By evoking one of StarCraft’s most memorable Terran-vs-Zerg missions, the Early Access version of They Are Billions has caught onto a great idea: it’s a simple but high-stakes real-time strategy game of survival against an overwhelming, intensifying horde. With a randomized map throwing your plans into uncertainty and no ability to save and reload when things go wrong, every game is a tense turtling battle.
Survival is the only way to play right now, though having played it extensively I’d be surprised if the eventual campaign on developer Numantian Games’ roadmap ends up being anything more than a tutorial for this centerpiece mode. It starts you in a dire situation: your mission-critical town center and a handful of units are completely surrounded by a horrifying number of shambling zombies. The early stages are a desperate race to build up your fledgling colony’s population while scouting the immediate surroundings, then clear and wall in as much territory as you can.
It’s perilous because until you can scrape together enough resources to build a troop-producing building you have only your starting five units to patrol your borders and push back the fog of war. The vibrant, Warcraft 2-style art is easy enough to read even while zoomed out, but if even one zombie – a tiny gray-green 2D sprite character that can blend in amid your automated civilian population unless you’re closely watching the minimap – wanders into your town, all hell can break loose very quickly. With just a few attacks on one of your fragile tents that house your population, it’ll infect the civilians inside and spawn four more zombies, which, because you’re forced to build everything within a Protoss-style power radius, is a very bad thing. Those zombies will attack other tents and almost inevitably set off a chain reaction of zombification that’s all but impossible to contain, sending you right back to the main menu to try again.
If one reaches your tents it will set off a chain reaction of zombification.
What keeps this early game routine interesting across repeated attempts is the randomized terrain and distribution of resources. That makes you constantly think about what territory is most important, how best to defend it, and how to arrange your structures to maximize efficiency without blocking off crucial paths for troop movements: do you try to secure an area rich in stone and iron ore, or a wide-open field of farmable land that would allow a population boom but be difficult to hold because of a lack of natural zombie-proof barriers like mountains, lakes, and trees? How far can you extend before you risk spreading your patrols too thin? Of course, this can make some games feel like a raw deal if you’re starved of food and materials or crammed into a tight spot early on, but the thrill of adapting to less than ideal situations is where the early game variety comes from. At the same time, the complex, Age of Empires-style economy also demands a lot of attention. Most buildings and units require at least two resources to build and keep running, so you have to make sure you always have enough gold, population, food, power, wood, stone, iron, and oil on hand to keep your expansion from grinding to a halt. Fortunately, civilians work automatically, so there’s no need to worry about individually building or assigning them. You simply plop down a quarry or a farm and they’ll do the rest, creating resources at a set rate every eight in-game hours.
All of this management would require a high level of real-time strategy skill just to survive the opening minutes if They Are Billions were like most other RTS games. But a key difference is that, because it’s designed solely as a single-player game, you’re allowed to pause and take all the time you need to freely build, give orders, and just think without the threat of a zombie eating everything. It’s still all too easy to miss a stray zombie – numerous times I’ve found my town completely overrun in the few moments I had turned my attention elsewhere – but it makes the threat much more manageable and They Are Billions a much more accessible game overall. (The only time these sneaky zombie attacks have felt unfair is when they’ve snuck in through a gap in a wall I couldn’t see because it was hidden behind a mountain or forest. The non-rotatable camera perspective can hide some lethal surprises.)
The hordes get so big they look like a fluid simulation of actual waves.
Once you move into the mid game and have yourself more or less safely walled in, the threat of the mostly passive groups of zombies around the map subsides – a group of about 20 snipers can clear the undead like a lawnmower through tall grass in a very satisfying way. The key to survival then becomes a race against the clock to tech up and produce advanced defenses like crowd-melting Shock Towers before the waves of zombies that attack at regular intervals turn into tidal waves. Toward the end of a standard 100 in-game-day run, the hordes of attackers get so big they look like a fluid simulation of actual waves as they crash into your walls, and eventually even caused my Core i7-7700K and GTX 1080 to struggle to cope with their numbers. Are they technically billions? No, but they are definitely thousands.
The late game becomes almost like a tower defense, though the limited number of tower, unit, and enemy types makes the exercise of placing defenses repetitious. Thick, multi-layered stone walls, ballista and Shock towers, and guard posts stocked with snipers backed by a small army of soldiers, grenade-launcher troops, and eventually machine gun-toting mechs become standard at all likely chokepoints. Though there are five types of zombies, including three straight out of the Left 4 Dead Special Infected playbook, only the spitting zombies force you to think about anything other than how to apply maximum firepower to where you expect the horde to show up. Predicting that can be tricky, because as your borders expand to accommodate a growing population you’re forced to spread yourself thinner and thinner to defend a growing number and length of walls along the north, south, east, and west. Unless one of the random waves that come at you roughly every 10 days happens to come from a given direction early, you may not know exactly where they’ll hit you when they come in force until it’s too late. And if you guess wrong, it’s the whole ball game – you do get some warning, but moving a large force of soldiers around is a slow process, and beefing up static defenses is hard to do on short notice. Likewise, it’s difficult to influence the zombies’ path to lure them into your kill zones.
Also, that final wave is a real beast. Nothing They Are Billions throws at you before that will even begin to prepare you for the onslaught you’ll face on all four sides at once, and it can be discouraging to have a four-hour playthrough end in a total blowout. It took me over a dozen attempts before I learned to scale up my defenses to the point where they had a chance of withstanding it. Beyond that fortunately very replayable scenario, content is scarce. More maps unlock once you’ve survived the first one (even at lower difficulty), but while they swap out the terrain palette for a different look and are harder thanks to denser concentrations of pre-existing zombie-infested towns you need to clear, all of the same strategies apply. What They Are Billions needs to keep its gameplay fresh after you’ve established a winning routine is more meaningful modifiers. Right now you get a choice of random Governor bonuses every time you hit four population benchmarks, but they’re a little unexciting: I’ve never seen anything more than one or two free units, a bundle of free resources, or production efficiency boosts that let you skip over parts of your established build order. Throwing in real, game-changing modifiers to unit and enemy behaviors (speed, aggression, attack range or power, or even entirely new abilities) that stack on each other would give each playthrough more of a unique, roguelike feel.
They Are Billions’ Early Access survival mode makes single-player turtling in an RTS feel new and exciting for the first time in years. The lack of a save-game safety net and the fragility of your starting colony makes each attempt dangerous, and the randomized maps force you to think carefully about how and when to expand your colony. Once you settle into a routine there aren’t many surprises to force you out of it, but getting that far is a good challenge.