A few thoughts:
Step 1: Starbases?
But their ZoC's can intersect (with the right upgrades) and their bonuses are cumulative, allowing you to build strong defenses if you desire.
> Beware! If ZoC's can overlap, one can find himself in the odd situation where being right beside an outpost gives you less protection than being quite distant from 2 of them, but close enough to get both bonuses. This would also create quite a lot of stripes with different bonuses, some of them possibly just a few tiles large, quite hard to account for. In essence, this would be odd in my opinion. How about this: provided that you are within the ZoC of one outpost, and provided that its ZoC overlaps with another's, then you benefit from both bonuses (you do not need to be in BOTH ZoC's, just in one as long as it overlaps with another of your ZoC's). Then say you cannot benefit from more than 2 outpots, the closest ones in case 3 or more could affect you. This seems to fix the issue, and it's probably harder to explain by writing than it is to actually understand once it's observed in-game. But maybe I am the only one that finds this an oddity
Step 3: Improvement Upgrades
5. Resource improvements upgrade too. The first shard shrine only produces 1 mana per turn. With the correct techs you can upgrade to ones that produce more mana. The same goes for Crystal and Iron mines. If you have enough iron mines to train your units maybe you don’t need to tech up the side of the tree to unlock these improvements. But if you do want to have your iron come in faster, the research options are there for it. This fixes a big issue for us by allowing us to control the pace of mana and resources as the game goes on, we can trickle it in in the beginning, then ramp it up as the player gets access to more expensive units and more costly spells.
> this is probably the more innovative out of the 5 points listed. Adding flavor by allowing top tier upgrade of crystals to have effects based on the respctive element would be very nice (fire: berserk to friendly units, life: healing, and so on).
Step 4: City Specialization
I ADORE this change. Three city specializations (Military-Magic-Trade), each one with specific upgradeable buildings, unlockable via technologies... this is also so much in line with what I was supporting and begging for a few months back (here). There are no unique units but it doesn't matter as long as the units are already pretty specialized via faction differences. Thank you Derek!
Just make sure that there is no always optimal strategy for cities. I mean, for what I have read my ex-ante feeling is that you may want pretty much always have at least one fort to be efficient at producing units, one conclave to boost research, and 1+ towns to provide enough food and money so that you can grow the fort and conclave to their highest level, and also support a decent army. if this is true, this may be good because it encourages diversification in city specialization, but it may be not too good if it's always better to have a production city, a research city and a small host of towns. As Derek has pointed out several times, a good game needs interesting trade-offs. Therefore the question: is there one reason why one may want to build mostly conclaves, or mostly forts? Here is one idea. You could add 1-2 buildings, specific to each type of city, whose bonus depends on the # of the same buildings controlled by that player. Say that in a Conclave you can build the mana well that provides that city with a research bonus of 5% plus 2% for every other mana well you own. This way, having 5 conclaves and only 1 town could be an interesting and effective alternative to building 2 forts, 1 conclave and 3 towns, for example.
Put simply, the basic question I ask is: suppose you have 6 cities. How many different combinations of city specialization one can consider as viable, robust strategies for a game? A quick check to do 2 months from now could be a Poll where one asks: "suppose you have six cities. No more, no less. How would you split them among Forts, Conclaves and Towns? If you ask to at least 30 players and
1. no split gets more than 30% votes
2. the first 5 splits make no more than 80% of votes
then you've done an excellent job at making an interesting trade off about city specialization. I undestand that the optimal split could be (or should be) faction-dependent, so you may want to ask for a specific faction, maybe one that is not heavily specialized on either War or Magic.
Step 5: The Economy
Using city level is the most practical choice, and I am very fine with it.
Step 6: Essence
A very nice addition. City enchantments should play a non insignificant role in the game, and this one seems a very original way of achieving it, with some important side benefits: more trade-offs when choosing the starting point for a city, just to name one. One minor addtion could be to add the (quite rare) possibility for essence resource to pop-up on a tile as the game goes on, that is, as magic is extracted from crystals and the world is pervaded with magic again. Pretty much as in Civ IV you have sometimes iron copper or gold spawning in some tile. Just a minor addition anyway.
Also, how about a high level world spell that increases the essence value of every tile in the world by 1, non-cumulative ? Go big or go home!!
Step 7: Balance
The most important thing of all. But this will come with time.
Overall, a very promising post!!