About three hours into my Civilization VI demo, I declared war on Japan. I had already successfully fended off a barbarian invasion and built my ancient French tribe into a decent society with a pair of cities, a research campus and even a coliseum. But I could tell I wouldn’t have enough time to finish the game, so I figured, what the heck let’s start some beef with 13th Century shikken Hōjō Tokimune. Surprisingly, it worked out pretty well.

Civilization VI is the latest entry in the popular turn-based series, which turns 25 this year. The new game promises to take the franchise in some interesting directions while maintaining the classic gameplay style that fans know and love. That means expanding on some mechanics and rethinking others entirely before wrapping the entire thing up in a beautiful new art style.

The results speak for themselves, and the screenshots above don’t really do the finished product justice. The game looks beautiful, adopting a “chunky” style that borrows elements from Pixar movies and Valve games like Team Fortress 2. From a zoomed-out perspective you can still see all the major details as every unit buzzes with activity, but zoom in and smaller visual flourishes come into focus.

One of the biggest changes in Civilization VI is how you develop your cities. Instead of stacking every major structure on a single tile you’ll need to spread them out across a larger area. That means planning several steps ahead if you want to build anything significant, buying additional tiles and mapping out you city methodically as you progress. As one developer noted, the map itself becomes a character in the game, forcing you to work with it or against it to expand your civilization.

During my demo I experimented with different structures and placements. I built a coliseum on the outskirts of Paris, triggering a short Wonder animation. I also decided to place a campus by the ocean in my second coastal city, Rennes, mostly because I thought students and researchers might be motivated by the view. That was a bit of a stretch, but placing cities and structures by the water can make a big difference. Settling your city on the coast will speed up your development of seafaring technology, and if your city is landlocked you can always build a dock district nearby.

Civilization VI takes a new approach with armies as well, letting you combine them after blowing apart the military stack in Civ V. This time around you can combine two units into one, causing them to move together as a cohesive battalion and allowing you to bulk up your army. I also found it useful to combine military and civilian units so a group of warriors could help escort my settlers across the map.

Diplomacy also gets a big boost in Civ VI. Each leader has a unique personality with set agendas. On top of that, the game adds a secret agenda that’s slowly revealed through interactions during each game. Choosing French leader Catherine de Medici gave me a special network of spies to gain extra information, though I was never able to make much use of what seemed like more like minor gossip than a major diplomatic advantage. To be fair, I may have been missing a few hints, but the game certainly doesn’t make it easy.

As the demo wore on I became close friends with Cleopatra, Egypt’s energetic leader, and formed a cold alliance with Brazil’s Pedro II, mostly because each time I accepted his offer the game crashed. Then I noticed Tokimune’s scouts exploring a little too close to my border and decided to kick the game into high-gear.

At first, I took a few devastating hits as my far-flung soldiers slowly returned to Paris, but soon enough I was driving back the Japanese to their closest city. I sent my troops in for a final assault and in the heat of the moment I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. My time was up. The four hour demo was over.

Civilization VI isn’t the type of game you can really experience in four hours. Even a full weekend of caffeine-fueled gaming might be just barely enough to scratch the surface. There’s a ton to explore and experiment with, leaving fans of the series and newcomers alike with plenty to look forward to when Civ VI arrives this fall.