Okay, this post is probably going to be really long, so I’ll just jump right into it: now that faction differentiation has started to get looked at, I’d say that empire-building (i.e. expansion, city management, and economic management) is the weakest element of Elemental: Fallen Enchantress as it stands. It just feels really shallow with very few interesting decisions to make. And given that the majority of what you do while you’re not at war is build your empire, that’s a pretty big problem, especially in the early game.
So here we go:
Claiming resources and territory through outposts requires no thought or investment
Part of the issue here is pioneers. For some unfathomable reason, pioneers are the single cheapest thing you can build. Cheaper than scouts, even. At the same time, outposts cost absolutely nothing to set up or maintain (nor do cities, but more on that later). So given how important the control of territory is, there’s pretty much no reason to build anything but pioneers until you have physically run out of resources to claim (maybe making slight deviations to grab a workshop and a market; all the other improvements are things which are of minimal value at this stage because you don’t need much food, you aren’t producing soldiers, and percentage-based bonuses are close to worthless with a small population). Your research, production, and economy (not that you have, need, or are capable of running a gold economy in the early-game whatsoever anyway) barely suffer at all since they’re all based primarily on population rather than advanced improvements, and your population grows no matter what you produce as long as you have food.
Monsters will occasionally attack resources, but only rarely move all the way to outposts themselves, and even if you do lose one because you built it a million miles away in territory that you can’t be bothered to actually control, who cares? It costs nothing to replace. The only real problem is that the AI is likely to send one of its own horde of dirt-cheap pioneers to steal the land before you can get back there.
Patch 0.90 added the Monument improvement, which increases a city’s zone of control by one. Who in their right mind would build this when you can build a pioneer for less than half the production cost and set up a totally free outpost instead? If you want to really be a jerk, you could even spam outposts in places that don’t even have resources just to spread your borders around and prevent other fations from moving through your territory (thus securing more land to spam outposts in). Why not? It’s practically free.
City-spamming also requires no thought or investment
You’d think that founding a full-fledged city would be a bigger deal than plopping down an outpost, but it isn’t. The cost of the pioneers is still negligible, and fledgling cities still don’t cost upkeep or have any negative impact on your economy whatsoever. The only “downside”—the fact that you’re drawing prestige-based growth away from your more established cities—is completely irrelevant for a number of reasons:
-More cities means more inns and pubs, which means more total prestige. So your total pool of tax-paying, research-doing citizens grows faster, not slower.
-More cities means more food, which means a drastically higher population cap. Your early cities are going to hit their food caps before too long anyway, so the only way to keep from wasting your prestige is to spam more cities.
-And lastly, there’s very, very little reason to care where your citizens live. A taxable chump is a taxable chump regardless of whether he lives in the capital or out in some hovel in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, it’s nominally better to have them concentrated in more developed cities so you get more of the percentage-based research bonuses and the like, but very few of those are limited to one per faction and I’ve yet to see any from city level-up bonuses (except the ones the require an empty production queue, which are worthless for reasons that I hope are obvious). You’ll get almost the same bonuses in your new cities eventually, and in the meantime the benefits of more total growth matters more anyway. Especially since, again, that awesome capital with all the schools and universities is going to hit its population cap pretty quickly anyway.
So, to recap so far: the benefits of spamming as many outposts and cities as you can as fast as you can are more resources, more territorial control, more total population growth, more total population capacity, and more troop creation potential, and the downside is…nothing. No economic cost. Next to no opportunity cost. It’s a no-brainer.
Look at Civilization IV, by comparison. Settlers are the single most costly thing you can produce by a very wide margin for a big chunk of the game. Not only do they take forever and a day to build (preventing you from building very important improvements and infrastructure in the meantime), but the cities they create cost money to maintain (potentially a lot of money at a stage where you have very little to throw around). Deciding where and when to expand is a huge deal, strategically. And the more cities you have, the more costly each additional city becomes, so there are still important decisions to be made about expansion even later in the game. Fallen Enchantress doesn’t have even a tiny fraction of that depth at this stage. More cities always means more people, and more people is always better than less people.
Cities are boring and interchangeable
Part of the reason why city-spamming is so attractive is that it just doesn’t matter where your cities are. At all. City surroundings are almost completely irrelevant. Local resources have no bearing on the city’s productivity, and the general terrain only affects it only very marginally and abstractly (apart from the small-but-noticeable bonuses from having access to one river tile or one forest tile). Basically, the most exciting difference you’re going to see between cities in your average game is the difference between a city built on a 4/3 tile and a city that settled for 3/3. Since all cities have basically identical potential, there’s no reason to favor certain sites over others, and no reason to specialize cities in any given way.
I’m assuming that the city level-up bonuses were supposed to help in this regard, but they don’t, because they suck. Apart from your first market (which will be the sum total of your economy for the next hundred turns) and maybe the training yard, the benefits of the single building you receive for each tier range from “okay but no better than the crap I already built half a dozen of” to “completely worthless”. I’m not going to bother criticizing them one by one, but honestly. A 20% bonus to research in exchange for wasting all of your production? +1 defender if the city ever gets attacked? These are supposed to be your rewards for cultivating a thriving metropolis? This is part of the reason why nobody cares about their prestige being split up by city-spamming. The difference in productivity on a citizen-per-citizen basis between a level 4 city in the best possible location and a level 2 city in middling terrain is close to zero.
I’m going to point to Civilization IV again because it’s easy. In that game, it’s impossible to overestimate the degree to which a city’s location defines what it’s capable of and how it develops. Local resources give huge bonuses to production, food, or economy. The basic terrain type (hills versus grassland, the presence or absence of fresh water, etc.) are a huge deal too. Locations whose food availability isn’t way above-average usually can’t support a city worth its cost at all. The difference between a city in the middle of the mountains with a few good food resources and a city surrounded by nothing but grassland and floodplains is huge. They’re both great, but for totally different reasons. In Fallen Enchantress, a city is a city. As long as a location’s total grain and materials add up to at least 6 it’s worth plopping down a city there and developing it in exactly the same way you’ve developed every other city. And the only reason you don’t put cities in locations with less than 6 total resources is because the odds of finding a better location within 6 tiles are really high and it’s a waste to not build there instead.
Suggestions for improvement
So those are the basic problems as I see them: outposts and cities are too cheap and easy to spam with no downside and there’s almost never anything special about any given city. What’s the best way to go about adding more depth to this part of the game? My instinct would be to do something like this:
-Make it so the first city generates like 5 gildar per turn on its own. It’s going to be impossible to implement a deeper economy if you need to assume that the player is going to be running an empire with zero income for the first hundred turns.
-Greatly increase the cost of pioneers.
-Consider adding more early-game improvements whose benefits aren’t dependent on a large population (to compete with pioneers in value). I know you moved away from flat bonuses to keep from rewarding city-spamming too much, but that can be dealt with in other ways (or you can put limits on the improvements, though I wouldn't consider that ideal). Workshops, lumber mills, and markets are good examples of stuff that works. I would call the study too weak in this regard.
-Put an upkeep cost on outposts. Not so high that your early-game economy can’t support a fair number of them, but something to make you ask whether it’d be better to seize that third iron mine half a map away now or later. Probably either a flat 1 gildar/turn each, or something that stacks up like .5/turn for the first outpost and an additional .5/turn for each subsequent one (1 for the second, 1.5 for the third, and so on).
-Get rid of spammable prestige-boosting buildings (inns and pubs) entirely. They completely defeat the purpose of dividing prestige between cities. Prestige should only come from once-per-faction improvements or things that don’t relate to cities at all, like your accomplishments. (City level-up bonuses might also be a safe place for prestige bonuses if the opportunity costs are high enough).
-Put some sort of upkeep costs on cities beyond the first that increases the more you have and the further they are from the capital, a la Civilization IV. Removing upkeep costs on common improvements was a good idea, but managing an extensive empire in general should be costly. Finding a good balance here is probably the hardest part of this proposal. Doing more than just a straight cost (like increasing unrest or some sort of administrative inefficiency across all of your cities, including well-established ones) might also be worth considering.
-Drastically reduce the gildar upkeep of soldiers in light of the new infrastructure costs. Keeping a standing army is too expensive as it is.
-Completely redo the city level-up bonuses from scratch. The benefits should be way, way higher than they are right now. Much stronger buildings, probably coupled with strong passive bonuses. One level 4 city should be a lot better than two level 2 cities.
-Let local resources affect cities in some way. For example, maybe having a resource within a city’s zone of control (not just being harvested by a random outpost) unlocks special buildings which slightly improve the yield of the resource and give significant boosts to some type of productivity. Like maybe crystal and shards would unlock buildings which give you a lot of extra research, gold mines and influence resources would each have associated buildings that boost revenue, iron mines give lots of extra production speed, mounted units are produced much faster and have a starting level bonus if the stables are local…stuff like that.
I can already tell from the small amount of time I’ve spent with it that Fallen Enchantress is way further along than War of Magic ever was. The underlying mechanics are a lot more logical and stable and it’s well on its way to being a fun, complete game. But the overly simplistic empire-management is really holding it back at the moment.
I know it’s kind of unfair for me to keep comparing Fallen Enchantress to Civilization IV when Civilization is like 90% focused on empire-building as opposed to maybe 50% at most for Elemental. But even so, it needs to be a lot deeper than it is. Personally I’d say it’s probably the single most important thing you could be working on at the moment (apart from stability and AI, of course).
(To be honest, I also have some issues with how research is handled--especially in terms of magic--but that’s a topic for another thread.)