I just finished a 300+ turn game as Altar on hard, spending a good part of the last 100 turns running around searching for and doing the Master Quest Victory (because I felt like it was the appropriate way to go with Altar). I didn't have to fight anyone, never felt pressured by the AI despite having a pretty slow start.
Game settings: Large Random Map, Temperate, 6 other AIs at Hard (Gilden, Tarth, Pariden, Kraxis, Yithril, Resoln), Dense Monster, Dense Magic, Dense Resources, and Normal pacing
I had an average start, on a 4/3 tile close enough to a river. My expansion was also a 4/3 by the same river, guarded by a Bone Ogre, Umberdroth and Drake, which I had to sacrifice some spearmens to take down. My third city was also a 4/3, but had an orchard nearby, so became effectively a 6/3. I never expanded further... and still doubled the best AI in power rank for the last third of the game. My research was pretty low with just 3 cities, but it didn't matter (I was never able to finish any of the tech trees).
I started out running around and recruiting 3 nearby crappy heroes to take advantage of Relias' Natural Leader trait, using those to scout and take out weak and medium surrounding mobs while building up my capital. Once they got to level 4, I took path of the Governor for the quick prestige boost and shelf them for the rest of the game. I was expecting to have more cities, so wanted to prepare for the extra growth, but it was never needed because I stuck with 3 cities the entire game. Most of the higher level heroes were bugged with negative recruitment cost, so the Natural Leader trait really didn't do much.
I took my time expanding to let my capital grow as much as possible, and gave myself some time to get a couple of groups of 5 spearmens (moving the group techs into Civic made this extra easy) to take out the Bone Ogre and the Umberdroth before building my second city (the drake was far away enough that I waited). Once my second city was settled (or rather after the pioneer was done), my capital switched to building world wonders, my second city took over building pioneers/troops. Unexpectedly, I was not only able to get the Merchantcross Bazaar, but also EVERY other world wonder built in this game. Something that I've never been able to pull off in any other hard game to date (the AI usually out grows me and get the Bazaar first, it'll also often get the Treasury Vault and Academy of Revelations as well - sometimes even the Iron works). I'm not sure if this is just the result of some odd quirk this game (although all the AI had decent starting cities) or if the AI took at step backward on this front, but I'm throwing it out there because it seemed really odd at the time.
My first contact was Tarth, as they were sending pioneers out everywhere, and built two cities close by. I was a bit behind them early game due to my slow start, and they demanded tribute of a couple thousand gold twice (which I didn't have). I laughed it off hoping they would soon declare war so that I could mow them over (and avoid the penalty for declaring on a Kingdom), but that never happened. They got bogged down in other wars and I soon outgrew them (and everyone else) in power rank. While waiting for that war declaration I did some quests with Relias and earned enough influence to build a couple of henchmen... the game was never the same again.
It took a little babying to get those henchmen to decent strength, but once they came to power, the game became a joke. The first two henchmen I tried going the path of the mage, but that really didn't have too big of an effect. I later built two more and went assassin with those, and was able to double class the first two into another assassin and warrior because they had gotten to very high levels. I'm not sure if I need to explain how powerful 4 level 30+ assassins in the same army is... but... well, I'll just leave this here:
A pack of Ashwake Dragons... stood no chance:
That's arguably, the toughest quest/encounter in the game (Waerloga solo was a complete joke with my Relias. Haste, Slow, Double Strike. Game Won.). Notice the exp in that SS? That's what happens when you have 5 trainers in an Altarian army and a couple of potential trait each. Stacking exp effect made leveling insanely easy. It almost felt like I was playing 0.912 again. I was able to explore trait paths that I never use or care about (like... the marksmen traits). Even the troops I was using to baby up the henchmens got to insane high levels (the one in the SS was a second group of troops, the first group of 5s already got to 20 - these replacement 7s still got to 27). By game's end (Waerloga's death), Relias and my first two henchmen were level 43, the other two henchmen were level 38. In comparison, the other AI sovereigns are around 14-16 at endgame.
Save game at Waerloga: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/11827581/Altar%20G1.zip
Some general conclusions:
1. Altar's Henchmen can be really powerful. It's like sions suddenly got a massive upgrade (the ability to use hero equipments), and became cheaper and quicker to get. This was my first game with them, and despite still messing around, they were already super strong. I can only imagine how they'd be if I were to start again and rush for them with my current knowledge... still, it was rather fun playing with them. I have no idea how to balance something like this, maybe remove the champion exp bonus to slow their leveling a bit? Or only count the highest trainer trait in the army? Just some stabs in the dark.
2. The army grouping change (moving the techs to civic) made it extremely easy for me to get to 7 units (they are practically required for most other beneficial techs), although Companies will take forever to research (and I feel sorry for Dragons, never to see the light of day). However, the biggest problem is that apparently nobody told the AI about this change. In the entire 300+ turns of the game, I did not see the AI field anything more than 3 guys per unit. There's no way any of them would have stood a chance against me if I had gone on a war path as it is (henchmen or not). It may also be a problem with the AI neglecting basic civics techs in general. It's all too often that I see AI players who don't even have some really basic food tech some 200+ turns in.
3. Pariden is still the weakest link, they started slow (had a 5/2 compared to the others which had 5/3), and were soon wiped out. This is probably because the AI has no clue how to use any of their special abilities. No idea how to use Procipinee's crown, no idea how to use Arcane Monoliths, no idea how to use spell books. They were the only one who died this game. On the bright side, the shard summons seem to have helped Resoln quite a bit, they did decently in this game.
4. Maybe it's just me, but the neutral monsters seems super tame now compared to before. They just wander around aimlessly. I noticed a bunch of them just waltzing around waiting to be killed while I was doing the master quest. They don't seem to threaten anything. Rather disappointing if this is intentional.
5. One of the AI (not sure which) cast a curse on one of my cities once (in the entire game). The curse was promptly removed thanks to dispel enchantment... which costs... a whopping 12 mana. It's nice that they are trying... but I don't think this is very beneficial for the AI (considering the curse's cost) and the game (since it's rather pointless). There needs to be a lot more work done in this area of the game.
1. Henchmen can't use mounts & cloaks. If you buy it and give it to them, they just disappear (like a blackhole for horses and cloaks). I don't think this is how it's meant to be, but if it is, you might want to mention it somewhere. They also start with wooden shields (at least the custom ones do), that you have to unequip/sell away in order to use the proper equipment (the correct shield or a 2-handed weapon).
2. Most of the Adept skills (henchmen spell paths) have missing tooltips, so they just say "UnlockCombatAbility". Some help that is. Air Adept III's description says it unlocks Growth, when it really unlocks Storm.
3. All the higher level heroes (the expensive ones) are bugged and can't be recruited due to requiring -256 gildar. Seems like something is off with the formula?
4. Empower is still bugged, it's still doubling production per mat instead of adding 2 (although I like the new icon). I'm using it again since I see the AI using it, but I don't think they realize how powerful it really is.
5. Abeix tactical battle is still insanely frustrating due to the size of the map. Auto resolve = no loss, but fight manually? Lose your mind. PLEASE make it a bit bigger.