The brilliance of They are Billions

A new RTS title from an unknown developer managed to gain tons of hype from game streamers, some of them StarCraft veterans – the dominating Esport game in the RTS genre.

So why did They are Billions make an impact in these game enthusiasts, when several hundred titles are released from unknown developers every year? (to be fair, Numantian Games had released one title before, but not one I have ever heard of).


The hype comes down to two extremely important game techniques, which this new zombie game introduce to the RTS genre.

A genre-defying pause

Real strategy games are put in two main categories: Turn-based and Real Time Strategy (RTS). In other words, whether the game world progress at all times, so in “real” time, or whether the player decide when to switch the turn, so that an amount of time will pass.

The benefit of real time is immersion – the people and vehicles move around in a real way, just like the view from a tower. Turn-based breaks immersion when units stand still most of the time, and only move in short sequences. But real time introduce a stress factor. Most RTS titles require the player to manage their economy by constructing buildings and researching upgrades at a good timing, at the same time that the player produce and control their army units.

For this reason, strategy often takes a backseat in importance, with multitasking skill and ability to execute standard procedures efficiently being the main characteristics of a good player. The turn-based games allow the player the room to think ahead – to actually plan a strategy in the middle of the game.

Now enter the first hero of They are Billions: The pause button.

Other RTS titles have the ability to pause, but it is often hidden, so that players feel like pausing is not part of the game, but just an option to get some tea and biscuits in the kitchen.

On the other hand They are Billions put the pause button right in on the interface, as a rather large button. It is also keyed to the space bar, just in case clicking with the mouse would be too much effort.

This forces the player to accept pausing as part of the game, and a good option whenever things get overwhelming and multitasking would otherwise be needed.

So the pause hero have effectively created a genre hybrid: a game with the immersion of an RTS, but keeping the focus on strategy and planning from the turn based genre. The best of two worlds, and surely a trick that other RTS games will copy in the future.

Vulnerability and fear

The second stroke of genius is tweaking the game mechanics to emphasize the fear in the zombie genre, by making the player vulnerable.

In a standard RTS game like Starcraft or Age of Empires, they base of the player is quite sturdy. If a few enemy units would walk into the base, it would take them a while to tear down the buildings, time enough that the defender would be able to move his army back.

The most vulnerable part of the player economy is not the buildings, but the workers. A few enemy units could quickly kill several workers, but only if the defender does not react and move them to safety.
Most RTS games are not lost or won because a player was too slow to defend his base, but rather because his entire army has been defeated, and he is left with nothing to defend with. So in some sense, the army is the most vulnerable thing the player control.

They are Billions turn this usual logic on it’s head. Even the most basic army units are quite durable. They can take several hits from the infected, at the same time that they have superior speed and range.

In contrast, the buildings are extremely vulnerable – especially the tent, which is a cheap option to expand the base. Whenever a zombie manage to overcome the defence of a building, the building become infected. This stop the building from functioning, but more importantly, the 4 to 10 inhabitants of the building are now zombies, making their way to the next building!
This very quickly spirals out of control, with each new infected building spawning more zombies inside the base. If the player does not have a sizeable army right next to the outbreak, it is game over.
Placement of units and walls are key, and if there is ever a hole in your defensive line, chances are high that you will lose.

But on the other hand, when the attack has been repelled, there is rarely any lasting damage. Player units are tough, and infected buildings just need a cheap “repair” procedure once any nearby zombies are gone.
I recently managed to save my base in the last moment, at 4 or 5 buildings infected. Extremely close to defeat, but my losses were minimal.

This dynamic is brilliant, because in a usual game the damage to my forces would have been so great that I would not have been able to win the game.
Losing from attrition in a game against AI hordes is not a fun way to lose. Too often RTS players end up in a situation where there is little chance they can win, but the game drag on for a long time before they finally lose.

For this reason, every battle has to be won at a good margin, coming close to defeat mean that you will lose in the long run, and you might as well quit.
But winning a close batte is exciting – still having a chance to beat the game makes it even better. And it’s just that kind of excitement that They are Billions bring to the RTS genre.

The full version of the game and it’s campaign mode is released today, so I’m off to enjoy this masterpiece at Steam.

Adding choice to exercises

This is the second part of the four synergetic gamified methods that I use for teaching. You can read about the first one here: Creating stories for teaching

With the story providing a reason to why the students should learn the theory at hand, the next task is to make the exercises more interesting. This is done by using a flexible structure, that allow students to choose between different exercises, and do them as fast as they want.

I described this earlier in the post Exploration of knowledge, but with my own experience in using the system, I’ve developed it further.

Like before, the system presents the students for exercises on a map. The students work in teams, and they are free to take on any exercise that they have unlocked.
Here is the new part: Everyone start every module by doing a common exercise. This common exercise can be the “minimum” that you require even the least ambitious student to do. When they are done, this exercise unlock new bonus exercises. They can also go back and to other exercises, that they didn’t finish in earlier modules.
structure of exercises

As you can see in the illustration, some of the bonus exercises unlock even more bonus exercises. Now the mid-students, who have time for more than the common exercises, but not enough to do every exercise, have meaningful choices. Do they want to go for exercises that are mainly calculations, some that require reading, well-written arguments or small experimental exercises?

What I like about this structure is the timing. Instead of having students progressing through the theory at different speeds, everyone will be at the same page. Some students have done more exercises in the last lesson, but they can all benefit from homework and a presentation about the theory for this lesson. You might even have students doing presentation about the bonus exercises, so that everyone get the information contained in them.

If you read about the first method, Creating stories for teaching, you will know that each part of the story should end with a major challenge, like an experiment. This is of cause a common “exercise”, as all students must complete it. It is also a good time to end the map, and begin a new one.

Example map, ready to use (in Danish)

So this is what a finished map could look like. You find a fitting map to use as a background, then put in text boxes and arrows on top of it. I use Publisher, but you can use your favorite image editor. Use Word only if you like pain. Then print the maps to the students, so that every group have one.

Since the example is in Danish, let me explain a bit. The text in large font represent the common exercises. Since I use a story in my teaching, they have a headline. The box below is what the students should do: read these examples and solve these exercises at this page.
There is also information about points – XP and GP, since I use Classcraft and award the students points for each exercise.

The arrows point to the bonus exercises that are made available, and the small boxes next to the exercise are used to mark the progress of the students.

A nice trick is to use a dice to pick which student in the group should present their work. If the student can’t do this with confidence, they need to try again. This ensures that everyone get an understanding of the solution that the group produced.

Want to know more? Read here about Gamification of teaching

Creating stories for teaching

I have been having great success in engaging my high-school students (age 16 to 18) in classroom activities, by combining four gamified methods.

Each of these work nicely on their own, but together it’s almost like having a magic wand of motivation. Today I will tell you how to use the first of these methods: the story.


I use a continuous storyline for my classes, one that begin the first day that I teach, until the end of their time with me. You don’t need this kind of commitment to the story, though. I also have a story that I run in 90 minutes for public school visitors, so the story can have any length.

A story gives the player a purpose, some epic meaning to what they do. For this reason, the students should always be the heroes of the story. And their heroic actions should fit together with the knowledge they get during classes.

I divide my stories into three elements: Setting, challenges and objectives.


The setting is the genre – like crime, sci-fi, fantasy – but also the details about the time and area that the story is set in.
An important detail when choosing a setting, is to find an excuse to why the knowledge of the students is so important. Why are they the smartest people around?
They might be the only people around, or maybe most other people do not have this kind of knowledge.

My own storyline is set in a time when nuclear war has wiped out all civilization, and humans live in small isolated communities. I took a lot of inspiration from the Fallout series on this, but changed the location (to Europe), which factions exist, level of technology (to fit with Classcraft) etc.



Now that the students is in a setting, what should they do?
I usually go around this part by examining my curriculum: What is the next thing that the students need to learn – then make a challenge and objective from that.

Example: The students should know about pressure and the force of buoyancy. A simple challenge would be to make a boat. Since I’m teaching physics and not carpentry, they would make relevant measurements on a small floating object instead, and use this to gain insight on how to build a proper boat.

I always try to make the challenge some kind of experiment, and you should do the same if your subject allow it. In other subjects the challenge could be a written product or a presentation.


Every challenge needs to be expressed as an objective in the story. In this case I presented it as an opportunity: Their community have always been cut off by a toxic river. With proper safe boats, they would be able to utilize the river for transportation, and the students would also be able to explore the other side of the river.

A different option would be to present the objective as a threat that needs to be overcome. I used this in the next part, where the river flooded a cellar full of supplies, and the students needed to build a pump. Yes, we did scale models again, but made some calculations on using oil barrels in the pump, which would give the proper volume for the task.

Now, I structure the story such that the students always know about their next objective. They might not know exactly what the challenge is, but they know what kind of knowledge they need to complete it. For this reason, they see all the theory they are taught, and all the exercises they do as preparation for the challenge.
The preparation stage is peppered with small stories of how the students need to earn the trust of the guardsmen to enter a colony (by sharing their knowledge), then they need to do the local wise man a favor, and finally he shares a new piece of theory with them.

I have had students telling me that physics became much more “down to earth”, when they were told stories about a post-nuclear future. Because they saw how the theory could solve problems in their own story.

Now that you know about the first gamified method, you are ready to read about the second: Adding choice to exercises.
Or maybe you want more details about how to Teach with a narrative.

Here are the other methods that I use in Gamification of teaching

Teach with a narrative

What if every student could be the hero in an epic story?

There is no reason why that could not be the case. All the teacher has to do is to frame the teaching into a narrative, and allow the challenges of learning to play into the story.

Is that easier said than done? Read about my experiences teaching physics to Danish high-school students.

Physics in the nuclear wasteland

My first decision was to use a post-apocalyptic setting: Human civilization has been destroyed by nuclear war, and the students are 3rd generation of survivors.


They are among the brightest of their generation, and have been taught all the scientific knowledge that their colony had access to: old books and knowledge passed down through the generations.
Now they have to use that knowledge to protect their colony from danger, and to cooperate with other colonies in order to reestablish civilization.

To get them going, their first objective was to save the colony from thirst. A drought had prevented the collection of drinking water from rain, and the colonist has to rely on the infested water sources they use for irrigation.

What the students then had to do in class was first to prove their knowledge to a nearby colony (by answering questions about electronics), who would in turn trust them to work with their electronic components.
Then they would have to perform several experiments and calculations, preparing them for building an automated system that would purify the water by heating it to 70 degrees, thereby killing all germs.
Finally, they had to make a presentation (given to me on video) describing the parts of the system and the physical theory. This was the requirement for bringing the purifier system back – the neighbor colony would need information to build their own system.

While this took a bit longer than I expected – I cut the work short before they got every part working – it was a nice practice in electronics.

Bringing the story to the classroom

The next part of the story was to be much longer, so I will not be detailing it this time.
But let me share the mechanics behind the story in the classroom:

Use illustrations

I found all of my illustrations at – and I aim to use at least one when I tell the story. They are great at igniting the imaginations of the students.

The drought

Random events

A simple story last longer when you don’t have to tell a new part every time you teach.
But then how do you remind the students what they are doing?
Simple – run a random event.
Make a list of things that could happen at any time in the story, like fighting with raiders or getting a reward from helping a merchant in distress.

Suddenly, raiders attack!

XP, gold and damage in Classcraft

To further motivate the students and add immersion, Classcraft was used. In every random event, and some story events, the students avatars are affected. They can take damage, gain XP or gold. They might even gain or lose action points (AP).

Since Classcraft is not a post-nuclear setting, I had to be creative to explain the visuals (and re-name all text items):
“Magic” powers are rare technology from the war. Ammunition and guns are rare and unreliable, so people use medieval-looking weaponry.


Track progress on a map

Combine the progress in solving problems with the progress in the narrative, by showing problems on a map.

What I have usually done is to have one set of problems that everyone must solve each module, and then present sidequests that the students can spend the rest of their available time on. Classcraft rewards makes sure that students do the sidequests.

Read more about using maps in class at Exploration of knowledge (though I used the similar Classcraft pro-feature “Quests” this time around).


Challenges of knowledge

I find that while learning equations and definitions by heart is boring, it is also an important part of physics. So in order to make it more fun, I introduced some story elements which would challenge the knowledge of the students.

One way to do this is the Classcraft pro-feature “Boss Fight”, in which random students or teams each take a round against the boss, taking or dealing damage by answering questions.

An even better way is to make a trivia card-game, in which each team collects questions and challenge other teams to a duel.
In my story, this kind of duel happens every time the students has to win the confidence of strangers, proving that they are honest seekers of knowledge.

If you liked all of this, I am sure you will love to read more about Gamification of teaching (link)

Got any questions? Make sure to ask them in the comments below

How to fix an overly left-brain student

I have had some frustrating experiences with very talented, but also very grade-focused students, which lead me to analyse the problem and its solution.

So we know from Octalysis that two kinds of motivation are left brain (extrinsic) motivation and right brain (intrinsic) motivation, and the ideal is to have a balance between the two.

What you encounter in teaching is that some students are extremely reliant on either the left or the right brain motivation, to the extend that it causes them trouble, even if they skilled at their subjects.

Today I will discuss the student that is overly left-brain, dominated by concrete and somewhat rational motivations to the exclusion of other motivators.
This student is focused on grades, and sees school work as a means to earn grades and a diploma, bringing access to further studies or a job. The focus will often be on the safe path, attempting to solve any problem exactly the way that the teacher imagined it should be done.
If the student is ambitious or dutiful, she might eventually be worn down by the workload, becoming a joyless person and even develop a depression. Studies by the researcher Skaalvik show that a considerable number of Norwegian students suffer from “performance pressure” related to their studies, which puts them at risk for developing psychiatric issues. Intrinsic right-brain motivation could prevent this fate, but the student will not seek this out on their own, being more focused on her grades (and other duties) than her own well-being.

A less ambitious student would not burn out the same way, but will instead annoy the teacher with a constant attitude of “what do I get out of it?” and “will this affect my grade?”. And he will of cause cut any corners he can while maintaining his grade.
Finally, intrinsic motivated students tend to forget everything they have learned shortly after a test or an exam, getting the grade was all that mattered, and after that the brain cleans out the “useless” information.

No matter the level of ambition, left-brain dominated students can be helped by the same approach. Of cause you need to offer them the antidote of intrinsic motivation: tasks that are interesting or fun because they involve creativity, social relations or curiosity.
For a talented student, this could be doing a different assignment than the rest of the class, one that involves more research and independent thought than standard work.
The critical part is that you have to convince the student that she will get (at least) the same out of doing the fun thing, that she doesn’t simply run a huge risk of failure with this choice.

Then the rational thought of the student will be this: “I can do this boring task, or this interesting task. If both tasks takes the same effort, and gives me the same reward, then of cause I should do the interesting task.”
This is the way to lead a too rational, left-brain dominated student to start getting some intrinsic motivation. With a bit of luck, he will discover that studying can be interesting and fun, and seek out more ways to have fun on his own.

Looking for more content about gamified teaching? Check out the blog post Exploration of knowledge

or all blog posts about gamified teaching:  Gamification of teaching (link)

What is your enneagram type?

The enneagram is a nice system of personality types, that could give you some insightful advice in your personal development. There are several free online quizzes to find your type, like this one:

You can think of the type of the Enneagram as ponies.


Post your type name now (use the cheat-sheet below if you are unfamilliar with the characters of My Little Pony):

  1. Princess Celestia
  2. Big McIntosh
  3. Applejack
  4. Rarity
  5. Twilight Sparkle
  6. Rainbow Dash
  7. Pinky Pie
  8. Trixie
  9. Fluttershy

The tube race Octalysis

Imagine yourself in a futuristic race inside a tube. The tube twists and turns at every point, and you try to follow it with your hovering vehicle. It seems inevitable that you will make contact with the sides. And now you really wish the tube has some soft bumpers…


Now this situation is a metaphor for any task, job or project you will attempt to deal with. The four sides of the tube – up, down, left and right – corresponds to four inefficiency catastrophes. And fortunately, every pitfall has a series of bumpers that can save you from that grisly fate.



The top bumpers will save you from burn-out, and giving up on the project. They are called white hat core drives, and go by the names of core drive 1: Epic meaning and calling, 2: Development and accomplishment and 3: Empowerment of creativity and feedback.

On the bottom are the bumpers that will save you from procrastination, and never getting started with the project. Their names are core drive 6: Scarcity and impatience, 7: Unpredicatability and curiosity, 8: Avoidance of loss. Collectively they are known as the black hat core drives.

The left side bumpers have the power of focusing your energy to the essential tasks, not wasting valuable time on useless details. Some of them has been mentioned already. Yes, some core drives can save you more than one time! They are great that way…
Core drive 2: Development and accomplishment, 4: Ownership of possession, 6: Scarcity and impatience. By the way they are “left brain” drives.


Finally the right side is for you too-efficient people, who forget to stop and think if your idea really is the best way of doing the project. Saving you from over-focusing on a single task, and let you remember the greater picture. In other words, it will broaden your mind

Core drives 3: Empowerment of creativity and feedback, 5: Social influence and relatedness, 7: Unpredicatability and curiosity.
And… you guessed it, they are the right brain core drives.

So now that you know the cures, you should start analysing your problems. What is the problem that is limiting you in your current project? Or maybe the problem isn’t you. You are motivated and efficient. The problem is your students, your clients or your employees.
Well, same thing applies. Identify which problem is the main devastator of efficiency, and work to apply the cure.

Oh, did I forgot to explain the core drives in detail? And how to apply them to a project? Well, all of that information can be found at the main page of Octalysis, nifty link here:

Looking for other great posts about gamification of education?
Go to Overview of the blog