With the improvement to the city-building and management aspect of the game, I feel that the middle-late stages of the game are now in excellent shape. IMO, the big problem is now with the initial/early game for one large reason:
Production is limited by city level and starting materials, making city spamming the only viable way of increasing overall production at a level to compete with the AI.
Let me illustrate the problem with some starting location images and explanations.
Let's take a look at our first position, shall we?
OK, so we have two production, four grain and a whopping 2 essence! In addition, we have a mana shard near our starting position (it's a life shard, but as soon as our city's ZOC overlaps it, it will turn into a death shard that we can use) and a river (for dock upgrades). Not a bad location huh?
One small problem:
It takes forever to build anything useful! As you see, our starting 2 materials gave us about 9 production which is rather paltry, even at the start of the game. We could build a slave militia quickly for some defense (this is Magnar's unique trait: slave units) but our city is not in extreme danger at this point. We could also start building buildings, but that would be a poor investment (the average building time for upgradable buildings is ~ 13 turns, which is just as long as the pioneer).
Shall we chalk this one up to an average start? Well, let's take a look at a different starting scenario:
Again, another 4,2,2 start. This time, I will ignore the essence and instead move towards a spot that has guaranteed materials (highlighted in red). After settling, here are the production values:
For the higher production cost units, the build time has halved; however, this was expected since we started out with double the starting materials (each material provides 4.75 production). Another thing to note: the 3 turn minimum build time for our slave militia has kicked in. We actually over produce its production cost (19 production per turn and a 15 production unit cost) but it still takes us 3 turns to build. If we built that unit first, we would waste 42 production! Please ignore the "slave spear" unit without a head; it is a left-over from a design I made in a previous beta version.
Now, our pioneer takes only 6 turns to build and building improvements take an average of 6 turns to build themselves.
Conclusion: Starting materials influence base production values on a linear scale, but unit and building construction times have hard turn limits placed on them at the high end.
OK, so that was a pretty dry investigation, I admit, but let's look at the consequences, shall we?
Consequence 1: the hard limit on unit build times (can never be lower than 3 turns) automatically favors a higher quantity of cities rather than the quality of individual cities.
Consequence 2: since starting materials influence base production values, and city levels influence gildar production and research points, expanding immediately is the best first economic/military/research decision.
Consequence 3: if you are not able to easily expand early (which is more frequent than not), you fall behind in research, gildar and production.
Consequence 4: since natural resources are now built by cities directly, weak starting locations cannot harvest them effectively.
Consequence 5: the AI is very sensitive to the overall empire score. If it senses any weakness, it is likely to declare war without warning.
Looking at my two starting locations, let's just see how production scales up until turn 30:
Start1 (4,2,2): 9.5 production
Start2 (3,4,0): 19 production
Turn 10: Start1: 95 production (0.88 pioneers)
Turn 10: Start2: 190 production (1.76 pioneers; expands first!)
Turn 15: Start1: 142.5 production (1.3 pioneers)
Turn 15: Start2: 285 production (2.63 pioneers; second expansion possible!)
Turn 30: Start1: 285 production (2.63 pioneers)
Turn 30: Start2: 570 production (5.3 pioneers)*
* Note: pioneers are actually more expensive than several starting buildings. This means that up to five pioneers/buildings could be constructed by the second starting location by turn 30. If next to a forest, this means a logging camp can be constructed for more production. A merchant also makes a great starting building to offset the wages of a starting champion. So starting location 2 easily beats the first location.
Now, let's see how many slave militia we can create in the same time:
Turn 30: Start1: 10 militia
Turn 30: Start2: 10 militia
The hard cap equalizes the disadvantages of the two cities, but this is only applicable to Magnar, since only he starts with cheap, low production slaves! Higher production military units would (obviously) still favor start2's bonuses.
Overall conclusion: Players must pick a starting location with at least 3 food, 3+ materials and 1+ essence in order to remain competitive. Also players must have an easy expansion slot. Anything less cripples early game production.
Now, let's talk about some possible solutions to this. Here are my ideas:
1. Reveal the "hard" fog of war (the black, "unexplored" terrain) from a larger area around the starting position.
Rationale: This would allow a player to make a judgement on easy expansions after a map is recently created.
Problems: This does nothing to address the problem, but rather defers it by making it easier for a player to conclude that there are no easy expansions before clicking Ctrl-N.
2. Add a new starting building to the first city founded by the sovereign. This building would give production and research bonuses inversely proportional to the number of cities that the player/AI owns (ie. more cities, less bonuses). For example: +10 production (-5 for each additional city).
Rationale: This would reduce the influence of variable start locations on early game production and competitiveness. It would also encourage players to stick with the random map that they are dealt (rather than hit Ctrl-N 4-5 times (like I do)). Also, this would make the decision to expand optional, as each expansion does not improve your early production as much (it actually lessens production in your starting city!)
Problems: This would require balancing to make the starting city just powerful enough to allow the player to forgo expansions for a while.
Regardless of which solution you choose, I think that the 3-turn hard cap on unit/building creation should be reduced to 2 turns at the least. Three turns is too restrictive on the early game and the creation of great quantities of cheap units is not that effective in tactical combat (yet) to make the three turn cap justified.
Well, this has been a long-enough post as it is! If you have read through most of it, congratulations on making it this far! If you have your own suggestions or comments, please feel free to post below.