average RTS, buildings are placed automatically and build themselves according to various cooldowns, so you never have to worry about sending out villagers to do it themselves.
While you’re caught up in all this zombies will occasionally walk past your settlement and attack it, or you’ll instigate a fight by building out and encroaching on zombie territory. On the average and easier settings this is easy enough to cope with by creating a few fighting units (the only ones in the game you can manually control) and having them patrol or stand guard over certain areas. At some point, though, an alarm bell will begin to ring, and the game will tell you a zombie horde is attacking. A glowing skull pops up on the minimap and the onslaught begins. If you’ve managed to expand and grow while also preparing your defenses, you’ll usually be in a good position to deal with the attack. If you’ve gotten too wrapped up in developing a certain part of your town or technology tree, you’ll find yourself completely outgunned.
These are the moments that really make They Are Billions pop. All of the lovely ambient building management would start to get a bit dull if there weren’t underlying stakes to it all. The game excels at making you break out into a cold sweat as it dawns on you that you’re totally fucked. While in a conventional RTS you can try to stall or even retreat, They Are Billions doesn’t let you construct another town center in order to restart on some other part of the map, and once things start to go sideways, they go really sideways. Zombies break down your non-defense structures incredibly quickly, and once they do, any villagers working them become zombies themselves. This makes any breach in your base potentially life-threatening if it’s not dealt with immediately.
I’ve had matches where everything was fine one moment and then 30 seconds later I was staring at a sprawling graveyard where my mini-post-apocalyptic empire once stood. Fortunately, the pace of play is quick enough that it never feels deflating to immediately start up another match. For all of They Are Billions’ streamlining of tactical strategy and sim management, its biggest accomplishment is how easy it makes it to start over. New maps mean you’ll always be dealing with different terrains that make you grow your encampment in different ways. Because building is controlled simply with a mouse cursor instead of actual villagers, there’s never much tedious waiting in-between events.
Since the game is still in Early Access, there’s plenty developer Numantian Games, makers of 2014's Lords of Xulima, could still change. New building types, units, and technologies could be added, and there are certain to be new modes in the future, including a single-player campaign planned for when the game officially releases. As things already stand, Numantian already has a great strategy game on its hands. Even outside of the tense zombie fights, They Are Billions offers a beautifully grim world to serenely inhabit while planning your ideal zombie-fighting city.