In Galactic Civilizations, we had minor races which players had relatively little control over their existence. In Elemental, 32 players will be the maximum number of major factions that the game will start out with but that doesn’t take into account of minor factions and vassals.
In Elemental, one of your abilities will be the governing ability. The more cities under you control, the more overhead cost there is to run your ever growing kingdom. At some point, it may become advisable to turn some cities into vassals. A vassal state is a city (or group of cities) that is originally founded by the player but has been made independent by that player. It becomes its own independent faction controlled by the AI. Initially, as a vassal, it is allied to you. But being independent, all bets are off of what happens in the future. It may join up with someone else, combine up with other vassals to form a new kingdom, or even go on its own to try to become a major faction in its own right through a path of conquest.
One could picture a large game where there might be dozens of vassals who form ever changing alliances throughout the game.