I'm liking .86 for being sparser on the goodie huts and for not allowing champions to rule the day, and for toning down easy to access mobility. Overall it made me rethink what I was doing.
That said, I'm still seeing dominant strategies after playing a few games. Definition: strategic dominance (commonly called simply dominance) occurs when one strategy is better than another strategy for one player, no matter how that player's opponents may play.
I like games where the best strategy is reactive based on environment and circumstance. I'd like to go in ready for war and find a super defensive player who completely makes me go down another path or lose.
Here's the breakdown by looking at the smaller choices of why conquest is the dominant strategy.
Strong Units vs Weak Units
Units gain small advantages or lose small advantages with traits, but gain or lose cost significantly. For instance, militia cost 35 base. By adding "weak", the cost drops by 15, which is 43% discount. Attack and HP only drop 1 (about a 13% loss). By adding conscripted, the cost drops to 10 points, a further 50% reduction by only losing 10% of initiative. In comparison, switching from a club to staff only saves 5 points but decreases attack by 3 points, which can be a 50% loss or more. So the best units have great equipment and horrible traits. Also, gildar upkeep is based on cost, so weak units are more upkeep effective.
Champions vs Units
For military damage, champions now are less important. A starting champion might have 3-12 attack or so, while a very weak clubman will still have 18 attack. Units are also now just as fast if not faster than champions. Champions also split XP, and use the same mana pool, so one champion per army is ideal.
Champions are still great for picking up items, gaining buffs for the army, questing, and otherwise. So now they play two different roles, but units are now the bulk of the damage and since weak units are more efficient than strong units, weak units should be produced in quantity. Early weak units also help control the countryside faster.
Magic vs Units
Magic has several prerequisites. You need sufficient mana. Harvesting mana from shards requires researching the technology (15 or so turns at the start), plus building the node (20 turns or so at an outpost), and then waiting for the mana to accrue before you will have a significant source of mana. In addition, magic is best used by higher level heroes who have selected the path of the mage.
In comparison, on turn 1, I can found a city with 10 production that can create 1 weak militia a turn. By the time a magic strategy focused player has gotten up to speed, I could have several significant armies roaming the countryside.
That said, right now fireball evens the playing field. Fireball is still a 1 turn cast, cost about 20 mana, and destroys pretty much any produced unit in one hit. Taking that spell out of the equation and blizzard, though, and magic will always lose vs units as an overall strategy.
Few vs Many Cities
Few cities are supposed to benefit from levels faster, being easier to defend, concentration of resources via outposts, etc, but fail to the many city strategy due to growth rate. Buildings like the inn and the pub provide static bonuses to growth. The bonus from buildings can easily double the base prestige growth when you have 10+ cities, and it means that the grain cap is less of a problem, plus multiple cities produce MUCH more. Multiple cities in conjunction with trading also provide a highway system that allows for quick mobility not provided by fewer cities. Not to mention, more cities deny your opponents resources and expansion opportunities.
High vs Low Tax
The best strategy is to maintain 0% tax rate as long as possible to maximize production and research. Gildar just functions as a cap for maximum armies and buildings. If you avoid the marginally beneficial buildings such as barracks, lumber mill, workshop, etc, then you will not need to tax, and if you build weak units, even less so. Plus, less taxing allows faster research which allows for more gildar which allows for less taxing.
Civic vs Warfare vs Magic Research
The best technology is the trading tech which provides for significantly increased mobility. The warfare tech for greater army size and for squads, etc are also great. Magic and questing is slow to get anywhere good, and most other civic techs only help big cities to exist and function.
Conquest vs Diplomacy vs Questing vs Spell of Making
So, the conclusion is that conquest beats all. Diplomacy requires teching to Alliances, and also having good relationships. Good, but slow. Questing requires all sorts of things like a strong army, completing all the quests, and teching far down the tree (though not as far as diplomacy). Spell of making requires about as much teching as diplomacy, plus access to resources and lots and lots of production plus time.
Conquest, though, is quick. Weak units can easily swarm the map, create lots of cities, take all the resources, and can't be repulsed because there is no way to be defensive. The only caveat is fireball (which the computer doesn't seem to get/use).
I think it all comes down to weak units beating out strong units in terms of efficiency and also multiple cities being a double win mechanic.
To compare to Civ5, a player with an army of scouts would have a difficult time taking even the least well defended city. Plus, investing in scouts so much would put the player at risk of losing the culture/tech/expansion wars. Also, multiple cities in Civ create a burden. I would sometimes stop wars because I had too many cities and the internal strife was bringing everything down.
So, either reduce the value of negative traits or get rid of them. Then create more benefits to fewer cities or more detriments to multiple cities. This is especially important before multiplayer is introduced. I'd hate if this became a game of swarming. It's also frustrating that to see the latter parts of the tech tree, I need to pursue non-dominant strategies.
Has anyone had a different experience and also can win games within 40-80 turns on medium size + hard?