With a bizarre feeling of deja vu, I went back and reread my post on the GC2 forums (oddly enough, from August 24th 2006) in which I listed some constructive criticism which Stardock seemed interested enough in (Kryo replied nearly immediately)
Oddly enough, almost all of the shortcomings I felt were inherent in GC2 and I felt lingering in what I could see of Elemental (after all, we Beta testers did not get a taste of the "real game" until release), I can see now. I still have similar concrete suggestions now, for Elemental, and hope that these might be looked upon with an open mind.
First: The Map, Terrain, and Movement. In GC2, one main shortcoming was the uniform map, due mostly to its space theme setting -- there were no terrain variations which yielded strategic choices (e.g. chokepoints e.g. pathing decisions). I feel that Elemental is not much better. In most other games of this genre, attention to the map and its features is key, for many reasons; in Elemental, one need mostly look at the "glowing bits", and treat the rest as a relatively uniform, if cosmetically varied, surface. Why? Two factors. Factor one: Terrain features (grassland, forest, swamp, hills, etc.) do not appear to play a significant factor in modifying a unit's movement, nor do they play a significant factor in any other aspect of the game except for defensive bonuses (whose exact workings are unclear). Factor two: Most units in Elemental move at a uniform speed, and most apparently do not have flags for being affected by terrain. This is different in most other land-based strategy games, and for good reason: they give the player options in making interesting strategic choices. Because Elemental lacks these in this context, it becomes, in my opinion, that much more lackluster.
In games like Civilization or Dominions, it matters a lot which terrain tiles (e.g. jungle or swamp, grasslands or hills, etc.) are in your zone of control; in Elemental, it doesn't seem to matter at all. In fact, the only real use for zone of control that I can see is that it lets you own shards. Thus Elemental's map is very much like GC2's: a wide open, uniform field, whose sole characteristics were "resources" (shards). As I tried to describe in my post from August 2006, this detracts from the game's strategic elements and makes it less fun.
(1) Make terrain (and not merely terrain enhancements, such as fertile land) matter to economy, city building, questing, neutral spawning, and the chance of yielding special events, e.g. hills will have a greater chance of harboring metals but will rarely yield food. This might require reworking the resources system (e.g. making resource requirements and units of measurement larger and more dispersed). By that I mean it might make it easier to count if "food" increments were increased by 10, so that for example a hut required 10 food, and so on; I would suggest making farms provide 20 food (or 2 food in the current system) and letting grassland tiles provide 0.25 food (or less in the old system), forest tiles provide 0.25 materials, hills provide 0.25 metal, and swamps provide a slight chance of something interesting to spawn. One could also imagine that with the correct technological advancements (e.g. in civilization or adventuring), one could glean additional boni, e.g. with hills, there might be a chance of finding "caves" if Adventure Level X is unlocked, etc., while plain grassland should yield an additional slight food bonus...
(2) Give movement bonuses (for certain units) on certain terrain types and penalties on others. This should apply predominately to the strategic map, but also to the tactical map. On the tactical map, terrain should also affect LOS for ranged attacks and fog of war. Age of Wonders did ok with this many years ago.
Second: Unit Creation: Much like the Firaxis "Civilization" series, the factions in Elemental hardly differ from one another. While this is a weakness in the Firaxis franchise (since that game has premade "units" to buy: there is no excuse to not having more uniqueness), it doesn't seem so bad in Elemental, because here the player doesn’t have any units to buy, since the player creates her units during play. True variety found in other types of strategy games (e.g. Warcraft III, Dominions, Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders) come about by having real weaknesses and advantages in their recruitable units.
But unfortunately, there isn’t really much variety in Elemental. We can change defense, attack, and speed of our units, but most of my units tend to feel the same. In part, this might be due to a weakness in the combat system (see below). I want to have more fun designing units and having them play against my opponents; I want to have more fun choosing which units would be better in specific contexts -- and not which ones are simply better. If I do not need to think which unit I need to make (because it is clear: Unit A is simply better than Unit B, not different), then that is one strategic choice less.
(1) All units, but especially trainable units, should have the statistics that sovereigns have, and these statistics should be tied into spells, the morale system, and combat, so that modifying them has wide-reaching effects. Introduce armor as a damage mitigator and make defence a to-hit negator. Introduce damage values which are distinct from the attack rating, which could be a to-hit value. Introduce abilities tied simultaneously to terrain, to zone of control, and to a unit's statistics (e.g. "camouflage", unlockable with Tech X, which adds 4 base turns to training time, giving a unit +Y defence when in a forest tile in its own zone of control (and +Y/2 outside of it), a Charisma*2 % chance to dodge ranged attacks, and a +Z to its first attack per combat).
(2) Units should be able to train more and more varied special abilities which increase their training time, and at least some of these special abilities should be faction specific.
Third: Technology. The technology advancement scheme in Elemental is much better than that of GC2 -- well done. Yet it still feels unsurprising and uniform. I know that researching warfare gets me more ouchies, and that this will never be a prerequisite for something else. In the mid-game, I often feel that I am in a rut -- a feeling I rarely got in technology exploration in other games of this genre (e.g. Civilization or Dominions). In Elemental, the technological advancement scheme does not feel like an interestingly intertwined tree, but more like a set of five discrete shops. It feels too straightforward, lacking in enchantment.
Suggestion: Introduce more interesting and varied abilities enabled with cross-path technological breakthroughs (see please: http://forums.elementalgame.com/369399); my suggestion of camouflage (above) could be gotten from mixing adventure and warfare.
Fourth: Factions: The factions feel very similar to one another. Even Civilization IV's very similar factions felt more different.
(1) Introduce faction-unique special abilities that may be researched to become unlocked. There should be faction-specific unit-enhancing abilities (e.g. Shield Wall: any unit with a shield may activate this ability and gain +Y to defence, an Intelligence*3% chance to dodge any ranged attack, but have their action points reduced by 40%) or unlockable faction-specific terrain-enhancing abilities (e.g. the ability to gain .1 food for every grassland tile in zone of control).
(2) Introduce faction-specific city-enhancing abilities (e.g. "Baffle", a researchable ability which gives your enemies false information as to the combat rating of garrisoned units (instead of a rating of, e.g. 100, it might give a range between 40 and 160 at Baffle level 2)), and faction-specific city buildings.
(3) Introduce faction-specific spells. These need not be combat-related. I could even imagine something like faction-specific spells that allowed the caster to gain +.01 materials per forest tile in his zone of control for the next X turns.
Fifth: Combat. I think this has been touched on by a number of people. I still feel that it was a great mistake not to let the Beta team test this element of Elemental. As it is, combat does not feel fun, mostly because it is -- despite it's almost bizarrely exaggerated random element -- predictable.
Moreover, the tactical battlefield feels disenchanted; I remember screenshots from the winter of 2010 where we saw what appeared to be huge armies scattered across the battlefield, scampering in chaos from the clutches of a dragon. My battlefields seem barren, with my few units in their huge tiles duking it out one-on-one. I think a lot can be learned from older games, such as the HOMM, AoW (17 years ago!), Fallout, or Jagged Alliance series, or niche games such as Dominions.
(1) Attack values as to-hit, damage values separate; defence values as to-hit mitigation, armor values as damage mitigation. Use 1d6 open-ended for rolls instead of 0 to X, where X is the attack / defence rating.
(2) Logistics needs to be revamped so that unit stacks do not become the monsters they are now, since these devalue sovereigns, champions and other non-stackable units.
(3) Re-size tiles in tactical combat to allow for footprints -- friendly human-sized units should be able to move into the same tile as others, up to, say, 6 or 8. Larger units (trolls, golems) can only have, say, 3 or 4. Giants only 2 or 3. The footprint of dragons should take up 1 tile. This would also give more flair to tactical battles (remember the early screenshots from early- or pre-beta?).
(4) more special abilities, more faction-specific abilities, as above.
(5) more interaction with unit statistics (e.g. charisma for morale boni, etc.) for more varied buffing / debuffing.
Sixth: Magic: The magic books feel very similar to one another. They are all easy to get, but I still have not yet seen a real difference between them. Some of the spells are far too powerful (Teleportation), and others seem to be too bland (Protect Friend).
If you introduce more of the suggestions listed here, there will be more variables which magic can play upon. Imagine what you could do with buffs that increase armor at a penalty to defense, or those which increase the charisma of all friendly units on the field, or increase the chance of stealth.
Seventh: What Others Have: Many of us love stealth, espionage, disease, fear, and other staples of games of this or any other genre. There is no shame in benefiting from the good ideas of others.
I'm pretty sure that there is great consensus that the UI needs work, and I am confident that this will take place in due time.
Thanks for listening