First Impressions: They Are Billions (PC)

They Are Billions is an RTS/building simulation game in early access on Steam.  It was released in early access in December 2017, but I got the game about a week and a half ago.  I have been very hooked since, and already have over 30 hours played.  The game has issues, and I can see why there is a bunch of controversy in the games’ Steam forum, but overall it’s a great and really addictive game.  I’ve been playing it a lot and mostly really like the game, so I thought I should write up my thoughts.

In short, They Are Billions is a base-building-focused strategy game that runs in pausable real time.  I’ll discuss the base building first, since it is the main focus here.  As in building sims like The Settlers, Tropico, or to a lesser extent Caesar, the core of this game is building up a large base and dealing with the nested requirements therein. Unlike a standard RTS such as Starcraft or Command & Conquer, but like those aforementioned titles, here resources do not run out, the challenge is getting all of the ones you need to cover the costs of everything you are building.  The game has many resources and statistics to consider, and all buildings require not only a build cost, but also an upkeep cost in several resources. So, you need to keep scaling up every element of your base in order to expand and go up the tech tree, which requires a lot of space and planning. Fortunately you can pause at any time, and that is key for base-building purposes! I don’t love management sims like The Settlers as much as I do traditional RTSes, as learning and managing this kind of games’ complex, nested trees of building and resource dependency are not my favorite thing, but this game balances it well: it has more than enough depth to be hard to master, but is not as complex as some in the field, thankfully.  There are “only” five resources, for example.

In each game you start out with a town center, four ranger units, and a soldier unit. You always start in the center of the map, and explore out from there to see what your environs look like, while also starting to build your base. The five main resources are gold, wood, stone, iron, and oil. These resources each start out with a cap, for 2000 for gold and 50 for the others, that you can increase by building Warehouse buildings.  Each warehouse increases the maximums by 2000 for gold and 50 for each other resource.  Oil is only used lategame, but you’ll need the others earlier.  In order to get those resources you will need to cut or mine them from points on the map where they are available.   You need to expand your base to do this, but you can only build within a fairly close energy range, like a mid ’90s RTS or such.  So, you need to build Tesla Towers to expand your energy range.  Also like in a traditional RTS there are some buildings which build military units, and others which research new technologies.  There aren’t as many unit types as you might expect in this genre, though, but I’ll get into that later.

Building a base in They Are Billions is not as simple as just building buildings and then forgetting about them as you might in a standard RTS, however.  In addition to resources, you also need to manage four other important numbers: your current population size, the number of available workers you have, and the amounts of available food and power that are free.  Everything you build in this game has a maintenance cost, so for building, the most important thing to know is what is available for stuff you haven’t built yet, not what is tied up maintaining things.  That is what these numbers quantify for you.  At the beginning of the game, the only resource you are getting is gold, which generates from your population, ie, from taxes presumably. You’ll need to build those sawmills and quarries and such to get the other resources, as I said, as well as several different types of buildings to get food, mills for power, and more.  Again, as in The Settlers and such mineral deposits do not run out, but nor will this complex tree of nested dependencies ever not keep costing you money.  Residential buildings make you money, but everything else, including defense towers, quarries, farms, and such, all cost money and resources.

If you’re out of available workers, food, or power,  you are in trouble and cannot build anything until you solve that problem.   You can suspend quarries in order to free up a few workers, if that’s your problem, but cannot do this for other kinds of buildings that use workers such as food production buildings, warehouses, or what have you.  So, be careful with what you build and watch those numbers, and try to not let them get low.  So, this game is all about continual expansion, and to expand your base you need to build more of everything — more farms or fishing shacks for food, more power plants or mills for power, more quarries and sawmills for wood, stone, and metal, more warehouses, markets, and such to reduce costs and increase income and resource maximums, and more.  Every one of these elements requires the others to function, so you need to scale everything up proportionately.  A lot of these buildings are large, too, so I can definitely see that planning out your base ahead of time is a very good idea if you want to do well.  I’m not any good at this yet, though; maps are so broken up by forests, lakes, and such that it’s hard to fit everything in neatly.

A good player would quickly and steadily expand their base, never letting themself get to a point where you’re completely out of free food, workers, or power, since in such a case you’re frozen and have to disable or destroy a building in order to get your base moving again (unless it’s workers and you solve it by letting some troops get killed, but that’s not a great solution obviously.) I’m far from a good player, as is usual in this kind of game once I get a good base set up I like to sit in it and not keep expanding like you should to really do great at this game, which works for a while but does not lead to victory;  if you don’t expand enough you will die, as you’ll run out of something and solving that problem mid-game is very difficult.  If you have low gold income for example, you can’t just solve that easily, you need to have planned better early on.  Even so, I really like They Are Billions, base-building is a lot of fun!

Building your base is the main focus of the game, but you do also control combat units. You don’t need to manage peasants or such, once you build a building they do their thing automatically, but the army does need to be controlled. You only have five or six types of units you can build, so far at least in the games’ development, but it’s a decent variety and the several types of towers add to your ability to defend your base as well.  Each unit is quite different and has a place.  Still, compared to other RTSes your combat options are limited.

Additionally, the unit-control element of this game still needs work — the pathfinding is REALLY terrible, and trying to target a specific enemy may or may not work, which can be a big problem. U nit pathfinding is HORRIBLE and your troops will run straight into corners instead of going around them from the start, first. Also, figuring out exactly where you can and can’t get through with troops is not clear and is a big trial-and-error issue. Can I, or the zombies, get through that gap, or can’t I? You’ll pretty much just need to move a unit to the point to see if they start moving the right way or way off in the opposite direction. During battle, trying to give movement orders is finicky because of this, as it’s way too easy to accidentally send troops the wrong way, maybe dooming the whole colony as a result. It also can be quite hard to get your troops to attack one specific zombie in a group, if you need to do that to save a building. Buildings can only take a relatively few hits before they become infected and spit out a bunch of new zombies themselves, so this can be a huge issue. I really hope that they refine the games’ pathfinding and unit control systems before the final release. You really need to micromanage units. At least you can pause, but really, the combat side of the game has issues.

Making things worse, apart from the final wave which hits you from every direction, you’ll never know exactly where enemy waves will hit your base. Now, during the 100 days of each default-length game, at certain preset points waves of zombies attack you from a random direction, north, south, east, or west. The number and types of zombies scale up in each wave, and they’re pretty much the same in every game, so you know what you will be facing every time; the problem is trying to survive it. Zombies start from a point along one of the four sides of the map, and then take the most direct path from there to your command center. But unless you have explored the whole map and figured out that pathing, which is unlikely until deep into the game because units move somewhat slowly and clearing out zombie groups takes quite a while, figuring out where they will attack can be an exercise in frustration. I’ve lost games more than a few times because I reinforced the wrong wall before a wave, or sent my troops to the wrong place, because it can be nearly impossible to guess this correctly and you need troops in position to have any chance at stopping most of the waves! I really wish the game would give a much better indicator of where zombie waves were going to go, it’s kind of unfair as it is.

So far They Are Billions has only two modes, survival and a once-a-week scored survival challenge mode.  In survival mode you control a human colony, and try to survive the zombies in that area. Maps here are randomly generated, though you do aways start in the center. This survival mode is not endless, however — if you manage to survive 100 days, you win. Over the course of those 100 days waves of zombies attack you. Additionally, the map is full of zombies you can go out and try to kill, or deal with when they get close to your base. You will need to kill some in order to expand, or to reduce the number of zombies that will get attached to waves or attack you during a wave. It’s a simple formula, but it works very well and leads to great tension as you try to get a base that will be able to withstand the next wave.   This is a very, very hard game, but you can adjust the difficulty in the regular survival mode in several ways, including by changing the length of the game, number of regular zombies on the map, and more.  It’s great that the game has these options!  The game defaults to a fairly high setting, but it does feel best balanced there; longer games at easier settings can get dull, as you wait a long time for the game to finally get tougher… when you may well get, after several hours, absolutely crushed on the final wave if you weren’t prepared enough.  It is easier, but the default difficulty is probably more fun.   In addition to the survival mode, the developers say that they are working on a campaign mode, but so far no information has been released about what it will look like, so it’s too early to say anything about that.

Another issue with the game is that luck plays a significant factor. First, the layout of the map is always random, and where those zombies, resources, and potential choke points are will determine a lot in every game. Second, zombie waves attack from random directions as I said, and which way they come from often will decide if you can stop them or not, not only for those times that I defend the wrong wall, but simply — do they come at a point you have well defended, or your weakest wall? You’ll never know for sure and this can get very frustrating, as you lose games you were doing well because of random factors like that. Additionally, at four points in each game you get a choice between two people for mayor of your colony. These are essentially random bonuses, as each mayor gives you a thing. Some give you a free military unit or two, some resources, some walls or a building, some a specific tech-tree advance; you never know, and some are MUCH better than others. Being given a great mayor bonus can be a huge boost to a game, such as the time that midgame I was offered a mech unit, which is fantastic and the best unit in the game; I was doing well, but wasn’t even CLOSE to that in the tech tree, so it helped me immensely! In fact, to date that game is the one I got the farthest in. That was fun, but it’s not repeatable. These random elements do keep you coming back, as you hope for better luck the next time, but I’d rather have it be about skill and not luck.

As for the other issues with the game, looking at the Steam forums it’s clear that many people are frustrated by the slow pace of game updates, which makes sense; it’s been in early access for months now, and few of the major issues are any different, and that single player campaign is still not in the game either. I’m fine with it taking a while to do it right, myself, but fixing up the interface and improving on quality-of-life issues like pathing, that sometimes the game doesn’t recognize mouse clicks, and such should get priority. I’m sure it’s hard, but the game needs it. Still though, I’m loving this game, the mixture of RTS and bilding simulation works really well and both elements, exploring around with troops to kill zombies and building up a base, are great fun. I still haven’t beaten the first map, but I’m sure I will eventually… because this is a great and really addictive game. I hope the developers keep working on it and add a lot more to the game. It’s fantastic as it is, but it can get even better.

But really, They Are Billion’s biggest problem is repetition.  By design, this is a very repetitive game.  You always play as humans, fighting zombies that surround you.  You’ll never fight other humans, there is only one race to play as, and games all follow the same outline.  Outside of the random factor of the map and where zombie waves come from, every game plays pretty similarly, as you build your base going on the same tech tree, expand, wait for waves that roughly attack at the same times every game (though, again, from random directions), and such. This is a great game and so far I’m not bored of it, but They Are Billions doesn’t have the variety you might expect from a great RTS.

Still, overall so far I love this game and am hooked to it. I’ve been playing it some almost every day, though I don’t know how long I will continue to play it for.  Due to the repetition I doubt that this is a game I’ll be playing all year, like I have with other RTSes in the past, but despite its problems, 30 hours in I would say that They Are Billions is a really good, addictive game that is one of the most original and best-executed ideas in the RTS genre in a while.  It has a ways to go, but the promise here is great.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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