A small castle surrounded by green farmland. This is a screenshot from the game They Are Billions, originally taken by Steam User Killer Rabbit

An Exercise in Being Prey

  • Featured RPG Designers

    Funeral Rites

In the twilight of 2017 it feels like zombies are old hat. They’ve been fast, slow, cute, threatening, and all manner of things in between. But They Are Billions by Numantian Games shows that zombies have one last card to play. Zombies can be punishingly brutal.

Difficulty comes from a lot of different places in games. Silent Hill had a menacing fog filled with dangers, Souls games require perfect time and reflexes, and tons of other games offer sliders and tuning to make the game as hard as you want. They Are Billions is hard because a single mistake is really all it takes to ruin everything you’ve so carefully built.

Take this last round. I finally felt that I had gotten the hang of the resource management. I was expanding and kiting zombie mobs so that I had plenty of places to go. When the first horde arrived the walls broke but my troops were easily able to handle them. Then I began investing in a series of upgrades to make my fortress even better. I was finally getting things right.

Then the second horde came.

They Are Billions regularly throws hordes at you to test your defenses. You can give yourself handicaps to delay but doing so will impact your score. So when the second horde came I thought I was ready. In fact, this was the first time I had ever made it this far. Then the second horde turned out to be two hordes. While I was so busy micromanaging my defenses, I had totally forgotten to micromanage all my defenses. I didn’t even realize we were overrun until the game started shouting that various buildings were offline. My mistake had been hubris.

In one of my earlier sessions, a single zombie managed to sneak into my base (still my fault). That zombie chewed its way into someone’s house. Then that small group found another house. Then another. Within seconds one zombie had turned into dozens. My meager defenders couldn’t do anything to help. Again, hubris.

Every building you construct in They Are Billions is a latent zombie factory. If the dead are able to reach it and do enough harm, all of the workers with in become infected and spread forth. The bigger you build your base, the larger the army you better be ready to face when you lose the walls.

There are other games where you build a little base and hold out or conquer a little map. But I’ve not played another game where everything I do makes me a better target for my enemies. It’s a game about becoming a bigger, fatter, juicer piece of meat and being surrounded by starving hordes. The only way to hold back those hordes is by becoming a better target. The more land you take, the more you’ll have to defend. The more defenses you need the more resources you’ll need to harvest. To do that, you’ll need more workers and those workers increasingly demand more space and resources. It’s a vicious cycle of essentially tenderizing and basting yourself at a buffet.

All told, They Are Billions is a novel gem in a vast sea of strategy games. As in many of my favorite horror games, They Are Billions succeeds because it asks you to do a thing you don’t want to do. You never want to be a big target for a roving horde but you’ll never survive hiding in a little corner. You have to step forward if you want any success. Even so, that success will be hard to come by.

Bloodlines, Games, Review