Is there a more intuitive way for me to know what all the food buildings do for my population? I see Food per grain, food %, etc - all I want to know is how many turns until my town increases in population, and how to better understand my max population at a given time (so I can see the effect of a building before spending turns building).
Max Population = Total Food Supplied. Total Food Supplied = City Grain * (City Food per Grain + Faction Food per Grain) * City Food Bonus.
City Food per Grain comes from Gardens and their upgrades, and also I believe a base value from the city hub. Faction Food per Grain comes from Grocers and their upgrades, which can be built in settlements starting at level 2 if you choose the Town specialization. The City Food Bonus multiplier comes from wells (a Town-only structure), the Great Mill (which is a Wonder of the World), and Gentle Rain (a city enchantment from the ?Hydromancy mage trait), and there could be one or two other sources. Gentle Rain can be by far the largest contributor, as it provides +25% food for every essence your city has, whereas the Great Mill and the Well each provide a flat +25%. Upgrades to the Well might increase the food bonus, but I don't remember right now if they do or not. There are also a couple of buildings which decrease population growth, such as the Sacrificial Altar (which I believe is an Empire-only structure which grants units trained in that city a bonus). All these bonuses are additive, so if you have +15 food per grain from a garden and +20 food per grain from a spell, you get +35 food per grain, and if you have a Well, a Great Mill, and Gentle Rain on three essence, you get +(25 + 25 + 75)% = +125% food production in the city. If your city produces 100 food from food per grain bonuses and you have a 125% bonus to city food production, total food production is 225 food. Each unit of food can support one resident in your city.
Population growth from food surplus appears to be (Food Surplus %)/100, with a max of 3 and a min of 1 (I'm not positive about the maximum and minimum values, and population growth becomes zero when you run out of surplus food). Population growth can be boosted by spells (Sovereign's Call, from Life I, provides +2 growth per season, and there are a few spells which boost either the grain yield or the food production multiplier of the city, which can indirectly boost growth), by nearby Outposts with the Consulate upgrade (+1 growth per turn in the connected city), and by certain structures you can build in your city (such as the Palace and the Tower of Dominion - although both of these are one per faction, so choose where you want them carefully).
There is little real benefit to having a large population in this game - tax income, research, and production are completely independent of population - but it does allow your cities to grow to the higher levels (and having a higher maximum population will allow this to happen more quickly), which unlocks useful (and free) buildings, and can be used for certain spells (there are a couple of sacrifice spells that give you mana or health in proportion to city population, but it kills off some part of the city's people).
There is also currently an exploit involving the training of Pioneers which allows you to 'bank up' population and have a higher population growth in the city.
Strategy - I played on Normal to get the hand of it and had a pack of 2 heroes and 1 unit exploring the map. My main town was left with a militia defending, and when I built a new town I put 2 spearmen in there. I noticed a few threads about snaking and need to read up on that, but is there any way to build roads to make travel to/from close towns faster?
As for road building: the Trading technology in the Civilization tree automatically creates roads between cities once researched. Commander-class champions can take the Road Building trait at level 3 or higher, allowing the player to build their own roads wherever they want to. Mancer-race factions (standard faction Capitar) have Road Building as a trait on their Pioneers, and can add that trait to custom unit designs.
As for town defenses: I would not usually maintain a town garrison, at least not until late game. Instead, maintain a couple of decent field armies and use them to clean out wandering monsters which visit your lands, and monster lairs inside your territory or in an area that you want to take over. Clearing lairs outside of your territory can also be done, but isn't really necessary, and if done can make leveling champions much more difficult in the later portions of the game. In the early portion of the game, you just don't really have the income to support both a decent field army or two and a couple of town defenders. Now, if there are lots of dangerous wandering monsters, it might be beneficial to maintain a garrison in the settlement closest to those, but it's better to use a field army to remove the threat before it becomes a problem, as if a field army cannot face the monster the town defenses probably can't either (unless you really stack up troops in the garrison - but hoping a monster will attack a garrisoned settlement is a bit like betting your career on winning the lottery; if it does attack and you beat the monster, great, but if you lose, you lost a big army and a settlement, and if it just keeps wandering in the area, your big and expensive garrison is stuck doing nothing but trashing your economy, and not clearing other areas to expand into).
As for armies: I would build two or three basic units (militia and spearmen work) for early-game field armies, and I would assign one champion to each such army. I would also only maintain two or three such armies until I have several settlements with Merchants, or a few Towns, to boost my income up. If you keep champions together, the experience earned by each unit in the army is divided by the number of champions present. I consider this to generally be a bad thing until my champions are of a high enough level that I don't expect them to continue leveling up much further anyways, especially since it also affects the troops that serve as your replaceable meatshields; your opinion may vary. You'll cover more ground with two separate field armies than with only one anyways, so unless you really need to bring the armies together to deal with a nasty monster, keep the champions separate. As your economy grows stronger, build a few more troops for each of these armies, consider adding additional armies for your extra champions, and start upgrading the troops or replacing the old troops with newer, better ones as technology and Fortress bonuses become available.
As for champion development, see this thread for some ideas: forums.elementalgame.com/444783
(Edit: copy and paste the URL, don't use the link; for some reason it's not going to the right place).
Tech - is there a FAQ that breaks down each tech and/or suggested research order for the beginning? Same thing for buildings (i.e. first tower of domination, then monument, etc. In MoM I always had the basic building structure down for all new towns and then expanded based on my needs. Same thing with FFH2 - certain techs were a basic necessity when starting and you branch out from there based on playstyle... I'm still having trouble grasping all the concepts so a breakdown by a user (not whats found in the ingame help area) would be helpful, if it exists.
My preference is to focus research on Civilization, prioritizing getting Knowledge and Trading, then up to Construction and Economics. The three initial techs in the Civilization tree are probably the first techs you should go for in any game, though. I will also get at least Leatherworking from the Warfare tree, and if there are a few Wild Horses or Warg Dens in the area I may research the Mounted Warfare (if either horses or wargs are in the area) and Warg Riding (only if there are wargs in the area) relatively quickly.
Whether or not I focus on Magic or Warfare for my early game military technology is going to depend on whether Iron or Crystal is my most abundant resource in the area - if Iron, I'll ignore most of the Magic tree except for Shard Harvesting, unless I have a few crystal crags, in which case I'll also take Charms; if Crystal, I'll ignore Warfare beyond Leatherworking and perhaps Drills, and if I have horses or wargs I'll also grab Mounted Warfare or Warg Riding (these are useful even if you don't have either resource, since they make horse and warg mounts available to champions in the shop, but that isn't enough of a bonus to me to be a priority if I can't also get the troops mounted); if I don't have either Crystal or Iron nearby, then I'll focus military tech in the Warfare tree, since some of the weapons (hammers and maces) don't require metal, whereas every troop item in the Magic tree requires crystal. Also note that if you have Iron nearby, you can pick up upgrades for both your Iron Mines and your city production from the same line of technologies, and that one Iron Mine produces twice as much metal as a similarly developed Crystal Mine would produce in crystal, and that there is a Wonder of the World which can be built on an Iron Mine which can on its own provide enough metal for early game and even some mid game armies. Thus, if you have a choice between Iron and Crystal in the early game, I'd choose Iron. Later on, you can switch to crystal, but the research for metal production provides better infrastructure improvements and you get more metal faster than you get more crystal.
The higher the difficulty you play on, though, the higher the priority some form of military tech should become, because at high difficulties monsters can be a significant threat in the early game, and an early encounter with an unfriendly AI faction can spell doom if you don't have the ability to field some kind of decent military unit (you do not usually want to be fighting battle-axe units or Juggernauts with default militia units at any difficulty). When playing around at Normal difficulty and below, I don't think that it's unreasonable to delay all military technology until I've finished both Economics and Construction, though this is going to depend on whether your economy is strong enough to replace losses and build a large army of militia and basic spearmen in case of a war. If you're close to aggressive AI neighbors (Yithril and Magnar, most commonly, though any opposite-alignment faction is likely to become an aggressive neighbor, particularly if their power rating gets above your own), that's also something that should encourage a higher priority on getting early military techs. Even just leather armor on early club or spear units can make a huge difference in combat power and army durability, if you get involved in an early war or have tough nearby monsters.
Mid game, my technology focus tends more towards picking up any wonders that haven't been built yet (mostly techs from the Civilization tree, but also one over in the Magic tree), improving my research and production ability (Civilization mostly, though Warfare and Magic both have a few techs which benefit production), and improving my military equipment down whichever path I chose in the early game, because if I went for Iron early, the Iron Mines are probably well developed by now but the Crystal Mines probably are not, and if I went for Crystal early then the reverse is probably true unless I conquered some AI faction's mines. If I want to go for a spellcaster-heavy champion strategy, now is the time to start ramping up magic research, since that's the only tree which can improve mana production and also grants access to a few useful spells. If I still don't have Wild Horses or Warg Dens, I'll research at least Mounted Warfare to get mounts for my main champions since it will help them in battle, but it still isn't a high priority. If I do have access to horses or wargs and have not yet researched Mounted Warfare or Warg Riding, then picking up enough of that line to train mounted troops and build on horse and warg resources becomes a high priority.
Note that my research strategy tends towards making my faction strong on production, research, and income, but militarily vulnerable. I'm comfortable playing that way, but newer players should probably pick up at least the Weapons technology before they really start looking into researching third- or especially fourth-tier Civilization technologies.
As far as settlements go: I like to turn my first city into a Conclave (although if it has three or more essence, or if there are dangerous monsters in the local area, or if there are lots of AI factions in the game, I'll consider making it a fortress). I prefer my second and third settlements to be either Towns or Conclaves (if they have two essence, they become Conclaves; if they have no essence, they become Towns; I could go either way for one-essence spots, although if I don't yet have a town I will probably choose Town over Conclave since most of the money comes from Towns, and the Merchantcross Bazaar and Treasury Vault Wonders can only be built in towns, and the Treasury Vault also has some prerequisite structures that can only be built in a Town), although if there is a spot with three or more essence I will strongly consider making that into my first Fortress, especially if it has a high materials yield. I like to get my first fortress location at no later than the fifth or sixth settlement I found, and preferably on the highest-essence location I have found so far, to make it more likely to be ready to churn out decent troops by the time I run into most of my AI neighbors, and also to provide stronger replacement troops for my early field armies. At least into the mid-game, though, you don't really need more than one or two high-essence fortresses to provide the bulk of your army, so others can go into locations that have strategic value but which lack production or essence. Also after the first couple settlements, I prefer to put Towns on zero-essence locations and Conclaves on 1+ essence locations. If I am fortunate enough to find a four-essence location, that will eventually become a primary Fortress for troop production, because it can hold all the main troop-benefiting city enchantments (Heart of Fire and the Auras of Grace and Might for all factions, and Aura of Vitality for factions with access to Life Magic). Five essence would be even better for the primary Fortress, but I've never seen that much on any tile (though I have seen four essence, and if you are playing New Pariden or have the Enchanters trait, you can turn four essence into five). I prefer to have high grain and high essence yields on Conclaves, since enchantments and the Alchemist improvement can better make up for a lack of materials than a lack of grain. The early Towns should go on high grain tiles, especially those by rivers, but after you have a few Towns with upgraded grocers even a single grain yield is sufficient to get any city type up to at least the second level, and possibly higher. Also, once you have a couple of Conclaves, you probably don't need to build any more of them unless you're playing with slow research, so at that point if you aren't focusing on a magic strategy I'd start favoring additional Towns over additional Conclaves. Make sure to sprinkle in a few Fortresses as you go to take advantage of the global unrest reducing structures from level four and five Fortresses (the other bonuses can sometimes be more useful, so read the description of the benefits before making your choice - some of the benefits are better for large empires, and some are better for small ones, and some benefit troops while others benefit your infrastructure).
Since I mentioned some stuff about Fortress development:
Conclaves - I like to have one Scroll Scribe somewhere in my empire, preferably somewhere close to a border with an unfriendly nation so that my champions can buy a few scrolls as they head off to war. Other than that, at level 3 I prefer Oracles. I don't really have a preference at levels 4 and 5, though I will admit to liking the Hedigah Bathhouse and Pyre of Annelium if I have good water or fire mages (especially if I have lots of good fire or water mages), and to not particularly caring about the Amethyst Vault unless I don't have a good source of crystal.
Towns - At level 3, I prefer the Guild Grocer unless I get a town to level 3 early enough that a bonus to money income while producing wealth is noticeable compared to the rest of my empire's gold production (or unless there are multiple gold mines attached to that particular city, since that usually has the same result), in which case I might take the Guild Warehouse that increases income. Slums I will not use unless I'm planning on casting one of the spells which sacrifice population for some form of power. Almshouses are useful, but not great. Embassies are nice if you need research or production from that town, but otherwise local unrest reduction isn't particularly valuable. Governor's Offices and Guild Tribunals each provide a decent empire-wide bonus to production, which is always useful. The Mint of Ruvena is another good one since it boosts money production in the town, although it's better if you have a high local material yield than if you have a low material yield. The Guild Lending House is only useful if you need a couple thousand gold immediately; otherwise, it's better to take something with a longer-term benefit.
Exploring - is it better to have one army with heroes exploring or to build a few scouts to go scout. In MoM I would always use a magic spirit for scouting; I didn't find a big need for it yet although I was playing on Normal just to learn the ropes so I'm sure that was important
I would always try to have at least one champion-lead armies exploring my immediate surroundings, and at least one more champion-lead army scouting a bit further afield, and either use scouts or champion-lead armies to explore distant areas. Scouts are supposedly less likely to be attacked by wandering monsters and lair guardians, though I'm not sure that that works too well. Champion-lead armies can be used to deny AI factions access to loot and experience from monster hunting, and if you are feeling aggressive can be used to make opportunistic assaults on weak factions or new settlements. Champion-lead armies can also pick up quests and clear random treasure sites, preventing the AI factions from doing so, even if you yourself aren't going to complete the quest or make use of the treasures (note that not completing an active quest can occasionally prevent you from receiving quests at other locations, if duplicate quests have spawned on the map, and it is common for duplicate quests to spawn if you play on large maps or with high quest density). Using lone scouts (or lone champions serving as scouts) can allow you to pick and choose your expansion direction better, which allows your primary armies to come along easier or more rewarding paths while you try to expand. My preference is to use heros as scouts initially, and when I can afford to supplement them with better armies I'll also toss in a few scouts to the production order, but using main armies for scouting works well enough as long as you remember not to be too far away if you have an aggressive and strong neighbor. Making use of the champion-lead armies for scouting also allows you to clear good settlement locations as you come to them, or keep an army in the area for when you're ready to grab the area - but don't wait too long if you want to settle there, because eventually the AI will probably send a Pioneer along to grab the area, and unless you're at war or have control over the area or over access to the area (by Arcane Monoliths, Outposts, long-distance city influence, or by blocking paths to the area with cities or units), you can't keep the AI away, and the AI is willing to repeatedly violate your borders with pioneers until any settleable land it knows of in that direction is claimed, no matter how often you kick them out. Also, kicking out units tends to make the other faction upset, so keeping a settleable location unclaimed but in the middle of your territory (but not under your influence) is one way to try to provoke a war.
The other important aspect about scouting is that it lets you find out where the big and dangerous monsters are; one time recently I settled a city without realizing there was an Escaped Juggernaut nearby; when the city influence expanded, it was released from its lair and proceeded to wipe out the city before I could get an army over there. Needless to say, I was somewhat annoyed because of this, but it's the kind of thing that I should have located while scouting the area and cleared out before settling or increasing the city's zone of control, or at least provided the city with enough of a garrison to deal with or deter the attack.
Smoothness - are there any settings I can use to reduce slowdown? When ending turns there can be a noticeable slowdown
Smaller maps and fewer opponents are the main things I can think of to help with this, although you could also try reducing graphics settings or playing only on the cloth map.