Inside the walls, life seems almost normal as workers shuttle resources from mills and farms to their depots, walking down streets lined by rows of cottages, lit merrily from within. Then comes the warning: a horde of infected coming in from the east. Squads of soldiers race from their positions elsewhere in the city to man the battlements. Patrols rush back inside the gates and snipers hunch over their rifle scopes, scanning the eastern approaches.
In minutes, an avalanche of gray zombies will come pouring out of the murk, faster than all the archers and gunners can bring them down. They’ll hit the city walls like a million simultaneous hammer blows. The walls will hold at first, but then it’s race between the scrabbling, relentless claws of the horde chipping away at stone and steel, and the ceaseless gunfire the town’s defenders. If the infected open a breach and reach those happy homes, the entire city will die in minutes, and it won’t matter how many defenders remain alive on the walls to see the lights go out.
They Are Billions is like developer Numantian Games made all my favorite levels from decades’ worth of real-time strategy games into a single game. There’s elements here that go all the way back to Age of Empires 2 and StarCraft, combined with a roguelike-influenced survival game. It’s a game of endless last stands, a fast-paced steampunk World War Z. It’s kind of amazing that it took so long to see a game like They Are Billions come along and make an RTS that distills years’ worth of fan-favorite missions down to their essential elements.
The RTS structure is also what gives Billions its more satisfying and captivating tension over a typical tower defense game. A tower defense level is an endless crescendo—though there might be particularly dangerous waves sprinkled into the mix—and your job is to keep a step ahead of that escalation. Billions, on the other hand, has long movements that alternate between calm, dread, terror, and relief.
Each game of They Are Billions opens on your town center and a handful of troops, marooned somewhere in the middle of a zombie-filled map. To start with, your problems are classic RTS: You scout for the key resources (lumber, stone, iron, and eventually oil) while making sure you have enough food to support an expanding population and enough power for your buildings.
The catch is that each building is a potential time-bomb: Each infected building spawns a small wave of fast zombies rather than the slow shamblers that make up most of the map’s undead population. So your little city can quickly fall apart in a “cascade of failure” as one building’s infection spreads to several more.
So you build walls and towers around those buildings to fortify them against the undead and that will solve the problem of the stray zombies that wander into your perimeter. Any stragglers who get close will claw at the walls until a roving patrol comes to dispatch them. But these lulls and their attendant security are deceptive, because it’s not really stray zombies you have defend yourself from. It’s the hordes that appear on the edges of the map and come hurtling toward your fortifications like an asteroid, with especially monstrous infected in their midst and increasing mass as the herds of stray zombies get pulled along on their wake.
Everything about them is semi-predictable, from their timing to their strength to their angle of approach. But not enough that you can make specific plans. They arrive within certain intervals, but not on an exact schedule. They will have certain levels of strength and mixes of monsters, but you can still be caught flat-footed by a wave that contains a ton of the giant “Chubby” type zombies that can soak tons of damage while they batter at your walls (though it’d be nice, for a change of pace, if there were a zombie game that didn’t imply that there is an inherent monstrousness to fat people that renders them into terrifying monsters come the apocalypse).
Once you get word of an incoming horde, you have minutes to prepare your defenses. But most of your work better have been done in advance, because surviving the later hordes requires both carefully architected defense-in-depth and swift action that concentrates maximum firepower at the point of impact.
It also requires, and this is where I struggle, a restless and deeply pessimistic imagination. Which is funny, because I think of myself as a pretty realistic-to-pessimistic person in general, who has no problem imagining every possible way in which things can and will go wrong in my life. (I once paid a very nice, compassionate professional for an hour each week to help me do less of this, in fact.) Nevertheless, They Are Billions keeps bringing me face-to-face with my tendency toward denial and wishful thinking.
After you defeat a horde, the game seems to settle down for a bit. You can get back to expanding your city, building new walls, clearing out sections of the map, and increasing the size of your army. And during those phases, it’s way too easy to think that you’re ahead of the game now. Even if you know from brutal firsthand experience that the next horde is going to be devastating… well, it’s not here now, is it? And in the meantime, look how much more territory you’ve cordoned off behind new defenses! You’ve got even more towers and soldiers now!
That's what always gets me. The minutes slide by without any attacks and suddenly I’m starting to fill-in the territories behind my outer walls, the places I said I wouldn’t put buildings because they were only there to create space between outer and inner-walls. Suddenly, I’ve turned what was supposed to be a killzone into a new borough. Or I’m building massively expensive advanced buildings that provide tons of resources or new technologies… except they’re so costly that I can barely afford to take advantage of any of their improvements. I end up with unbuilt plans for steel barricades and electric fencing, but in the meantime, I’ve basically surrounded my city with plywood.
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Or I will lavish a vulnerable choke point with care and attention: Pouring resources into creating a deathtrap for the next horde that strikes at that point… only to for the next horde to come from a completely different direction, hitting a position that I somehow overlooked since the first fortifications went up at the start of the game.
And like, I shouldn’t have to learn this the hard way. This is basically why France’s failed Maginot Line became a modern parable: You prepare for a threat you’ve already faced, expecting it to behave in the exact fashion you’ve predicted, and then something different shows up that exploits the opportunity cost of all those self-indulgent pet projects. The under-baked defenses that got short-shrift while you were building your extremely local super-fortress.
In my earliest games, a lot that happened in They Are Billions was a surprise to me as I learned how the game worked. In my last several games, as my city turns into a graveyard, I am not seeing anything new. I’m just seeing evidence that I’ve made the same mistake as before and—for some reason—I keep growing unable to catch myself making them again.
I think it goes back to why They Are Billions is so compelling. A large part of this game is about developing a sense of psychological security. You survive a horde and then life returns to normal. The memory of your last close call fades away and you start trusting that the walls will hold the next time. You scale your preparations based on what you’ve seen before, even though you know on some level that the next time is going to be several times worse.
They Are Billions is an RTS at heart. You need to be using all the tools you’re given. Soldiers should be venturing out into the wilderness to thin the herds of infected before they reach dangerous numbers. You can’t just trust that fully manned towers suffice for defense; you need mobile forces ready to rush to the point of danger. You need to be racing up the tech and economy ladders without bottlenecking your development, because it’s the only way to build a base that’s efficient enough to defend itself. You need to do all of this because walls alone are never enough, but They Are Billions is designed and paced in such a way that it sometimes lets you forget what you're really up against.
So your urgency dwindles and your lags, because you have your walls and they are holding—untested—for now. It’s easy to stop venturing beyond of them because the threats are growing out there in the darkness, and if you confront them head-on you’ll also have to confront the fact that the water is rising higher and faster than you anticipated, and the emergency is in fact already here. But if you stay inside and keep making small improvements, you can convince yourself that you’ve thought of everything, that you’re safe and—if you’re not—you’ll still have time to fix things.
They Are Billions is a fun game because it lets you play around with the stuff of RTS fantasy: perfect clockwork defenses around efficiently-utilized resources that need never run out. But I think it might be a great game because in the space between its crises, it becomes a game about the lies of complacency in which we entrap ourselves. Its zombie hordes and teetering walls become metaphors for all the other things we let slide: the days we skip out on doing anything for our health, the projects deferred, the calls to loved ones we don’t return.
And I get it: we can’t survive in constant “emergency mode”. We need to tell ourselves that the small choices don’t add up to big existential decisions. But eventually they do.
At the center of They Are Billions’ interface is an ever-advancing clock. It’s deceptive, though. Because the truth is that time is always running out.
This is not what anyone expected when Nintendo cryptically teased this morning that it has “a new interactive experience for Nintendo Switch that’s specially crafted for kids and those who are kits-at-heart."
The Labo concept will launch on April 20th with a $70 Variety Kit and an $80 Robot Kit (Nintendo Switch required and sold separately):
“With each Nintendo Labo kit, kids can transform modular sheets of cardboard – specially designed to interact with the Nintendo Switch console and Joy-Con controllers – into creations called Toy-Con. From a piano to a motorbike, a robot and more, each Toy-Con comes to life when combined with Nintendo Switch in different ways. As you build, you will have fun discovering how the technology works, and might even invent new ways to play with each Toy-Con!
For example, you can build a functioning 13-key piano that brings your musical creations to life once the Nintendo Switch console and Right Joy-Con controller are inserted. As you play, the IR Motion Camera in the Right Joy-Con detects which keys are pressed and translates them into unique notes that are heard through the console. You can even take control of your very own motorbike by constructing a functioning set of handlebars, with a Joy-Con inserted in each side and the Nintendo Switch console cradled in the middle. Simply hit the ignition button, turn the right handle to engage the accelerator and watch your adventure unfold on the Nintendo Switch screen, as you race to new destinations.”
The Variety Kit allows you to create two Toy-Con RC Cars, a Toy-Con Fishing Rod, a Toy-Con House, a Toy-Con Motorbike and a Toy-Con Piano. The Robot Kit lets you "build an interactive robot suit with a visor, backpack and straps for your hands and feet, which you can then wear to assume control of a giant in-game robot.” Both kits include Switch software, too. There will also be a $10 Customization Set that includes stencils, stickers, and colored tape.
In 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII, the best multiplayer map is “Sainte Marie du Mont”, better known as “the one with the red house in the middle.” This level sticks to patterns we see across the other maps, but breaks them in a few ways to be more dynamic and memorable than its peers.
The “red house” in the middle of the map, as viewed from the Allied side
First for some background, the way I play Call of Duty affects the way I perceive the maps. Specifically, I play Hardcore Team Deathmatch where weapon are more deadly (one torso shot with a pistol can kill), and where there is no radar without a killstreak reward. I also play Call of Duty with my dad, whose reflexes (and ping) prevent us from executing fast strategies.
Here’s an overhead view of “Sainte Marie” pulled from the game’s UI:
The formula for Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer maps is to have two spawn areas connected by three different routes. These routes then have lateral connections, which create loops, skirmish lines, and opportunities for flanking.
The two spawn structure of WWII levels also leads to spawn flipping. Specifically, there is some respawn logic that determines whether a spawn point is valid. The details of this logic are hidden to players, but it may include proximity to enemies or being within an enemy’s field of vision. The result of this respawn system with this level design is that if one team pushes across the map and starts fighting enemies as they emerge from their spawn, then the team spawn locations will swap, with the Axis now pushing north from the Allies spawn, and the Allies pushing south from the Axis spawn.
On some maps, including “Sainte Marie”, there are several spawn points in the middle, which come into play if the enemy team controls both spawn areas. These spawn points seem to have a lower priority, given that they are in more dangerous areas, so it is a bad sign when you spawn at one.
Additionally, because the only way to earn points in Team Deathmatch is with kills, and kills grant rewards that make it easier to earn additional kills, there is a slight feedback loop that lets the team in the lead extend their lead. On the losing side of one these feedback loops, this means you have to push harder and take more risks to regain a lead. On the other side, players can sit back watching from strong angles, and wait for enemies to step into the open. With Hardcore rules in particular, the player who moves around the corner will die to the player who was aiming at it.
Radio tower and one of the streets that form a skirmsh line across the map
As a function of these mechanics, one general strategy is to push forward past the middle of the map (but not so far as to cause the spawns to flip) and kill enemies as they sprint toward the middle of the map. Even after losing a fight from this forward position, both teams are on similar balance for the next fight, which will occur in the middle of the map. This strategy is only stable so long as teammates don’t cause the spawns to flip, which will mean enemies attacking from behind.
“Sainte Marie du Mont” varies this pattern from the other maps. Instead of an open arena in the middle like “Gibraltar”, or the open street in “Aachen” and “Ardennes Forest”, “Sainte Marie” has a two story building with vantage points overlooking each side of the map. Players can still push past the middle building and fight from those angles instead, but the ability to defend this “red house” reduces the speed with which map control swings from one team to another. Defending red house slows the pace of the match.
Green tower, viewed from Allies side
But it is also possible to bypass the red house with the lanes to either side. If one team has locked down control of the house, the other team may be better off ignoring it and picking up kills in the flanks. The red house is also vulnerable to grenades, with its tight spaces and limited cover. In both of these ways, the red house can become a kind of noob trap. That is, everything about the level’s design and aesthetics suggests the red house is the most important location to control, but actually holding this house and fighting from its windows is less effective than fighting from an advanced position in the streets.
The interior second story of red house
In the best matches on “Saint Marie”, The red house is a pivot for control of the whole map. There are moments fighting from the red house, where it feels like I am clinging to the map and need to hold out long enough for my allies to respawn and reinforce. This scramble for control of one building has a thematic richness to it, and generates stories that are more compelling than any one moment of skillful play.
The first floor of the red house, and its dangerous staircase
Of course, there’s still something odd to me about a multiplayer game where players dress up in period-authentic uniforms and fire period-authentic weaponry to play something more akin to paintball than historical combat.
Check out this incredible shot of Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France. Over the past 600 years, the island has functioned as a prominent monastery (accessible to pilgrims only during low tide), a French military fortification, and a prison.