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They Are Billions has captured attention on Steam, but what’s the appeal?

Impressions on Steam’s top-selling RTS

They Are Billions has been floating in the top ten on Steam’s list of best-sellers for a solid month now. SteamSpy has it selling well over 400,000 copies. On the surface, the game looks like a straightforward blend of resource-gathering and tower defense. But play the game for more than an hour or two, and you’ll find a white-knuckled experience that drags you back for more.

But do you actually want to play a post-apocalyptic zombie game set in a steampunk universe? When I heard that description, my eyes rolled so hard it may have been audible, but trust me here. It works.

In They Are Billions, players gather resources, set up defenses and do their best to stay alive from day to day. Should a zombie make it through the wall it will begin to attack your structures until they pop like a pimple, sending exponentially more zombies moving throughout your base. Turning the tide after such an outbreak isn’t impossible, but it leads to the kind of desperate, all-or-nothing engagements that are usually reserved for the late rounds of highly competitive RTS games.

Then it gets worse, by which I mean that it gets even better.

The larger overworld is populated by massive herds of zombies. You’ll get a warning and a little time to shore up your defenses when they’re spotted. But ultimately an entire horde of them will crash against your settlement like a wave. As the game progresses there can be thousands of zombies in a single wave. The developers say that their engine supports up to 20,000 units at a time and, from the looks of what’s being posted on YouTube, I believe them.

I’ve spent a few hours getting the hang of it, and what’s interesting is how efficiently the developers teach players how to succeed. There’s no ponderous tutorial, just larger and larger waves of enemies on the horizon. Carrying you along is a well-designed, highly functional user interface that is very good at giving you feedback.

Don’t have enough food to recruit more settlers? The pop-up menus can easily show you that if you hover your mouse over the build button. Why do you want to build a Wood Workshop in the first place? Read the simple description to find out. Why can’t I build the Hunter’s Lodge where I want it? There’s adequate feedback right there in front of your eyes, in real time, while you’re trying to place it on the map

Every run of the game’s survival mode defaults to an ironman setting, so if things go pear-shaped you simply start over from scratch. That lends the game a roguelike quality, and a level of replayability that is uncommon in the RTS genre.

The most interesting mechanic for me so far is how power is managed in the game. Leveraging the steampunk theme, everything on the map is connected wirelessly. As your settlement grows, you’ll need to generate a larger pool of power by building more generators. To get the power where you need it — open areas of the map that you’ve cleared out with your military units — you need transmission antennas. Once those antennas are in place you need to be ready to defend them, as well as all the buildings that you’ll build out from them over time.

As your borders expand, it’s a tense race to get your defenses stood up before the next wave is on you. Building in multiple lines of defense makes sure you’re not risking an outbreak. It’s a surprisingly strategic experience bolted to an interesting resource management game.

They Are Billions is, above all else, a very confident game for an Early Access title. The team at Numantian have simply set players lose to figure things out for themselves and, if sales are any indicator, it seems to be working out well for them.

The game is available now for $24.99. The only playable game mode is survival, but a campaign is coming soon. As mentioned above, the game is still in development and no final release date has been set. In my experience it’s been very stable so far, and plays well at the highest settings and with resolutions up to 4K.

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