They Are Billions: An RTS Game That Makes Zombies Scary Again

It's been too long since we truly feared an approaching horde of the undead. Steam's latest hit changes that.

Somewhere along the way, it was decided that zombies are only scary if they run as fast as Twitter users rush to their computers to tell the world which celebrity should be President of the United States.

The idea of an undead creature sprinting towards you is certainly frightening, but the same can be said about any monster and most humans. What’s always separated zombies is the idea of the horde. You may be able to best a single zombie, but what chance do you have against a hive mind army that knows no fear yet instills it through tireless assaults?

They Are Billions, an early access game on Steam from developer Numantian Games that is currently tearing up the sales charts, understands that the true terror of zombies is tied to the seemingly inevitable victory of the horde.

Those familiar with the Age of Empires series will feel right at home with They Are Billions. Like Microsoft’s classic real-time strategy games, Billions utilizes a somewhat simple RTS interface that emphasizes progression and resource management over micromanaging every unit and colony.

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While you’re recruiting workers, chopping wood, and collecting food, zombies patrol the parameter of your settlement and threaten to infect the population. A single zombie can cause a chain reaction of infection by attacking just one tent. As such, you’ll need to build walls, manage defensive structures, and order units to patrol the area around your camp.

However, lone zombies only really threaten new players who haven’t yet learned the game’s mechanics. I learned this the hard way when a walker destroyed my entire settlement while I was learning how to gather rocks. Once you gain a basic understanding of the game, though, the real threat comes from the horde.

There are always groups of zombies surrounding your encampment, but every once in a while – the timetable changes based on your preferred difficulty settings – you’ll be informed that a horde of zombies is approaching from a cardinal direction. To be blunt, you’ll likely succumb to the first horde you encounter. The warning you receive gives you enough time to make last minute preparations, but successful defenses require long-term planning.

Even the best long-term strategies can only take you so far, though. As the number of zombies in the horde reaches the billions, your chances of victory become slimmer and slimmer. It’s possible to “win” They Are Billions‘ survival mode by lasting long enough, but you shouldn’t expect to reach that point without enduring countless failed attempts.

Much like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and FTL, They Are Billions’ entertainment value is based on the belief that you will suffer through defeat after defeat so long as there’s just a little light at the end of the tunnel that teases you into believing that you can do better. Every loss you endure triggers the belief that you can and will do better the next time because you know exactly why you failed.

Your optimism will prove to be foolish more often than not, but that’s okay. The joy of playing They Are Billions doesn’t come from watching the horde fall at the feet of your military but from the thrill of seeing how large you can grow your settlement and how long you can watch it stand.

What a novel concept that is. Too often, modern zombie stories are reduced to the visceral pleasure of watching waves of undead succumb to gunfire or the tired concept of every remaining human somehow hating each other at the end of the world. Both approaches turn zombies into bit players in a human power fantasy. 

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Zombies are not bit players in They Are Billions. As game director Jesús Arribas told PC Gamer, zombies are “the central pillar” of the experience. Every time you attempt to expand your settlement in the pursuit of much-needed resources, you know that you run the risk of encountering a band of zombies that you are not prepared to deal with. Yet, heading into danger is the only way to ensure that your defenses will be anywhere close to ready.

You’re not necessarily chasing total victory in They Are Billions. This is the end of the world after all, and your band of buildings has little chance of lasting against a threat that has consumed the world. What you are really looking for is the knowledge that you have built something that will stand strong against seemingly impossible odds for as long as it can.

The zombies in this game exist to test your spirit as well as your defenses. They are a mindless army that can overwhelm your greatest accomplishments through the sheer force of their presence. Yet, you never feel deterred by a zombie victory. You learn to fear what they can accomplish, but you are comforted by the knowledge that your victory is tied to your unwillingness to let them win the day without a fight. 

Night of the Living Dead‘s zombies frightened audiences because they were flesh-eating monstrosities whose relentless and insatiable desire to destroy invoked the fears of those living in a rapidly changing and increasingly scary world. They Are Billions‘ zombies are the only walkers in recent memory that manage to do the same.