Premature Evaluation: They Are Billions


Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. For the first foray of 2018, Fraser’s been trying to save humanity from hordes of peckish zombies and other undead beasties in survival RTS They Are Billions. It’s a classic New Year tradition from a simpler time.

They Are Billions, at first glance, looks like it might have been the result of a night of video game Mad Libs. It’s a survival strategy game with hints of tower defence, a steampunk aesthetic and waves of zombie enemies. It’s a grab bag of video game tropes and genres slammed together that suggest there might be clumsiness in the way the whole thing hangs together. Thankfully, once the undead hordes start pounding at the gates, that suggestion is eradicated. And so, quite often, is humanity.

Numantian Games have draped a suit of rotten flesh over the skeletons of Age of Empires and Settlers, and that might lull you into a false sense of security. Like them, They Are Billions starts off by letting you expand briskly and kill plenty of things without breaking a sweat, but then it starts putting pressure on you. Resource scarcity, increasingly aggressive enemies, gargantuan 1000-strong hordes of ravenous corpses – the breezy early game is quickly forgotten.


In what is currently the sole mode, Survival, the goal is simply to outlast the clock. Depending on the difficulty settings you pick at the start, you’ll need to survive for between 80 and 150 days (it’s actually easier on the longer settings, as the big undead attacks are spread out allowing time for recovery), and even with the lowest density of zombies, that’s no mean feat. Indeed, the undead have consistently kicked my arse.

Making it until the end requires turning a single HQ and a handful of mercenaries into a sprawling colony protected by thick walls, fancy steampunk turrets and a big army. That’s easier said than done when the resources needed to construct this massive citadel are spread out across a map filled with the undead. And expansion has to be properly planned out, as the settlement can only be built inside the energy grid. You have to actively expand the grid by plonking down pylons known as Tesla Towers before you can start building quarries or homes in a new area.


Expansion has to be done thoughtfully, then, but They Are Billions is ultimately a race. Not only do regular zombies slowly start shuffling towards you, attracted by all the noise and delicious survivors, scripted attacks pit you against ridiculously huge hordes that engulf the screen and lay siege to the colony. Wasting even a minute could mean the difference between getting a shock turret operational and losing the colony entirely.

As it clips along, Billions also manages to cut out a lot of the boring lulls where you’re just waiting for another 100 food or a new batch of iron. I’m especially reminded of tower defence games when I’m frantically laying down traps or repairing wall damage as I get ready for the next zombie onslaught. Another big fight is always just around the corner, another disaster waiting for the colony overseer’s intervention. I confess that I’ve been finding it hard to stop mid-game, and yes, I did forget all about both lunch and dinner more than once. And then with every failure I signed up for more punishment, sure that this would be the time humanity survived. It’s moreish, like a giant bag of Twiglets salvaged from Christmas.


Sometimes it can feel a bit like the road to victory requires finding the one correct build order. The time limit, scripted invasions and limited space – rocks, forests and water are all impassable and common – mean that efficiency is king, nudging you down the path to mechanically constructing the colony according to some perfect plan. The random maps and the speed at which everything can just fall apart, however, makes putting together fool-proof plans tricky. Often I find myself just reacting to another big mess, putting out figurative fires all over the place, but that’s also infinitely more engaging than just trying to solve a single build order conundrum.

Despite being the monster equivalent of beige, They Are Billions’ shambling cadavers have quite a bit of personality, or at least interesting behaviours that set them apart from your typical RTS soldier bloke. When not presented with a tasty human meal, they’re dumb and docile, so sneaky ranger mercenaries can take them out without being spotted. But when a zombie spots a snack or hears a loud noise, they’ll investigate, often bringing pals with them. It perfectly captures that scene you see in almost every undead-themed movie and TV show, where a survivor messes up and a zombie slowly turns and peels away from the group, its moans drawing other zombies until, in a matter of seconds, a whole legion of them are suddenly marching towards their fleshy human prey.


Most zombies are your slow, lumbering, decayed type, but fresh zombies can run almost as fast as humans, and then you’ve got your spitting zombies, your big, husky zombies and eventually flying harpies to contend with. And just like you’d expect, they’re all incredibly dumb. Like a flood, they don’t need to be smart. They just need to find a crack in the colony’s defences.

That really is all it takes. If a handful of zombies manage to make it inside the colony and get a few seconds to start spreading their virus, a whole new zombie army will be born right inside the walls. The infection spreads fast, and the only way to stop it is either kill the growing number of zombies spreading it, or destroy the buildings its heading towards. Most of my failures went from fine to bad to cataclysmic in about one minute.


It’s awful. Only when the zombies win, of course. When they try their nonsense and I manage to actually push them back – to hell with the odds – then I’m fine with playing with the deck stacked against me. It makes my few minor victories feel… less minor. But when hours and hours of work get tossed down the drain because one bloody zombie somehow slipped through my impenetrable wall of death, well it’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it?

Bitterness aside, Billions effectively recreates the paranoia that’s so integral to horror, and zombies in particular. How many zombie movies or TV shows delight in revealing just how unsafe a seemingly stalwart sanctuary really is? And while They Are Billions provides survivors with lots of fancy steampunk and retro sci-fi weapons, there are almost always going to be blind spots. If there aren’t, the undead will surely make them. All a zombie has to do is brainlessly take out a Tesla Tower for all the surrounding buildings (and defences) to stop working, allowing the rest of the horde to saunter in.


The steampunk stuff isn’t nearly as considered as the zombies. Sure, it gives the game a whimsical look that combats the oppressive tone of the undead apocalypse, and it also gives us mechanical mercenaries and turrets that can zap whole armies into nothing but gibs, but most of it is window dressing. They Are Billions has been built entirely around the undead, and there’s nothing in here, aside from the aesthetic, that’s inherently steampunk. A story campaign is in the works, so hopefully the steampunk conceit shines through a little better there, but right now it could have been picked out of a hat.

I’ve found myself wondering what are reasonable expectations for the types of rewards you get for failure. There’s no real consensus among roguelikes and survival romps, though there’s frequently some sense of progression even if you fail. You get nothing in They Are Billions. Victory means, if your score is high enough, gaining access to one of the other map types, but dying means starting again from scratch. It’s not even like you can console yourself with the intel gleaned in the previous game, as every map is random. That’s one thing I’d really like to see reconsidered. I can live with random maps, but not being able to replay seeds is frustrating. There are several that I’d like another crack at, so it’s a shame that they’ve all been consigned to the abyss.


Fending off waves of mindless monsters is a Sisyphean task, and if eight seasons of The Walking Dead have taught us anything, it’s that surviving in the zombie apocalypse gets a bit rote after a while. They Are Billions, like AMC’s cash cow, does become a bit predictable, and going through the motions of establishing fleeting colonies over and over again can sometimes be a bit of a slog. Then again, I just played for another two hours in the middle of writing this (all I wanted was a few more screenshots), so maybe I’m just mad for rolling boulders up hills. I mean, it’s a great workout.

I’m not done yet, either. Last night I had some new ideas for some wall designs that lean more into the tower defence side of things by funnelling zombies down into kill zones, but I’m still not sure how easy it’s going to be for me to draw them in. It will inevitably end in disaster, but I’m numb to failure now.

They Are Billions is out now on Steam for £17.54/$22.49/€20.69, and the Humble Store where it’s £17.09.


  1. poliovaccine says:

    Just started messing with this for some reason, even though I never really went for steampunk and my interest in zombies is severely circumstantial if it’s there at all. The setup sounded fun nonetheless, and I was itching to get back into RTS games, can’t say why. But this one is well balanced enough to rope me in, and between this and Empires of the Undergrowth the genre may just have me back indeed.

  2. reasonpolice says:

    Numb to failure now, eh? You’re equipped to start playing Dwarf Fortress!

    But for real, this game is really well put together. I feel like the random map generation is the biggest part of what gives this game its extreme replayability. Adding an option to use the same map seed would, IMO, be detrimental to the game.

    If every map is random, there is no “cookie cutter” or “most efficient” build order. If you could just play the same seed over and over, it would basically be a free ticket to progress to the other maps (I think games are very much lacking in unlocks that require effort nowadays, but that’s another conversation). Also, when you get a good map, it just *feels* good, because you know you have something precious that could be whisked away into the abyss with the smallest oversight. A good map is a good motivator.

  3. Wolfram86 says:

    I really like this game, but I also really don’t. I have about 30 hours in it and have yet to win a game.

    The game itself is very fun. But I’ve made it to the final wave 3 times now and, while I’ve learned new strategies each time, the game is poorly balanced in terms of difficulty over time and none of the earlier swarms even remotely compares to the finale.

    The only issue this creates is that a level takes like 4 hours! So one little mistake, or one entrance that you were waiting on resources to re-enforce gets wiped out, and there goes hours of gameplay with no hope of recovery.

    The RTS aspect of the game is really well done though, and I look forward to more units and buildings getting added to the game.

    • iain mckenna says:

      clearing the map massivley reduces the numbers in the final horde…hope this helps

      send out a sniper or ranger ball of death to clear ideally 100% of the map, it really helps…tho it gets difficult to acquire the resources needed to do that on around map3…which is where im currently stuck:)

  4. SnallTrippin says:

    I used to be a decent RTS player, though I haven’t been into them in a loooong time. I used to play friends and roommates 2v1 and win in SC and that Mythology RTS (I’m bad with names)…I’ve played this game 13 times now, I’m on what looks to be a promising 14th game, and have yet to win (all 100% games) and I’m loving it. One mistake will roll you up, it’s great. A+, I haven’t played a game this many hours straight in a while.

    • geisler says:

      Mythology RTS would be Age of Mythology sir. Or maybe Zeus? That last one being a city builder though.

  5. gabrielonuris says:

    I love when electric things in games are called Tesla “something”!

    Seriously, I love it!

    • Hypocee says:

      And though Tesla coils are obviously a real thing so fair play to Red Alert, these Tesla towers are actually doing what Tesla wanted to/thought he could do with RF energy – broadcasting serious power through the atmosphere over a wide area!

  6. Gills says:

    So torn between this and Northgard.. anyone played both and which do they prefer?

    • DrazharLn says:

      Get ’em both. Play for <2h and return the one you like least?

      It's a brave new world of demos.

    • Krazen says:

      Get this. Northgard isn’t a bad game but it’s very simplistic with less long term appeal.

    • Premium User Badge

      DeadlyAvenger says:

      Definitely this. Bounced off Northgard after a few hours but have now sunk 36 hours into They Are Billions in a few weeks and had many ‘oh poop it’s 2am and I’m still playing’ evenings. I still haven’t unlocked the last map either.

      I’ll hold my hand up and say that I’ve never been very good at RTS games – preferring to focus on basebuilding and building lots of defences (normally a weak strategy in most RTSes) so this game feels like something that has been missing from my gaming life for 15 years.

      At first, I found the game brutally hard but after reading up about some hints/tips I’m now doing much better but there are still situations where a few Zeds get past and I lose the game.

      I don’t know what its long term longevity will be like (but I will certainly the play the campaign and try to complete all of the map types) but I’ve definitely had my money’s worth out of it!

  7. Carra says:

    Billions1, Billions2… We expect better alt images :)

  8. DeFrank says:


  9. Carra says:

    I loved turtling in Stronghold and this looks similar. Bought it and will be my next game to play. Time to try if the Star Fortress layout of my city still works.

    • iain mckenna says:

      its not really possible to turtle in that have to expand for resources or eventually you will be overwhelmed

  10. Alberto says:

    For an Eatly Access game, it seems quite solid and enjoyable (until the moment everything crumbles, but I think players would abandon the game once they beat it).

    The steampunk aesthetic is nice, but I don’t like it. But tuen, I just discovered Creeper World 3 and it satisfies me a lot more in terms of “mindless flood”.

  11. Hypocee says:

    It’s not quite replaying a seed – which I agree with reasonpolice would be a rather iffy feature – but know that the next upcoming feature is a Weekly Challenge mode, for meaningful scores.

    I was talking about this with my brother again the other day. A guy going by AznElite123 has taken up the mantle of The World’s Best TAB player, winning on max difficulty settings, with no pausing, no walls, no turrets, no soldiers, no tech, and various escalating combinations thereof. His runs demonstrate how the first few waves, with the portentious music and countdown timer and minimap icon, evaporate on contact with a modest army. More importantly, even the middle waves he handles by kiting large numbers of zeds in circles before firing lines and by installing what he’s termed “scratching posts” – single squares or short segments of wall in front of outer buildings which the zombies stop to claw against unless there are enough to force them into flowing around.

    It’s an interesting little design conundrum at the intersection of business model, theme, challenge… Even assuming all of it has some satisfying resolution, how much of that should be fixed? On the one hand the game’s presumably early access precisely so that kind of thing gets discovered. However, the survival mode isn’t even the main selling point, and how much obstacle avoidance and target prioritisation can you have before your zombies aren’t zombies anymore? I wouldn’t fault Numantian for going any of the ways forward I see; if the game lives up to some reasonable fraction of its potential I’ll be happy. I’ve just been thinking about it a lot, the last couple weeks.

    • iain mckenna says:

      for me..the tactical and strategy side of an rts, is what makes an rts..good strats are good strats and im sure the devs will learn from these and adapt

  12. heliotropecrowe says:

    How stretched are you during the game? If that one zombie slips through is it your own fault for not building in adequate redundancies or does the pace and pressure not allow the leeway for that?

    • Hypocee says:

      Assuming you’re asking what I think you are, indeed Alice’s blurb mentioned that but this review-ish doesn’t.

      The game’s active pause. You’re free at any moment to hit the spacebar to pause, look around, think and issue as many orders as you like.

      If you’re asking the other interpretation of those words, choosing the difficulty is essentially specifying how quickly and efficiently you need to boom to keep up with the curve. The design intent of the game is to play at a level where you can’t just put everything you want everywhere, leading to tough decisions and improvisations.

  13. Danarchist says:

    This game is one of those that sucks you in unexpectedly. I saw it on the steam store and liked the art style enough to shell out a few bucks for it. I swear I blinked and I realized I had to be at work in 6 hours. It reminds me allot of Rimworld for some reason. Probably because a stupid decision early means you are hosed unless you get really lucky.
    I think the hardest part of the game for me is learning to accept I am going to lose. I still hold out hope each game that “this is going to be the one!”
    One thing I found really interesting is how difficult it is to actually block off an area with walls. There always seems to be a gap between the end of my wall and the water or cliffside etc that I am not really aware of till that one zed slips through and knocks out the power. It’s gorgeously brutal, and I am not a guy that is really into that normally. Glad it’s doing well!

    • DerpySlurpee says:

      A way to check if your walls truly block a gap is to click around any space you aren’t sure are truly blocked with a unit and see if they can walk right through the gap(if they can they will, otherwise take some weird route to get to the destination)

      This can also be used to check if your buildings will block paths within your colony (important in case you need to rotate units from one side of colony to the other side urgently)

  14. killias2 says:

    This game is basically just the defend-the-base style Starcraft map (think Vanilla Terran 3) with bits of Settlers/AoE/Stronghold thrown in. In other words: it’s pretty interesting.

    However, beyond the full blown survival mode, I feel like there is a lot of room for alternative play modes and map types. I guess they’re working on a campaign? There is a lot of potential that remains to be realized with this.

  15. iain mckenna says:

    my only problem is that sometimes i seem to get unwinnable maps, tho maybe thats because im just not very good…who knows