You can send your people to settle areas of the world, fight the enemy, destroy crops, build castles for defense, kill people or burn down settlements. You can play the game in Conquest mode, which consists of nearly 500 fixed worlds, or you can customize the game and modify more than 60 game parameters or design your own worlds. In the Conquest mode, you are always the good deity, but in the Custom mode, you can play an evil god. The Custom mode also allows you to play an opponent via modem or datalink.
The terrain in Populous varies from world to world, ranging from hot deserts to lush forests to ice masses. You can control the natural disasters on these worlds and destroy your enemies with such catastrophes as earthquakes, fires, volcanoes and floods.