The New World team outlined settlements and governance in a new blog post earlier, discussing what they are and how they work.
As a reminder, Aeternum, the fictitious world in which New World takes place, is divided into territories. These territories may have their own settlements. Settlements are, “where players live, congregate, craft, trade, work on Town Projects, and support their Faction through Faction Missions.” You can join a settlement by buying a house there.
You can claim a settlement only if you’ve chosen one of the three Factions in the game. Factions will be expanded upon in a future Dev Blog. After choosing a faction, you can join a Company. Once this is done, that company can gain and control a territory.
If this territory is controlled, you can wrest control through waging war (more on this in a future dev article.). However, if the territory is uncontrolled, you can own it by paying a claim fee.
Forts, on the other hand, act as a defense point for a territory. This is what is attacked in war (PvP) and invasion (PvE). Leaders of companies are Governors. As a governor, you’re responsible for upgrading and maintaining the QoL for your settlement.
Settlements can level up by completing town projects. However, if upkeep isn’t paid, or if you fail to repel a corrupted invasion, your settlement can actually level down. You can learn more about settlements here.