Gamers look to titles for a myriad of reasons from cathartic escapism to stimulating narratives. Within the many genres available for play, a common denominator is zombies, which have permeated the industry for much of recent memory, such as in Left 4 Dead’s cooperative shooting and Resident Evil’s third-person saga. The undead relentlessly stay in the gestalt time and time again, but a need for something new to liven up the genre has been felt. Enter Numantian Games’s They Are Billions. Set in a post-apocalyptic, steampunk-ish world, the strategy game puts players in control of a colony trying to hold out against hordes of undead that continually assault their burgeoning base within a set length of time chosen by difficulty. While still in Early Access with plans of a full-fledged campaign down the line, the Survival Mode currently available offers a glimpse into the mechanics and aesthetics of the game the studio is building. If any of the frustrations caused by the game’s punishing difficulty make the experience unenjoyable, a strange lesson on failure is still to be learned. In this repetition of losing colonies and learning how to better defend them, another aspect emerges. The game teaches that, sometimes in life, plans can go awry; even with all the necessary preparations, things can still fall apart. Beyond the strategy a philosophy emerges: one about letting go and accepting defeat. Intentional or not, Numantian’s nascent title goes beyond building a colony and into gaining a tolerance and understanding of failure
Players will quickly learn that losing is a common, yet inevitable, part of They Are Billions. However, despite these defeats, they must also have a reason to keep going: to want to keep playing despite losing hours of progress in a single wave—to one undefended wall—and watching the people of their colony turn infected and consume all that has been built. Part of the joy that comes from the game is in planning the colony’s layout. While objectively better places exist to build certain buildings and the randomness of each map dictates where resources can be collected, a certain appeal comes from the ritual of exploring the area around the Command Center and becoming increasingly adept at sussing out whether a starting location is worth attempting or if the smarter play is to simply restart and hope for a better one. Once an understanding of the early game is gleaned, They Are Billions becomes more about envisioning the future of the colony, which requires knowing that, even if a start seems perfect, one mistake or one unfortunately placed Village of Doom (a set of buildings that spawn a huge, but finite, stream of zombies that can ruin the early game if attracted) can be hiding in the shadows to shatter a vision. Learning that things can sometimes not go as planned, even if every single threat seems accounted for, is an important, yet painful, lesson to learn. However, to truly understand the impact of the failure, knowing how the game works must come first.
Akin to classic RTS titles such as Age of Empires and StarCraft, the core gameplay of They Are Billions centers around building a colony to withstand the relentless undead. Mechanically, the game is easy to learn, and the ability to pause takes away the real-time aspect and allows for precise planning of building placement and economic balancing. A starting handful of silent Rangers armed with bows and a single soldier armed with a loud SMG are all that stand between players’ Command Center (think AoE’s town center) and the innumerable, yet finite, zombies populating the map. Sound is key, as guns can attract more zombies than the player can handle, even if they are more effective at killing them. Expansion is similarly vital, requiring players to build Tesla Towers (think StarCraft’s Pylons) to construct buildings outside the limited starting area around the CC and train more troops to defend the colony. However, understanding the randomly generated layout of the maps is perhaps the most crucial aspect, as this task can be either a slow, meticulous process of careful planning or a Herculean one that more than likely should just be restarted.
Once the borders of the colony are secured, the decision of which resources to prioritize and when and where to collect them becomes the next task. Each building has its own resource and space requirements, with a need for an ever-growing set of homes to house Workers who man said constructs once they are built, underlying economic expansion. Workers are also necessary to generate Gold to buy units and buildings, and, as the population grows, Mayors become available, offering a free boost either economically or militarily. Energy is a resource necessary for all these structures and requires Mills or Power Plants to create, which can take up valuable real estate in an already densely packed colony. A delicate balancing act between these resources dominates the strategy of base building—a simplistic streamlining of more nuanced strategy titles to be sure, but, nevertheless, a taxing one, especially when the waves start coming and only minimal defenses are in place to hold them back. While Ballista towers that shoot arrows taking out multiple zombies at once can make the first few waves a breeze, the need to upgrade them to the devastating minigun turrets (aptly named Executors) are a costly, yet necessary, step later in the game—as are the more advanced (and therefore more expensive) late game units, including the rocket launcher-wielding Thanatos and the bipedal Titan mechs. Knowing which units are needed and, more importantly, the ones the player can afford can lead to long pauses as players juggle the needs of their colony against the resources at their disposal. If this colony management sounds like a frustrating experience, even with a good start or lucky Mayors, then perhaps the repeated failures that come from the experience are not the most pleasant gaming experience.
Defeat need not rest solely on the player, though. Given the random nature of much of the game, some things can come down to bad luck. As aforementioned, the randomness of the starting location can make a game almost impossible from the beginning, whether the Command Center is sandwiched between two Villages of Doom or no natural defenses exist around the colony, forcing players to defend from all sides. While this issue can be and should be resolved with a restart (even if the most stubborn players assume they are up to the task), other random factors also hurt players down the line. Mayors offer two boons to help the colony proceed. Anything from a free Ballista tower to a free 500 gold boost can be had, but at times neither option can be helpful with the dead breathing down a player’s neck. While a skilled player can account for the randomness of these rewards, or lack thereof, the chance that a horde will attack the one spot left least defended or split and force attacks from multiple angles when players have accounted for only one is always possible. Much like life, curveballs can be thrown that upset even the most prepared player, and, at times, no better way to prepare is available, yet they will still fail. Learning that these setbacks are a natural part of the game (and practically inevitable unless someone has the luckiest RNG of all time) is an important step—and one that can help mitigate the initial frustrations of losing the first few colonies in a wave of undead.
In face of this devastation, acceptance must be found. Like a force of nature, the zombies will take advantage of any weakness and pounce on the opportunity, needing only an inch to take many yards. Even with soldiers patrolling the perimeters of the colony and Ballista at every conceivable angle, all that is needed to bring down the colony is a single unnoticed zombie infecting a house. Once damaged enough by a zombie, the population of a building is turned into more zombies, causing a snowball that rolls straight through the colony and into the Command Center. However, a certain beauty exists in seeing this defeat and recognizing when the defenses have fallen and the game is lost. While an early instinct is to exit the game as soon as this realization is made, a haunting calmness takes hold in letting go of the stress of protecting the colony and simply watching nature take its course. The multiplying zombies flow like water, and, if they are not broken on the rocks of the defenses, they simply take their billions and infect. Practically speaking, the score screen needs to come up to record the stats and keep track of the player’s attempts at victory, as well as counting towards achievements. So, even if all is lost, learning to accept that the game is over, but sticking around to see the ending through, teaches patience and acceptance of things going to the wayside.
While the experience Numantian offers now could certainly use some improvements in many areas (including better sound queues, smarter pathing, and general economic balance), what this Early Access Survival Mode gives now is a bold new take on an old hand in the industry. Refreshing both the RTS and zombie genres in one package, They Are Billions challenges and stimulates the player in equal turn, while also teaching some surprisingly pertinent life lessons. Patience, acceptance, and understanding are important virtues both within and without gaming, and having a strategy game teach those in such an addicting, satisfying, and ultimately soul-crushing way speaks to the power of games beyond the playing. Even if these themes seem obvious or inapplicable to some players, recognizing that just because something is hard does not mean the experience is wasted and that change will come and ameliorate those grievances make the acts of creation and destruction, as well as death and defeat, still taste like victory for the lessons learned on the way.