Having now invested many hours into playing this game, and almost an equal number of hours modding it, I have a few thoughts about where this game goes wrong and how it could be made right. Let me start by saying that Elemental, as it exists now, isn't even a gem in the rough. The whole thing, to its core, is flawed badly. Not just because “magic doesn't work” or “the game isn't balanced,” but because the entire game lacks focus. It gives no indication of any understanding of how a game like this should be designed. That is a harsh statement, allow me to try and justify it.
First off, this entire game reeks of one big “nerdgasm.” If you've ever gone to something like a Magic The Gathering tournament or played a video game in a group setting, you'll know what I'm talking about. Inevitably in environments where lots of fantasy and video game loving people get together, people start talking about all the stuff they would throw into their “dream game.” If you were to write the ideas down, you would get a whole bunch of mostly-cool concepts that, were they actually made into a game, would suck badly. Playing Elemental, I feel like I'm walking through the physical manifestation of one of those sessions. I can practically hear the voices: “Ooooh, and you can get married and have kids! And you'll have lots and lots of quests, with powerful items! There will be hundreds of spells, and technologies, and trading, and tactical battles, and personal unit design... and... It'll be fully multiplayer!!... and........” I think you get the point.
Here are some of the more major design flaws I see in this game. I don't mean “magic is bland and unbalanced,” I don't see that as a design flaw. That is a flaw in implementation. Design flaws run to the core of a game, an error in concept and not practice. They don't require more work or content, they require an entirely new approach to the game's design.
For starters, as it is the most glaringly obvious to me, is the entire concept of essence. The idea that your main hero, your avatar in the world of elemental, has to weaken himself substantially to gain access to an entire game mechanic (magic) is awful. The whole concept, at its very heart, can't be made balanced or fun. Currently, if you decide to focus heavily on magic in game, you have to massively weaken your sovereign's magic to create even a hand-full of casters. That feels wrong from the outset. Plus, you introduce the “paradox of uberness,” as I like to call it.
To create a small force of casters in this game you have to weaken your sovereign, spend massive amount of time researching techs, and orient your economy toward spell production. And even then, it takes a lot of time. At the end of the process, considering the investment, you should have units that are obscenely powerful. But this is game breaking. Anything less than near invincibility (as it stands now, a human opponent is just going to archer your caster instantly, rendering your investment wasted) makes the whole process a waste, but 4x games cant support super-units. They ruin the entire atmosphere of “wow, this is a war and I have cities and armies!.” The proper power level of a caster in this type of game is medium to high, but because of the essence system any caster that is less than a god isn't worth anything. Its an inherently flawed concept.
Quests, too, are just bad form. The entire implementation of quests in this game does nothing to encourage interaction with other players (be them AI or human). A quest level that isn't tied to actual level, and “questing” that amounts to nothing more than walking around clicking aimlessly on shiny objects? How is that enjoyable or interesting?
Dungeons should exist, with a stated level based on army strength, and should be open to anyone, at any time, from turn 1. If on turn 5 you want to march your sovereign into a dragon's nest so be it, but I hope you have a pinewood box handy. This makes dungeons universally relevant, interesting, and important. The quest system, as it exists, would be retooled to have a more practical impact on gameplay, along with a complete reworking of how monsters and heros spawn and behave. I mean for God's sake you're the leader of a civilization, what the hell are you doing killing rats in a barn?
Monsters in this game are just boring. Mobs spawn, at random, all over, and wander. Bleh. Why not implement monster lairs as absolute gateways for entry for mobs? And place them in strategic locations near prime expansion areas? As an example, say you have a warg den. From this den, spawn wargs of various strengths (presumably scaling up in strength as the game progresses). This den has a “zone of influence” out of which the spawned mobs wont wander, but within they will fiercely protect. To advance to the next prime city construction area you need to find a way to deal with this warg den, as cities or units within the zone will be ravaged and destroyed. This is where quests come in. As a ruler and powerful channeler, why aren't you giving some quests out? Allow “quests” to be created by the player, dictating that X location be attacked or Y unit defended, and attach a reward of either gold or items. A sort of bounty system, in the likeness of the game Majesty. Random hero spawns naturally band together, recruit units, and attempt to fulfill appropriately-funded quests completely on their own. The player can also fulfill quests from other players, or set other players as the target of quests. All of a sudden a system that had been a boring point and click with no player interaction becomes an engaging, tactically important, and rewarding tool of warfare. Thats not to say quests in the style we have now couldn't exist alongside such a system as well, but they don't seem to fit.
And, as a last little rant, rework the tech system. Techs should NOT be the only way to unlock items, abilities, and buildings in-game. Nor should there be half a million completely linear techs. The majority of buildings and items in-game should be available naturally, with techs focusing on improving aspects of said items and building. Right now, to have an economy of any kind, I have to start the game researching several economics techs immediately. It makes the game static and linear, as it is necessary to do this in any serious match. If this were reworked so that I could start with an economy naturally, but researching economic techs would make it better, I would have some real decisions to make about how to progress.
Techs should interrelate. If I want magical weapons, I need to research enchanting AND weapons, in two different trees, before continuing. Condensing the number of techs while at the same time increasing the interrelation between techs makes the game less cluttered while expanding depth and complexity. I have a million ideas about how this could be done, but I'm only trying to illustrate points in this post, not advocate specific balances and technologies.
I have more, but this is very long as it is. So for the moment I'm hanging my hat up. If you guys at Stardock truly want to make Elemental something to be proud of instead of a mess to be swept under a rug, you will take these next couple months to completely change how you understand and approach the game. Pouring a thousand hours into improving the game as it exists now is still going to result in a mediocre to bad game. Thats just the sad truth. I hope someone reads this and takes something away from it, as I really do like Stardock as a studio. Best of luck.