(Forgive the research paper-wannabe structure of this post. Skip to the proposal if you want to cut straight to the point.)
Though I would love if this was added to the actual game, I know this more in the realm of a mod.
There was a nice thread that was lost in that forum shuffle awhile back. We discussed allowing players to play the game without needing to be tied to cities. Players would act as mercenaries by working for other faction using diplomacy and bartering for items/units/tech, and use exploration more to their advantage to find items/gold/quests. So instead of building cities as the only means to progress into the game, players can also use diplomacy and exploration as their main drive.
Right after reading the OP I went to the bathroom. You know what happens when you have a nerdish idea stuck in your head while taking a big one. I realized not only how kickass this could be, but how it could “easily” be implemented with a few “simple” additions.
Currently, playing without cities means there is no way to gain research points (unless you have meditation). It is virtually impossible to win with any victory condition.
It isn’t a complicated one: à Allow players to gain research points without the need of cities.
Mind you, I think playing without cities should be a lot harder than with cities, and should act almost as a higher difficulty setting to give players a challenge…and a fun and different game play option as well.
Once there is a way to gain research points outside of cities, the rest falls into place. Players can advance in diplomacy and adventure (and maybe dabble in some magic). This allows the player to diplomatically interact with other factions in order to trade for items/gold/tech in a mercenary fashion. The player is completely free to start exploring the map with an elite group of adventurers/mercenaries that the player has assembled via recruiting heroes/champions and acquiring units from factions with diplomacy.
How this is done exactly can be done in many creative ways. The most simple would be to allow players to randomly find “lost scrolls” (or via quests) that give them a small amount of research points to use on techs. Something even more concrete (and perhaps essential in order for this to work), allow players to use essence at an ancient ruin in order to ‘absorb’ the ‘mental imprints’ of the past inhabitants. This gives players reliable way to gain research.
Also perhaps allow players to choose a single low tier tech at the sovereign creation screen. Then city less players can start the game with their feet running. Eventually city-less players will need to start interacting with city-based factions so they can attain new techs and gold from them as mercenaries.
The way I see it playing it out, at the start of the game, players goes straight into exploring and leveling up, instead of building cities. Hopefully players bought a tech at the creation screen to start off with (best would be something in adventure or diplomacy). The player then starts doing newbie quests, finding lost tech, killing newbie mobs and going to other factions to barter in their loot (and maps) for additional units, treaties and tech. NPC faction AI should recognize that the player has no cities and treat them slightly different (a bit condescending , but more relaxed and less cautious). In this state, the city-less player is at a big disadvantage since they are beholden to other factions. They produce nothing on their own… and I think it should be fun J
Eventually the player would start doing larger quests, amassing more elite units and gathering small bands of champions, and conducting larger scale operations (relatively). A ‘conquest’ victory is out of the question and probably ‘spell of making’ as well, but I see a ‘diplomacy’ or ‘master quest’ as good possibilities. Maybe add in a new victory mode called ‘annihilation’ that is triggered when all other sovereign/factions (or a certain percentage or type) are destroyed. This is something a rampaging elite mercenary army (supported by larger paymasters) could accomplish.
In a multiplayer 1v1, the player without cities should get steamrolled if they try to go up against the other player. But it will create an interesting ‘cat and mouse’ game. With many NPC factions, one player can hide behind a NPC sponsor(s), while the other player tries to destroy him and his paymasters. Or the city-less player forgoes trying to do any sort of military operation and dedicates winning via master quest…constantly running away from the other player. So now there is a situation where one player is desperately trying to complete quests, while the other player hunts him/her down across the map in order to stop him from finishing the quest (can you say epic).
This might be too much to balance perfectly, but I say just avoid trying to balance it all together and simply make playing without cities much harder (but still interesting). Again this might just be mod material, but I can see it “easily” being added to the game if it becomes popular enough.