1. the first 20 moves in the game are pretty well set in stone for me. That can be easily programed into the game to give a "competative" start. in genaral the first priorites are
a) get a city established. - 2 things to look for... best nearby tile for the city, any nasty monster threats within 8 cells. If a tile meets a minimun critiera I'll settle immediatly if not i'll take 2 turns to "explore" to idneify if there is a nearby "better" tile. The criteria are in order of importance.
1. no monster lair greater than Medium within 2 tiles (No)
2. key resource within 1 tile (shard, clay, forest, river) (Yes)
3. Mana score (at least 1)
4. grain score (3 or better)
5. Wood Score ( 2 or better)
if any of those criteria are not met I'll spend 4 turns looking for one that does meet those criteria, if not the I'll go for the best fit tile in range.
Taxes are set to 0 until I run out of cash.
Research is Civics, Admin, and other civ techs
Cast any enchantments - Enchanted hammers, insparation, meditation
build order is Production enhancing building, pioneer, second enhancement, cheap troop,
first champion + exploring priorites - get them exploring
.. if I had to settle for a subpar tile for my capital the first priority is to find a second city location that does meet those critiera. if not the top priority is looking for equipment caches and id'ing monster lairs.
after that it starts to fall into the catagory 2 and 3 areas.
2, The main things I'm trying to discover through the game are
a) find as many "sweet spot" city tiles and settle them.
identify choke points and defensible perimiters... both to keep opponents bottleed in and keep them from bottleing me in from expansion.
c) key resources ( shards, iron, crystal, clay, horses, quests, etc)
d) Wasteland locations and types (i like taming the wastelands... I know the cost/benefit ratio is rarely worth it from an efficiency standpoint but it's still fun)
e) location and disposition of the opponents.
Depending on how those look will determine the stategy I'll use to win. if I'm penned in or have limited iron I'll go for a quest victory or spell victory, if the AI gets too far ahead I'll go for alliance, if I manage to pull off the start I'll conquer.
3. I'll watch very closly the tactical battles to optimize my play for the future... the strength indicators of weak, medium, strong, deadly, epic are very general, and tend to by creature specific. learning what you can and can't tackle is very much trial by error. for example you always autoresolve against a dark wizard... whatever algorithm works to your advantage when you autoresolve and against you when you fight it out in the tactical screen. You can sometimes defeat monsters high above your level with the right combination of spells and units. The reverse works as well.
4. Harder to answer as I cant see the tactical outcomes of AI battles. They do tend to clear quests fairly aggresivly so there must be something working at that level.
Other than that the AI does not place cities terribly effectivly, it does pretty good the rest. but does tend to ignore the wastelands.