You can choose between 3 game modes: single player against AIs, pass-and-play multiplayer (alternating on the same computer), and online multiplayer. The number and difficulty of computer players is configurable. Each player chooses a 'tribe' with a specific design, a typical landscape and a typical pre-researched technology. A normal world map for Polytopia consists of 16×16 square tiles, shown in an isometric view from above. The maximum size is 30×30, which is small even compared to map sizes in the 1991 game. Initially only the 5×5 square of the world map centered on the player's capital city is visible; everything else is hidden under cloud cover. More squares can be revealed by moving the initial unit close to them.
Each city occupies exactly one square, but the surrounding squares are associated with it. The level of a city is written next to its name. Below the name there is a bar with a certain number of segments which start gray but turn blue from left to right when the player builds improvements on nearby tiles (at most one per tile) to add population. (The improvement stays in the landscape.) When the entire bar is blue, the city levels up, and the bar is reset to all gray and gets an extra segment. When a city levels up, there is a choice between two gifts, often between a high-scoring but otherwise useless one and a very practical one.
The player starts with a single unit in the capital. Every map tile can hold only one unit. A new unit can be 'trained' (purchased with stars) in any empty city whose bar still has space for another black dot. The basic stats of a unit are Health (how much damage they can take before dying), Attack (how much damage they can dish out), Defense (how much damage they can parry), Movement (how far they can move) and Range (how far away they can attack).
The game has a three-level research tree consisting of 25 technologies that can be 'researched' (purchased with stars). The price goes up with the number of cities the player holds.
Many technologies enable new building and unit types, but there are also other effects
There are numerous ways for the player to add victory points to their score. This is most relevant for the standard game mode, in which the game is over after precisely 30 turns and highest score wins.
Comparison to the other most typical civ-likes