Black & White combines elements of several different genres into one multifaceted real-time strategy game. The player becomes an ethereal overseeing presence, a true god in the game world of Eden, who looks after the tribes of various villages. Each tribe in Eden offers its spiritual power to the god it chooses to worship in the form of "prayer energy." It is this power gained from the followers' belief which allows the player to perform miracles to influence the world of Black & White. When all is said and done, a population of devoted worshippers is by far the most crucial resource for any deity.
Each god in Eden chooses a familiar, a creature that begins as a fairly normal animal but can grow into a giant, powerful beast. Beginning gods can choose a tiger, a cow, or an ape, but other animals become available as the game moves on. Each creature develops individually, learning new behaviors by watching the actions of its master and reacting to the treatment it receives. Players can teach their great beasts to punish unworthy followers, help the tribe with magical gifts of food or wood, and defend the land against rival gods and their equally dangerous familiars.
Gameplay takes place across a series of islands, each of which is home to different tribes that can be converted to worship the player and bolster his or her power. Each island offers different puzzle-solving and strategic challenges, most of which the player can take on at his or her own pace. Many challenges involve learning new skills or helping a poor tribe member out of a minor unfortunate predicament, while others may call on the player to convert entire enemy villages. Completing some challenges earns the player new miraculous powers, while other victories serve to move the story forward.
For players with an Internet connection, Black & White supports both competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes. A messaging system allows players to communicate with text and real-time "phone calls" from within the game. If players allow Black & White access to their communication software, the game can re-label followers in their tribes with the names of contacts taken from their e-mail address books.
Black & White was developed by Lionhead Studios, whose founder Peter Molyneux is considered the patriarch of the "God Game" genre and is particularly respected for 1989's Populous and 1997's Dungeon Keeper. Perhaps predestined in these earlier works, the primary theme of Black & White is that there is no right or wrong way to play. Some will become benevolent deities, blessing villages with supplies and protecting worshipers from harm, while others will find it more effective to smite a few of the lazier workers and gain attention through more destructive means. As long as the villagers continue believe in the player's divine power, that power will continue to exist.