This will be my first post here, been lurking for a while. My own experience with FE has been fairly enjoyable so far. It's a massive improvement over Elemental. FE has been relatively stable, and perhaps most importantly it's got that "just one more turn" quality to it, that lets me overlook the flaws. So far I've finished sandbox games with 3 of the 8 builtin rulers. I've noticed some definite differences in how I played with each one so far with regards to questing. With Gilden it was all about getting some tanks (golems and my ruler) to soak up damage and putting in mages for ranged damage to make my kills, City-wise I priortized production and settled sites near metal crystal, pretty much ignoring shards. Alter was a bit different, with them I just went champion heavy. My cities were geared for research, specifically so that could go get me free high level champions. My armies were solely champions, and whatever free units I would get from quests. I would try to sunder quickly and then go hunting for elementals. With Rosalyn, I still went big for research (though more for spells), but I also found myself playing much more aggressively. it was as mentioned by Rath above all about getting lots and lots of shards. My last completed game was with Kraxis. That ended up playing like my games with Alter. So the ruler I've chosen has definitely affected my battle strategy and my research/city strat to some extent, but..
this is where I find ktino's criticisms start to come in.
1.) For the most part I didn't needed to mess with building units. Gilden was the only side I played with were I can remember constructing any. For some reason I just don't find designing fantasy units fun. It's weird in MOO2, I spend a fair bit of the game designing new ships, building special ships just for a couple battles. It was a big part of the game. Here, I just don't need to even build the default units. And if I design my own, they'll look pretty much like the ones that are already in the game. Sure I would get to min/max, but it just distracts from the fun of questing/exploring with my Ruler stack. I do enjoy outfitting my heros, though the aforementioned loot duplication is a bit of a downer.
Possible Fix? A few more unique units/powers per side would help I think. Also, maybe have an option to set an injury threshold where heros/rulers die. It would encourage the player to put in some units to at least take hits for the heros on occasion, and help make them a bit more precious. I remember the feeling in MOO2 and MOM when a hero died, it sucked a bunch. Even early in the game I'd make sure to have some extra units in my main stack so I wouldn't lose heros. In FE, I don't really needed to worry about that. Worst case I can have a hero who has wracked up a bunch of injuries go the governer route and help my cities out. And of course if my ruler dies, well I lose some mana, but he or she remains a great unit.
2.) With regards to faction differences, I've mentioned how my games played somewhat differently based on my ruler selection. But it feels like that was mostly a function of my reliance on questing and heroes to play the game. If I played the game in a more traditional 4X way, then I feel like the factions would start to feel a lot more similar.
Fix? Well I'm okay with it, since the way I play the game magnifies faction differences. The game does feel like it's being held back by a couple things. They've been mentioned quite a bit, but here's my perspective.
A. Budget/Engine. I really wonder what FE could have been if a 2D engine had been used instead of a 3D one. It would be so much easier to make factions that looked different. Instead of having a bunch of sides that all look essentially look the same, we could see sides that looked completely different. Think of the faction variety in MOM, ants, lizards, dwarfs, elves, beastman, nomads each with sprites that looked different. It was really easy to see the difference between two nations in a battle. A lot of the crashing/stability of issues would probably not have come up allowing more time/money to be spent on the actual gameplay. Would it be possible to use the current engine to do some of this? How about making the trogs units bigger (like say make them Huge by default). More like say ogres or trolls that are in the game. Maybe have models for guilden that are shorter (and chunkier) then the other humanoid races. I mean if the monsters can look different from the the various races in the game, why can't that be done with the various sides? Something as simple as the aforementioned size changes would make a world of difference. More money would have probably helped, and I think modders have a chance to help out a lot here. This brings me to the other issue I see with FE and faction differentiation.
B. Mythology/Design. MOM, Civ, Alpha Centauri, MOO all drew on well established mythologies/ideas to make to differentiate sides. With MOM and MOO having visual differences to back up and emphasize the differences. Elves, dwarves, hobbits, yeah basic stuff. But look at some of the other races in there. Klackons, aka antpeople., obviously look different, but they also played in a way that drew on what folk would expect. HIgh Production (yeah hard working ants makes sense right?). In Moo, the darlocks, just a guy in a cloak, but it fits right, looks a like sneaky,mysterious being. With CIv, firaxis can draw on history and stereotypes to help differentiate the factions. For a lot of players that's not present in FE. The visual differences are not there, and the mythology/history is one that you need actually learn. It requires an extra investment from the player, and everytime I see a unit on screen it kills the suspension of disbelief a bit. For a while I can fool myself into seeing Roslyn as some kind of vampire/ghost race, or guilden as dwarves, but then I see my cities/units/ruler and other folks and well it's gone. I think with more play and some more time in the encyclopedia that will help with the mythology. But it's just not all there for me right now.
Still at the end of the day I'm having fun with it. This game reminds me to some extent of MOM, but even more of Birthright, the Gorgon's Alliance (anyone else play that one?) Birthright had a mythology I didn't know initially, and graphics that weren't that great, both of which hurt in terms of differentiating sides, but the combo of strategy and questing made up for it. I feel like FE is another case where somehow lackluster parts somehow add up to something quite fun. I hope it keeps getting better, and I'll keep playing in the meantime.