There is little to no difference in the current factions. One Kingdom plays as the other. Even Empires do not have any significant differences. There are a thousand ideas that come to mind on how to make each one feel unique. The question is how different should factions be? A distribution is in order. As I see it, there are several aspects of gameplay that need to add difference to each game we play. Factions are only a piece of this pie. I would say about 25% of the difference in each game should come from the faction you choose. That means the type and quality of units, the spells available, traits for heroes, economic bonuses and penalties, research tree benefits, technologies, weapons and armor choices, traits for trained units, bonuses to combat in territory, and innate bonuses to stats. This should be the place where the faction takes its form. Does your faction have very cheap units? Does it start with several techs? Do you have access to faster units? Does your capital raise its own horses or produce its own metal? Are you set up to defend very well or do you rely on battles outside of a city? Have you made a pact with the Serpents? Do you get a terrain bonus when fighting on a specific tile type?
Another 10% should come from the Sovereign. This portion should decide the situation at the very start of the game with respect to starting units, strategic position, magic, buildings, techs, and research ability. The primary function of a Sov should be to define the starting magical abilities of the nation. It is currently possible to give a Sov a trait that would make the first level of any element available to any hero that is leveling. A Sov might also give some small bonuses to hero costs, loot gained from battles, special hero traits, experience, mana gains, or even spell cost.
The next 35% would be the stock techs and abilities that everyone gets. This is the core of the game. Standard techs, resources, buildings, wonders of the realm, one per faction wonders, and stats should be present for every faction. This is what you balance the rest of the game from and right now we have an excellent core.
Citylevelup should decide 20% of a nation's attributes. This is where a city can choose special buildings that capitalize on the resources surrounding the city. At level 2 there is limited randomness. As the game is now, this is always the case. There should always be a non-random choice of a production enhancer and a food enhancer to maintain game balance. The other 3 choices should be random choices that might allow this city to have a unique quality or strategic advantage. I have posted a few in the community content thread as suggestions. Level 3 represents a good deal of time and hard work. These improvement options should very specifically define a city. This is an opportunity to have many random choices, each one having a huge bonus of some sort. Great levels of production, gold, research, defense, extra resources, magical items and spells, unique shops, or even special trainable beasts are all fair game. Shops need to have the ability to level along with a city, offering new items as they go. They should offer a long term gain for heroes. The Apothecary is a good start, but it needs to get new items as the game progresses. Either by upgrading or as new technology is researched. I would think city level is the best way to do it, since high level cities have few special goodness so far. Level 4 is where great temples and monuments to gods should be available. Larger cities should have enough population to have a unique culture and thus the attributes of that. This choice should affect many city factors and in some cases unlock spells and techs. Traits for units and heroes are fair game as well. City defense will get special and very powerful units added to the battle. Ghost soldiers, a dragon, hellbeasts, angels, Valkyries, paladins, bears, or even expert mundane soldiers should make a level 4 city defend itself very efficiently. Level 5 is where things get epic. I don't even know where to start. Derek Paxton and Jon Shafer, once upon a time, understood what epic meant. I am betting that they still do. This is where that understanding has a chance to shine. I would like a level 5 bonus improvement to change the nature of how I play the game. The improvement I choose should have bonuses and drawbacks. Perhaps I have unlocked the key to turning a mortal man into a Titan hybrid. Maybe I instead chose to build a Teleportation Structure that allows me to build Telegates in any of my cities and transport units for a bit of mana. The gate should also allow me to travel to other planes and capture exotic beings that can be trained in my cities. It would work as a lair essentially.
The following 10% should be random elements. We have some random techs that give us the little amount of variety in the current beta. I would like to expand this idea to add buildings and spells through these random techs as well. It should add that little bit of flavor that sends me straight to the tech trees on turn one to see what I got.
Now that I have a decent wall of text, I will give an example of how I would shape Tarth into giving me 25% variety to my game. I will talk about Lady Irane afterwards.
Lore is the best conduit for faction difference. History and culture make a huge difference in the attributes of a faction, even of the same race. Tarth is a nation of former slaves. Their culture is the product of generations of slavery and the more recent reaction to having freedom. They want to be free and they want to be left alone. They are extremely territorial. Their home is the forest and they are excellent at woodworking, though there are few masons of Tarth blood. Stone to them is the mark of oppression. Tarth is a nation of rogues. They value freedom over all else and absolutely hate any nation that would enslave or pick on the weak.
This lore translates into a very solid faction difference:
-They get Initiative bonuses to fighting on forest tiles.
-They get Initiative and dodge bonuses when fighting in their own territory.
-Diplomatically, they will always demand you stay out of their territory or declare war. They will not sign a non-aggression pact.
-They hate Capitar as much as an empire. They are very likely to come to the defense of a weak faction that has been attacked by a much stronger one.
-They can only build up to Fort level walls. This will give their cities that wooden look as they are master woodcrafters, their fort is slightly better.
-Their faction unique buildings are made of wood.
-They get less taxes from population, but also pay much less for troops. This is an interesting factor that should be tweaked for every faction. It essentially means they can have better or more units, but not having those units will offer no extra gold for rush buying or item purchase. Perfect for Tarth.
-They get 50% more from sold items.
-They get 25% more from loot gold.
-They get less food from grain. Tarth relies on small villages and seeks large territories.
-They have a special line of trained unit traits called Tattoo Magic. During their enslavement under Capitar, the magically inclined were killed or made into slave soldiers. The Tarth eventually learned to use tattooed runes to confer mystical attributes to their people. This magical art form has become ingrained in their warrior society.
-Later in the game, they learn the ability to use these runes on weapons and can thus make some very powerful enchanted items.
-All Tarth heroes have stats and traits best suited to roguish paths. Being unable to use magic for so long has left very few Tarth mages. They sometimes seek out Mancers or other races to fulfill these roles.
-Trained units of Tarth have natural bonus to Dexterity, Dodge, and most importantly, can gain crit from Dexterity. A Tarthan lives and breathes archery and melee. They have a bonus to accuracy and get +1 to Crit Chance. They are, however, a weakened race from years of hard labor, no education, and malnutrition. They have less Strength, Constitution, and Intelligence.
-Most of their unique spells involve defending their territory. None of them are particularly wonderful, but they are available from the first two tiers of the elemental spellbooks.
-Their unique buildings offer defense for cities in the early game; unique shops in the midgame that unlock special Tarth weapons and items; and shops in the late game that unlock enchanted weapons and items. Their unique one per faction buildings allow one or two cities to become level 5 by adding more food per grain, and increase gold income or production.
-Their unique weapons would include a bow that is also able to do melee damage, every ranged attack being an ability added by equipping the weapon. There would be a few other types of bows for different areas of the tech trees. Tarth would also have special Quarterstaves that offer a good mix of defense, dodge and damage. They would also have slings in the style of the throwing knives we currently have. They would have a few types of poisons to choose from. Some would add more poison damage and some would drug or paralyze the target. Tarth is all about delaying melee damage taken and relying on ranged attacks.
-They should not use plate or chainmail. Instead, give them special leathers that don't give as much defense, but weigh less and offer some special bonuses to dodge. In the point of the game where they should be getting magical armor, give them magical leather armor instead. This would be their best armor that has been tattooed with runes to give it special attributes.
-Their heroes should have access to special roguish traits that increase dodge and crit abilities. Each race needs to have some traits based on what race they are. So I can hire a Tarthan hero and then an Ironeer hero, who both have some very different trait options.
-They get a 10% bonus to all Warfare Tree research. Each faction should have a little push towards what they are naturally good at. Obviously some, like Pariden would have a bonus to all.
-They start out with Both tier 1 Warfare techs. Depending on the intelligence and history of the nation, they should get 2-5 techs at the start. This will help balance out factions that have slightly better bonuses for the early game, like Tarth getting cheap units.
Not saying you should make this your new bible, but it is the ideal direction for diverse gameplay. The replayability would be infinite.
In the process of organizing. Here is a table of how a Tarth game would offer some new weapons, armor and traits to the tech tree. More to come...
Tarth Tech Trees.