Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction Review - Positive, Neutral, Negative Points

To review Transformers 4 as a 'proper' movie is always relative. We all know how reductive and crude the movies are, bar the CGI. But like so many I grew up with the cartoons, therefore I am 'imprinted'.

I believe those who genuinely care for the concept vibrate more with what Transformers could have been, than what the movie(s) actually gave us. But this is not a 'our imagination is the best' motto: the movies are genuinely poor, and made that way on purpose, unapologetically. Thus we get disappointed. People have a number of different ways to deal with this: criticizing Bay, lowering the standards, quit watching, and , perhaps, entertaining the hope that some day it may get better. In the meantime, those that are still willing to go see Transformers are forced to settle for whatever explosive and action-packed crumbs they can get, for fear of letting the big machines die - in the Hollywood assembly lines, and in their minds.

It could be argued that as long as people are willing to pay to go see the movies, there's no real reason to make any effort, any change in style. If it makes money, it means it works well as it is. And that is true to an extent - but for me, that argument also supports the idea that it's not entirely Bay's merit that people want to go see Transformers movies. Rather, he is capitalizing on (and is lucky for) a number of factors: that he is directing movies towards a passionate and loyal fanbase that grew with the cartoons; that he has behind him a giant, toy-selling mega-franchise machine, which targets younger and impressionable minds who may not quite discern, or value, how coherent a story is; that we let a summer blockbuster get away with nonsense and frivolous storytelling if it can numb our good judgement with enough explosions and innuendo; and for the CGI, which I suppose is decent and marries well with the all-action, flashy directing.

I entertain the idea of having a Transformers reboot (there are so many these days anyway) with a director other than Bay, if that would make the film more internally consistent, and take itself more seriously. Something along the lines of Peter Nolan's Batman, perhaps. I know it can be done at least. Special effects don't prevent a movie from behind coherent and be made with self-respect - good scripting and a good director do. As it stands, the fan's seemingly endless goodwill, and their eternal hopes of having their childhood memories portrayed on the big screen with some degree of poise and realism, will continue to be disregarded without shame or remorse, and eternally defended as something "good", as long as hopeful hearts can be used to fill wallets. And we all are guilty of playing along with that.

Nevertheless, for the sake of hope, here are several observations of aspects in the movie that in my mind were either improvements (+), so-so's (0), or negatives (-), taking into account the previous movies in the current franchise. Enjoy.

 ---- *note: Spoilers ahead* ----


The majority of positives relate directly with the casting changes, and added script work. Coming from a kid's cartoon, the challenge for the script is always a) finding a believable way to make humans relevant to the plot, and b) create a consistent psychological space where fully-fledged characters (instead of stereotypical caricatures) live and breathe. While all movies happily fell into both of these traps, simply preferring to indulge in mindless action and CGI, I feel that there were some efforts from screenwriter Ehren Krueger to give depth to the tale.

+ Mark Whalberg, Kelsey Grammer

This is a testament to how a single casting choice can affect an entire movie. The change of actors, in particular adding Whalberg and Grammer - and to a degree Tucci - and dropping Labeouf and Turturro, immediately changed the tone of the film. Whalberg seems to nicely fit the glove as an 'action dad', and revel in the action sequences, while Kelsey Grammer plays a crucial antagonist that is dead-serious about his motivations and perspectives. The fact that Whalberg himself doesn't have a direct love interest, instead acting as a parental figure to the young romantic pair, also makes for a nice tweak. Stanley Tucci has a slighly harder time keeping at bay... Bay's influence for the "childish goofy" acting. But even when he starts to cave in, he does so with some class.

The way Labeouf played his character in the previous movies - the stuttering, screeching, facing everything as a clueless, frightened kid - made for a main character that didn't take himself seriously, in a whole movie that didn't take itself seriously. The same way, Turturro used far too much an uncalled for, goofy clown vibe, every time he was on screen - and he was a secret government agent. Having these kinds of caricature characters was like adding jelly to a pit of quicksand. I still have ringing in my head that line "criminals are hot!"... whaaat?

Whalberg and Grammer seem to take themselves seriously enough as actors to lend some tone of commitment and determination, to an otherwise goofy movie. Grammer in particular is a class act, and his sidekick Savoy, played by Titus Welliver, also holds his own extremely well. Actually, Grammer took himself so seriously that he made sure would have at most one Transformers movie in his resume... by getting visibly killed at the end of this one.

+ Cynical, Bitter Optimus Prime

This time around Optimus Prime, the eternal idealistic leader, is given a whole new side to him, as he is hunted down by humans and becomes bitter towards them - with 'angry eyelashes' to clearly get the point across. A significant turn of pace in comparison with the idealistic but one-dimensional attitude of 'save the humans because we're the good guys'.

+ Lockdown's Third Perspective

Another element that brought quite a lot of freshness and a new change of pace, was the presence of a Transformer character that was neither Autobot or Decepticon, having no affiliation other than what he was hired to do. While clearly not a good guy, Lockdown was not hellbent on destroying and murdering everything on sight, would honor barter and agreements, and quite simply didn't give a damn about humans, Autobots, or Decepticons. As a result he is far darker as a character, and at the same time more complex and sharp, than either the clear-cut lawful good Optimus Prime or the always chaotic evil Mega/Galvatron - both very much one-dimensional characters that still inherit a lot from the cartoons. The presence of this third perspective was critical in adding depth and complexity to the whole movie, as well as....

+ Transformer's Origins

...introducing some ideas about the origin of Transformers and their 'Creators'. Teasing the existence of a background, and providing some sort of cohesive reasoning for the existence of these sentient robots, would do wonders for this story. It has some potential - now let's see where this is taken.

+ Fear Mongering

Kelsey Grammer's character leads a black-ops team funded with American government's black budget. He precedes the current president and runs a government entity which is virtually unaccountable, and acts in secrecy, even from of whoever is elected as president. In turn, he is attached to the monetary interests of a corporation heavily invested in Transformer tech. Thus his motivations are a blend of convenient black-and-white xenophobia with personal monetary interests, and he is ready to put in jeopardize and sacrifice innocent lives in the name of patriotism and 'national security'.

+ Slightly Improved Humor

For the first time in any Transformer movie I genuinely giggled at a few of the jokes. Some were Hound's lines "I'm a fat ballerina taking names and slitting throats"; "I'm going to cover for you, if I'm not covering for you it means I'm dead"; also Drift's line "I was expecting a big car!" (partially covering the unexplained reasons for those big robots to turn into dinosaurs). Also, the SMS response to what the radius of the Seed detonation would be: "a tactical nuke LOL *smiley*".

As long as these humor bits are of the witty and 'spontaneous' kind - not vulgar physical comedy like having a robot pissing on a human - they connect much better with the viewer. They would also work better in a more serious tone where they can be used to vent accumulated tension, rather than in a silly Universe where everything is silly and nothing really matters.

+ Detachment From the U.S. Army

The slot of the perfectly honorable, benevolent, cavalry-to-the-charge U.S. army, is replaced by the black-ops men-in-black, whose intentions and ways of operating, under the blanket cover of national security, are shady at best. Again this gives a multi-dimensional perspective over the previously simplistic points of view.

+ Dinobots

Despite several dubious things about them (see below), and despite not talking at all, the actual presence of Dinobots is something that was wished for a long time, and to be praised for.

+ Imagine Dragons - Battle Cry

A nice song.


Aspects that are debatable and improvable, usually gaping holes in the plot, but that may not ruin the movie by themselves - at least compared with the 'Negative' ones...

0 Transformium

Transformium seems to freely float in the air while shifting shape, for no discernible reason and with few regards for the laws of physics. Therefore man-made Transformers-turned-Decepticons now transform by de-materializing across the air. So is it my impression, or did they just gain a teleporting ability? Did they have any need to climb buildings by foot when they could just transform up? And if these Decepticons could de-materialize at will, why would they be sitting ducks to the good guy's weapon fire (who were outnumbered) when they were fighting in the end of the movie?

When all man-made Transformers were converted to Decepticons by Galvatron, did they gain personalities of their own? If so, did Galvatron gave them 'souls'? How did this work? Are Decepticons by definition any Transformers built without souls? Or are they all still mindless robots being remotely controlled by Galvatron?

In the movie we see Transformium be converted into [product placement]xN, human regular weapons, and whole Transformers. But to me, it is a stretch to state that humans managed to reverse engineer every single alien tech that it takes to make a fully functional Transformer. So can Transformium be converted into anything, limited only by imagination? Can it form into a high-tech beam gun, or something else that is actually beyond known technology? Can it copy any technology even if it's not scientifically understood?

Such a plot device is risky. It's similar to the Eagles in LOTR, being hypothetically able to just carry around all characters without any need for travelling, thus, for much of the whole story to happen. It's also like adding powers to R2D2 over and over in Star Wars movies, until R2D2 becomes a tool that can do anything - and at that point everything in the movies is rendered meaningless, including retroactively. What keeps these powers in check? What are the limitations of these plot devices? It's the screenwriter/director to balance this out, not the viewer's responsibility to shut down in its mind all the things that aren't properly explained. If I want to work my imagination I'll go read a book.

Even when having the Transformer's raw material in the movie, there was no need to take it to these lengths. For humans to be able to build Transformers from scratch was probably powerful enough. I'm sure some other way could be found for Galvatron to be born, without having this miraculous substance that breaks far too many rules. Galvatron, who survived perfectly fine, now possesses the new materialize, de-materialize ability. So if he is to show up in future movies, is this going to be dealt with, or... just left in the bin for no discernible reason, I guess. Yeah, that'll work too.

0 Movie One Third Too Long

A full one-third of the Movie is basically a repetition of the plot elements of the middle third. This gives the impression that the movie is way too long. The 'final battle/resolution' happens twice: the first is dealing with the Transformer-designing corporation, which ends with inside the Bounty Hunter ship after Prime is captured; the second is when the main plot device - the Seed - finally is in human hands and is taken to Asia, which leads to yet another battle with the same alien ship, now in Hong Kong. The repetition is made so the movie can cater both to the western and to the oriental audiences.

0 Humans Shoehorned Into Plot

Humans struggling to be relevant to the story was always going to be a risk, when dealing with high-tech, sentient, oversized robots from space, and where the primary plot elements are also high-tech objects related with these robots.

However, at no point does the movie mercilessly shoves humans into the story more than when Tessa is scooped up by an alien net bounty-hunter net (?), inside a truck, along with Optimus Prime, as if she or the car weren't really there. Having her be taken into the ship will obviously continue to necessitate having humans working with Autobots to rescue them.

This scene worked much like a horror movie: at one point she could have clearly fled through the car's open door on her side, but decided to move to the back seat instead; she could have run onto her father and boyfriend, as they were a few yards away, or even sideways, as she wasn't relevant to the attacking robots anyway. The movie even goes out of this way to justify, through the other two characters and even Optimus Prime, that she could have fled the truck. Instead, she was very conveniently left just under Optimus Prime. Both are inexplicably and conveniently picked up with a net (?), which must have taken some time, effort, and attention, to deploy and envelop them.

0 Hentai Tentacle Porn Reference

The only purely organic alien form in the movie manages to strap its huge tongue around the innocent babe's leg, from behind, across a cage... catering to the target audience, oriental style.

0 Prime's Feet Thrusters

So I guess Optimus Prime is going to scour the Universe looking for his creators... on his feet thrusters?

0 Broadcasted Autobot Messages are in Audio and in English

And they replay audibly when you spark the Autobot with some electricity. I guess the message was being taped and broadcast on all radio frequencies.

0 Mini-drones store video in themselves (instead of remotely) and across missions.

Because, how else would anyone be able to hack into these tiny, nearly useless and easily captured, information receptacles, to retrieve vital plot information?

0 Where Do New Autobots Come From?

Where they on Earth all along? Did they come in the first 'meteorite' wave? Did they come when Optimus invited them in the first movie? From where? Are they forged in the Earth's molten center of the Earth? Were they always here, but they weren't involved in the previous movies, or we didn't "get to see them"?

0 Unnecessary Dogfights 

'Enemy ships are approaching', because reasons, and these enemy ships wait just long enough, after half an hour of humans dangling in wires of their ship with robot hyenas, and after everyone climbs aboard, so that they can be chased for another action-packed scene. I suppose the bounty-hunter's ship doesn't need any sort of sensors to know if there are intruders aboard, or they haven't been invented.

0 Cade Yeager's Paradigm-Changing Pep Talks

Optimus: How many more of my kind must be sacrificed to atone for your mistakes?
Cade: We're humans, we make mistakes. But out of those mistakes came beautiful things. Look past the junk and see the treasure.

Because alien robots are little kids just waiting for a human to give them insightful life lessons, lessons that are so profound that instantly make another character's revise its guiding principles. No wonder Prime is such an influential leader. Nevermind inventions, honor, technology, armament: those who speak things that sound nice are the kings of this world. All is well if you can look past the junk and see the treasure.

0 Dodgy Dinobot Circumstances

What incredible coincidence is that the Dinobots (somehow inspired on prehistoric Earth, but recently arrived from space) are on that one bounty-hunter spaceship, and, in the detachable sub-ship hijacked by Autobots. I guess Cybertron must be really be on the other side of Jupiter, for Earth to be so frequently visited. Either that, or Lockdown is the only bounty-hunter in the Universe.

Why does Prime need to use force to subdue the Dinobots, and why do they just align with him, just like that, by having him mount Grimlock? I suppose there's some kind of background in there, somehow related to Prime being a knight, involving some form of ritualistic display of might, stylized armor included, started by activating the sword that can only be dislodged by the knight (a device which coincidentally happens to be inside the bounty hunter's ship!!!).

I guess there wasn't enough time left in the movie to say something minimally cohesive about this.

0 Dry Acting, Poor Character Setup

With so much relevance given to Cade Yeager's setup of on-the-limit financial struggle, one could argue that he logically had far more to gain by handing over the unknown Transformer, for the monetary reward, which would instantly solve or help with his problems - impending foreclosure, Tessa's college, his work - than risk fixing the robot against the law. This would later reveal to not turn out as advertised, but Cade had no way of knowing it at that point. The premise that Cade was 'an impulsive and passionate inventor' is somewhat forced.

From the point of view of the characters, Cade's choices were reckless and impulsive, and directly lead to his business partner getting killed. This is even acknowledged by Tessa - only to be easily brushed aside with a stare into the horizon and no sign of guilt. I guess one person doesn't matter all that much, as long as you get to tell jokes and fire alien guns.

Sadly the two actors playing the romantic couple didn't manage to get their characters to shine. Nicola Peltz was always going to get plenty of screen time with Bay, but Jack Reynor and his racing driver character felt irrelevant next to Whalberg, even if he was supposed to save them with his driving. Lucas, perhaps the supporting character with the most charisma and potential, is readily killed in the beginning of the movie, by a metal-lava attack that everyone else miraculously manages to outrun. Therefore all the character building and bonding with the audience that was done for that character was instantly flushed down the toiled, and providing no emotional charge in return, thus rendering it meaningless.

On this note, why did Lockdown halt pursuit of Prime in that scene? He wasn't far away, and he wasn't defeated: he was just on top of the building, and Prime was waiting for the humans to jump into him. Prime transforms into a battered truck while Lockdown is a sports car. So did someone call timeout? Do grenade attacks equate to a 5 minute truce? Did Lockdown give up? Was he marveled at the success of his own attack? We'll never know.


Elements that are ludicrous and instantly break any immersion in the movie.

- Transformers As Earth's Cultural Stereotypes

A sargeant/general figure, with a beard, a detachable helmet, and smoking a cigar. A samurai, 'proficient with blades'. A paratrooper wearing a cape. The accents. Oversized WWII grenades. Prime in medieval armor. And don't get me started on Prime coughing and breathing air out of his mouth...

It's inexplicable and instantly kills all immersion. By far the worst offense in this movie, and the others as well.

These are not the robot's alternative, transformed mode: it's their "real" them. So were Autobots built to appeal to small human children? Are they trying to blend in with humans by their robot personas? Are they imaginary cartoons in the mind of one of the characters, and it's all a dream in the end? Unless... the Creators are really humans from the future, who agonizingly miss Earth's XX century's culture, so they made their own stereotypical army generals, samurais, spies, armored knights... Einsteins?

As the screenwriters said they were going to develop and showcase the 'personality' of each Transformer, one would suppose that would be giving them a background, a quirk, a nuance, a tough choice they went through, a idiosyncrasy - but not this. One thing is to give a Transformer subtle nuances; another is to make them nothing more than cartoons. Lockdown is the only Transformer properly done, and this is why he's the most conceivable: grey/neutral robot form with small high-tech-y nuances; a high-end gray car when transformed. Purpose over style.

Either you clearly and irrevocably state explicitly that Transformers as machines absolutely need to copy cultural aspects of human society, and why, and then run with it; or, you make them have their own unique traits and features, but as genuine characters, not walking stereotypes - sometimes insulting ones.

- High Tech Sentient Robots Shoot Firecrackers

All missiles shot by any robot are completely aimless, dumb-fire projectiles, that not only don't any some sort of guidance, but never travel straight - unless the plot demands for it. Missiles never have any hope of hitting any target, and are almost expected to explode in the ground at some indefinite point in time, hopefully sending a lot of debris, dust, and fireworks into the air. The movie makes fun of itself with the "there's a missile in the living room", and "you told me it was dead" bits. The missile goes into the house through walls and windows, hits things along the way, or the ground at the very least - and doesn't go off? 'Missiles' pose zero danger and are as dumb as the minds who thought the movie was great this way.

At one point a missile shot by a Decepticon explodes inches away from the human protagonists on a Hong-Kong rooftop. Sparkles fly through the air... but they carry on running, completely unaffected. One would think that shrapnel, the explosion's blasts, or the heat, would at least mildly injure someone. One would think that robots would tend to be super accurate, and super deadly, in each of their shots, missile or otherwise. Alas, they are always shooting and firing as blindly as possible.

But when Cade grabs hold of the smallest of 'alien guns' from some 'special armament storage', he is now deadly, capable of taking out robots in one shot.

- Humans Above Physics

Humans must be made of rubber, since they can fall from any height, be caught by a Transformer while flying though the air, take a spinning robotic metal cigar to their heads, and be involved in any vehicle crash, and still come out perfectly fine, ready for the next adventure. In real life people may need medical assistance even for moderate traffic accidents; here they can crash in a flying alien ship into a car and come out of it in their witty best. In this movie, it is also the humans who are cartoons.

During the bounty-hunter's mini-ships dogfights, Bumblebee hooks a (human) cruise ship out of the water and up into the air, in front of pursuing flying ships, destroying it in the process. I really want to believe Bee was completely sure that the ship had no no one inside it...

But the most significant offense is when at the end of the movie Lockdown bears down on Cade and is about to strike him with his arm, and Cade fends off the Transformer with nothing but his gun and his human arms. Layman physics would postulate that in that situation, a single gesture from the Transformer - even with the human holding an indestructible gun - would probably just squash the human... But hey. You can't have everything, right?

- Optimus Prime's Amazing Healing Powers

First instance. A beaten up Optimus Prime, a high-tech alien sentient life form, lies full of projectile holes and is 'unconscious' with a 'hit in his power source'. At some point even his right helmet ear-cover-thing falls off, and he is clearly shown coughing... barely on his last breaths, right? Then a human civilian 'mechanic/inventor', using scrap parts and a blowtorch, completely fixes him back to full health. And scan of a different truck is what it takes to turn the holes in metal into a pristine newly-painted chassis. If even Ratchet couldn't heal/fix/mess with Bumblebee's eternal 'vocal processor' problems...

Second instance. Lockdown's humongous cannon manages to hit Prime squarely in the chest - multiple times if I recall correctly - leaving him severely damaged and with no reaction. So damaged, in fact, that an smaller alien craft with a rope net (?) can simply pick him up and carry him to the main bounty hunter's vessel. Later, when he is released by the other Autobots, he is simply... back to full health? So much that he can first face and overcome Grimlock, and then go through all the fight sequences at the final part of the film.

Did the cage Prime was in had regenerative abilities? Did he regenerate himself? Did someone fix him while he was trapped?

My guess is, those holes in his chest fixed themselves because fuck you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What Is Happening To Computer Games?

Before I venture into the bulk of this piece, let me first introduce myself and a little of my background as a gamer.

I'm a fan of strategy, RPG, and big sandboxy games, where I can build stuff, evolve, and tell my own story. I'm a fan, especially, of the Rome/Medieval II Total War games, and the X3 games, especially Reunion and Terran Conflict. X3 is one of the most in-depth, immersive, and beautiful games I've ever experienced. In my early days, I played things like Sim City, Dune 2, X-COM, Civ, Master Of Orion 2, Transport Tycoon, and a little later, titles such as Baldur's Gate I and II, Wizardry 8, and Jagged Alliance 2, just to name a few. I fared somewhat in consoles in my day, but I'm mostly a PC gamer. I'm sure I'm forgetting many memorable titles in this introduction.

A few mods by devoted communities have greatly enriched my gaming experience. For me, Medieval II Total War became unplayable without Stainless Steel, while Third Age Total War is also a remarkable masterwork of equal quality. Prophesy of Pendor elevated Mount and Blade Warband to a whole new level, and it's a mod I vividly recommend to anyone who hasn't tried it. A few lesser known or independent games have also caught my eye. A word to Simutrans, a community-created transport simulator, closely related and inspired by Transport Tycoon, that's as realistic and complex as you'd wish for such a game. For me, I realized that the effort of a dedicated group of modders and fans can often give games the depth and oompth a game needs to get to another level.

In-game screenshot from X3 Terran Conflict. Taken from manapool.co.uk

I'm currently without a computer capable of handling most modern games. I've left my I.T. job and career to start my own self-employed life fairly recently - which, btw, is not related to I.T. or gaming. Because of budget, time, and mindset constraints, I'm at the moment mostly reduced to watching LP's on Youtube, as far as games are concerned. Still, I had still been looking forward for the sequels of some of my preferred games, harboring the hope of maybe playing them. I had been anticipating most specially, the new X-Com, the new X Rebirth, the New Rome Total War, and the New Mount and Blade (the latter yet to be released).

I ended up not being able to play these, due to the constraints I mentioned. But, the truth is, I thought I would severely miss not being able to play these games.

But I don't.

It is the opposite: I'm consistently being grossly disappointed by the releases I so eagerly anticipated, often in a surreal manner. I'm getting a little concerned, and this is the reason I'm writing this. I know, I know, "you must actually play them", you'd probably say. But, hear me out.

This Weird Vibe

I'm spotting a certain trend when it comes to these new releases of the games I like. And no matter how much I try to see things from a different perspective, and be tolerant, that same nagging feeling keeps lurking about.

It all started when I took a peek at the the latest Sim City. I thought to myself, "does that territory ever expand? It must, right? Who would ever think doing a Sim City with such small terrain area!? lol" But, alas, such was the case: they did do it that way. This was when I first noticed the weird vibe.

Next, the new X-COM. It's a laudable, thought-out effort to modernize the old one. I has merit, it's its own game, and it's probably the least guilty of the trend I'm getting at. I played it some time, I made a review in this blog. I made a real effort to truly enjoy it, not to judge, and to appreciate the effort. I did. But, well, I want time units. I want an inventory, and in-depth soft-defined squad roles based on soldier abilities. I want to shoot at walls, at the air, at mosquitoes if I so choose to. I'm sorry, but I do. That's just me. I find a pity that re-doing a classic meant removing some of the good in-depth things the game had. And the graphical capabilities were so nice... oh well.

Total War Rome 2

Next, the new Total War Rome 2. That was probably the one I anticipated the most.

I don't really know why, but I don't really like the feel to the game, even though the visuals are a step above obviously. I don't like how the units collapse into each other instead of holding their lines. I don't dig the ancient-egypt-style-drawing unit cards. I don't really like that thing about capturing victory points. I don't think patches can actually address this in a significant way.

I am understanding about bugs, glitches, fps issues. That can be patched. I'm not enthusiastic about meeting deadlines with less than polished games, but at least those kinds of things can be fixed. What can't be fixed, though, is the principle behind the game development. It's the brains, the ideas, the direction, and above all else, the self-demanding quality control behind a game.

Rome Total War, and to a degree Medieval II, had AI issues. But I was willing to overlook them because the game's ideas were great, and their execution adequate to them. Some mods took the AI one step further. I liked hoplites and pike phalanxes. I likes archers, elephants, and the battlefield atmosphere. Again, the AI was the bottleneck. There was also the issue of potentially becoming overpowered and being able to steamroll the AI at some point, leading to mid-game quitting out of boredom. So, one would assume these things would be better handled in the sequel.

Instead, from my (honest) perspective, I feel as if the devs started all over when it came to the AI. Enemy armies split and attack one unit at a time constantly, there's no such thing as keeping it together and making one concerted attack. No lines are held, and there's less than desirable waiting for reinforcements. And again, as far as I can see, once you gain some territorial mass, you can't be stopped.

Where is this in Rome 2? Picture from http://qr.ae/GtZyN

I'm a fan, not a troll, and I don't want to be unfair and be gratuitously bitch'n without weighting my words. Some things took a step ahead. Cities growing, capitals and minor cities, controllable fleets, step-by-step faction objectives. But here's the thing: the AI is a huge factor. The AI determines if army fights are intense, or just 'meh'. The AI determines if you're facing the evil rival empire by mid-game, or simply more of the same meaningless battles. These things are the bread-and-butter of the game, and I saw no improvement in this regard. Once you go past the first minute of 'ohhh, look how nice it looks', things such as immersion and gaming experience, which are more in-depth aspects, depend directly on how the AI feels. And where are the family (or maybe political) lines? Where is it shown clearly see who's related to whom? How is politics of meaningful relevance in the game? And wtf is that thing about any unit being able to bring down a gate with fire sticks? What?

The game doesn't take itself seriously (enough). I feel as if things that were broken weren't fixed, and vice-versa. We're running circles without leaving the same spot, updating and tweaking things and tracking back on others, while not truly focusing in depth on what had the most room for improvement. There's less caring about the core principles of the games, and for the established fanbase eagerly awaiting for them. That's the trend I'm seeing. 


The new X Rebirth really touched a nerve. I'll explain.

I don't mind the humanoid figures of characters, I actually think they're just fine for that game. No problem at all. I like having to hire actual pilots to fly your ships, instead of trusting the holy spirit to materialize an entity in a vacant ship. Hiring people, perfect. Epic graphics, perfect. I don't really have anything major against highways and such. I don't mind too much the animations of you walking inside your ship, even if it's always the same repetitive animation. Okay, fine. What I could bitch about would be crawling around in copy-pasted station interiors with hardly anyone inside them, those conversations- ah, and robbing lockers and boxes of items (which doesn't make any sense at all IMO, unless you really focus the idea of a rogue-style space smuggler). The idea of bringing life to the inside of stations was potentially great, but it's probably not done ideally. But still, that's not what struck me. Do you want to know what did?

You fly always the same ship.

It took some time to sink in, like surreal bad news.



This is the same as having an RPG without loot. Starting from the bottom with a paper-armoured ship and basic lasers, and always striving to expand to a better ship, then to a better ship, then to own several ships... that's what X is about. It's about writing your own story. It's about changing not only props and peripherals, but switching to better rides as you go through. But no matter how many power-ups you get to your ship, it's still the same ship. But what's the problem? Let's go into the RPG analogy again.

"You are Ron the Mighty, and you'll carry your great sword Excalibur throughout the entire game. You can pick up many power-ups, improvements, and special abilities for your sword. Your sword talks and gives you directions. Your sword will be able to perform miracles and change the weather by the end-game. But you may never actually hold another sword. Ever. Again."

Facing such an RPG, chances are I'd drop it immediately - save for some other special trait the game would lure me with. And, no doubt about it, some would still enjoy such an RPG, and will enjoy X Rebirth for that matter. No doubt about it. But not me. I'm in it for the loot.

You want to improve or exchange weapons? Shields? Maneuverability? Cargo capacity? Fine. Do it. But you could do it while still being able to also pilot different ships. And no, flying drones is not the same. You want to have co-pilot, engineer, a ship crew? Perfect. But make them all hirable including the co-pilot, interchangeable, storable in the headquarters. Are capital ships unwieldy, slow, and difficult to fly? OK. Then do something about it. Make the experience of flying them rewarding in some other way, or slow-but-still-fun, if you can. You know, improve the game. But don't remove the gameplay option altogether. Are the menus and the game complicated and with a massive learning curve? Fine, make a proper tutorial on how to handle the menus, on what the systems in the universe do, about the races, and about flying your ship. But don't change the essence of the game.

You wanted to make the game better than the previous ones? How about being able to land on planets? How about the possibility of dynamically exploring/generating completely new planets and sectors in the universe? How about giving your player and team RPG stats? How about each pilot having differences in behavior when attacking, defending, etc? How about being able to modify, design, or customize ships on top of the models that already exist? And weapons. And shields. I don't know. Some ideas at least.

A Matter Of Gut Feeling

Let's place a honest disclaimer here. Maybe I'm getting old - for gaming at least. When you're young, experiencing video games has a significant impact on you, that kind of "magic". And I guess that as we gamers get older, we want more. Subconsciously we expect to re-live an evolved version of that original, magical experience. We expect the same feelings of wonderment as we ventured into Ultima Underworld's darkest corners, or found our way through Super Metroid's suspense atmosphere. Back in the day - at least for me - it wasn't that much about power gaming or reaching objectives: it was going into a different world and getting shit scared as we turned another corner and a giant spider jumped on us. For that reason, I have to give a little leeway to the gaming industry as I'm writing this: I may indeed be growing out of games. I don't know.

Still, my maturity notwithstanding, one thing time also told me was to trust my gut above anything else. And this nagging feeling most certainly is that. What worries me is that I'm being disappointed, not in a "you could have done better" kind of way;  not in a "you didn't make the best option here" kind of way; but in a manner that is almost surreal. I feel as if the companies and designers that own the games and franchises are disrespecting and throwing out the window the expectations and eagerness of the fanbase their games have already garnered, without care or remorse. Never in my wildest dreams would I come up of developing a Sim City game with such a small map; I'd feel guilty and unethical over it. Never in my mind would I dare to come up with a X Universe game where I couldn't change ship.

I don't want to discourage those that like these releases, or those that kind of dislike them, but find reasons to enjoy the games and remain loyal nonetheless. That's okay. That's a good principle to live by. I try to be understanding and see the other side too. But my gut feeling keeps telling me, tolerance notwithstanding, there's some shit that's seriously wrong.

I feel the fanbase in general, even the most die-hard and quick-to-complain individuals, are actually very thoughtful, tolerant, and understanding. We understand when a company is pressured by the market environment to leave some polishing to post-release, patches, or even community modding. We understand budget constraints. We get what challenges are. We do. The more us gamers grow into adults, the more we get that, for obvious reasons. Developing a game is a complex journey, like making a classic movie, like a tough life choice, like so many other meaningful things in life. And in the face of some of these kind of peripheral characteristics that don't come out perfect, that could have been better, that aren't as polished as desirable, we may complain somewhat, yes, but we are willing to circle around those things and make an effort to enjoy it nonetheless.

What stikes a nerve, however, is when we (or me, at least) detect than, beyond challenges, beyond difficulty, there was a lack of fundamental care, commitment with vision, dedication, into following the promises and potentials delivered by the previous game. We anger when something that was dear and close to us was treated like 'some other thing'. That is when a degree of anger appears, this is when angry reviews and cursing come out. But honestly, in that sense, and in my mind, they are justified.

I know these are just games, you know, and I'm aware they would try to appeal to different markets, make the game more accessible to younger crowds, newer gamers, to consoles, or try to make the games easier and more accessible. I know they want to grow, they want more success. Who wouldn't, right? But none of this matters if you grab a game and torn apart its original principle, reduce the universe to a tiny map compared to the previous games, and shred away its complexity and depth. Because then that's the message that comes across: we're being treated as sheep, and the purpose is to make as much cash as possible, regardless of care. So let's just send out some crap even if it's not stellar, and hope they don't complain too much. That's the worrying trend I'm sensing.

No proof, no inside stories, no rumors; just looking at the games themselves, and listening to my gut feeling. You may need concrete evidence to point fingers and know what actually happened for each case; but you don't need evidence to sense what is going on with the big picture.

An Appeal

If you want to make a different game, do it. If you want to make a game for the kids, for consoles, for a wider audience, that's fine. Launch a spin-off, an "inspired by" game, something with a different ideal, a different purpose. But please don't hijack the X Universe and throw fixed plot elements, a voice, a special ship, and a woman co-pilot to babysit you through. Please don't remove my choices. Please don't dumb down or discard that which already works, and that which already made the game unique and good. There is also the audience, the generation, of now less-than-young gamers out there, who look forward to the greater challenge, who eager for it, and to which you could (should?) also cater.

Let me choose which sword to equip, which crew to hire, which ship to fly. Let me write my own story. Have respect for the games you create, for the fanbase and their expectations, and most importantly, for yourselves. All I ask, is that you care. 

Because we can tell when you don't.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

XCOM Enemy Unknown - Review

This is going to be a review of XCOM Enemy Unknown, and in this review there will be direct comparisons with its spiritual predecessor, the 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defense). 

Why Compare This Game With the Original?

When older gamers talk about the original, and they compare this new game with said original, I often read comments asking: "Why compare this game to the original? They are different games. Enjoy this one." So let me address such a question right away.

Short answer: 
Because it's XCOM.

Less-than-short answer.
Around my teens I was blown away by X-COM's two games. In my book, they were one of the best games ever made, even to today's standards. Without going into the "best game ever" idea, the original XCOM a game that can certainly make a solid case for that title. X-COM set the bar extremely high, and that is precisely why everyone, for so very long, has tried to pick up the franchise and remake it, modernize it, "re-imagine" it, and so forth. In my opinion, you can assess and play this game by itself, but ignoring the existence of the original is impossible for me personally, and it doesn't make sense otherwise. It's XCOM.

Playing the original had a magical thing to it, and there's always the expectancy to remake it with today's technology. It did have some quirks, but the underlying game mechanics were awesome. And why would we want a new game if we can just play the old one? Well, duh, it's old! How many times can we play something over and over? Naturally we want magic v2.

"Re-imagining", to me, is a buzzword used by Firaxis to allow them a little more freedom to develop their game, while perhaps taking a little more expectation off their backs. After all, that was their intention: redevelop the game, as if they were making it today anew, while not necessarily copying everything from the original. But, you know what? This is XCOM. And it's by XCOM standards I'll be reviewing it. It makes sense no other way.


This is an engrossing and addictive game. You can tell by looking at it, and playing it, that every single detail was designed and balanced with care, to make you have a specific kind of experience when playing it. Not every aspect survived from the 1994 game, but the goal was not to stray too off, and to capture its spirit in a modern design.

It's easily something that was made with love and care, and the product is successful, of high-quality. There's no arguing that. Visually entertaining and tough-as-nails battles, steep difficulty from Classical and above, and a dash of RPG leveling up your soldiers. Extremely small squad sizes (4-6) make you value each individual soldier tremendously, and I assume that's exactly what the devs aimed for. In fact, on higher difficulty battles, if you lose one of your four soldiers in a battle, the odds quickly start stacking against you.

I personally tend to frown upon the tactical game mechanics (cover, seeing and firing through corners, etc) as it's implemented, mostly because can be a little counter-intuitive at times, and because cover values are a little arbitrary and hard-coded into the map tiles. However, the resulting game experience is a intricate, very specific game-of-chess-ey challenge with its own set of rules, one you must master in order to survive through the game. You cannot expose your men under any circumstance, and the slightest mistake may cost your mission, if not your game - things can get very ugly very fast.

For this reason, especially in the early to mid-game, your tension levels before each battle are always through the roof, basically because a loss, while not an instant game-over, does come very close. Losing a battle means you lose hard-earned veterans, which are hard to replace, but far more importantly, countries take a panic penalty, if not outright abandoning the XCOM project immediately, something that affects your funding and can dictate the difference between staying in the game or not. If 8 countries or more leave, it's officially game over.

If you do survive through the early and mid-game, if you get the hang of how the fights work and you have experienced soldiers and high-tech toys to play with, but most importantly, when you manage to cover all countries in satellites, the game can quickly become... well, trivial, or maybe straightforward is the term. Things can still go bad at any time, but you do lose the feeling of being underpowered and vulnerable, because you aren't any more. From this point on, the game, which thrives in being difficult and putting pressure upon the player, kind of loses a little steam, and you're progressing with the game to finish it.

Still, all things added up, this is clearly a masterwork of craft and dedication, destined to carve its own place in the niche and in the minds of gamers. It is indeed a worthy successor to the 1994 game.

But, is it as actually as good as the original?

Streamlining Things

Having found my way across the combat system, my guess is that the devs created the altered battle mechanics, such as the "explicit" cover system, absence of free aiming with most weapons, and so on, not only to remove the slow pace and micromanagement of the original, but also to provide a more strict framework upon which to implement their AI. If you had left a hard physics engine like in the original game (meaning, cover not being a tile value, but the actual objects between a line of fire), as well as the original Time Units mechanic, that essentially meant you had full range of movement and choices, and well as the AI. And that AI would have been way more tricky to implement than this one. Relatively easier to teach an AI to play chess (make choices within a strict ruleset) than to live real life (choose between everything). Also easier to design and balance your classes and its level-up traits.

The original (unmodded) didn't streamline inventory management at all. You allocated gear to your transport craft, and you later assigned those items to each soldier right before battle. But, if you by any chance didn't want to equip all your soldiers exactly the same gear, you had to manually equip each, one over and over, right before each battle. Here, you don't so much have an inventory to customize, rather, soldiers have a strict group of slots where to put items (armor, weapon, sidearm, other), and before each mission it's generally easier to equip them.

Note that this game's simpler 'inventory' does suffer from its quirks of its own. If you deselect a pre-selected soldier from a mission squad, you must get it back temporarily to strip its gear away if you need it for another soldier. A soldier 'menu' besides the main selecting screen would be nice.

Rather infamously, in battle, the older games frequently forced you to waste a lot of time searching for last isolated aliens hidden in dark corners, which was a relatively big problem - not only a chore, but because that hiding alien could be actually powerful and waste a few of your soldiers as you were trying to reach it carelessly (because you were running out of patience). Here, however, smaller maps, and aliens triggered in groups, completely eliminates that problem, which, frankly, is a fresh approach. Aliens in this game never stay still and hide: they're always teleporting moving around. So the battle experience, in that sense, is indeed streamlined, and you'll never again go "oh, I'd like to pick up XCOM again, but if only for those time-wasting things...". 

However, an interesting phenomenon happens with this game. You soon find out, through experience, that the optimal rules of engagement is to send a soldier ahead to make a first contact, and then either pull back to lure aliens into your overwatch trap, or (especially on Impossible) hunker down and prepare for a concerted offensive move next turn. There are missions with turn-limit that rush you, and as the game moves on and you get better gear you start being less cautions. But a conservative and very though-out approach becomes the default and best tool of survival in the early to mid-game.

Aliens, especially on high difficulty levels, are extremely accurate, even when you're in full cover. Unless you are willing to gamble with your soldier's health, the best defense is being out of sight, and the next best is being hunkered down in full cover. Leaving a soldier within sight of an alien at the end of its turn is one step closer to its death, and the game does punish you heavily for the slightest mistake or lapse in concentration, forcing you to be on your full focus all the time, much like a game of actual chess. An experience which was the result of streamlining things can become a very cautious and slow procedure. So stating the experience is "streamlined" has a little bit of irony to it, even if some mundane time-consuming tasks were removed, and rightly so. The patience-testing delay of chasing that last alien on large maps, and the clunky inventory management, were exchanged for a slow, carefully calculated, chess-like tactical battle on a smaller map and with less units.

Geoscape and Base Management

In the original game's geoscape you had your base(s) on the lookout for whatever alien activity you could catch, and the aliens had their specific autonomous agendas regardless of your actions. Granted, the game would probably make sure there would be alien activity somewhere near your first base, even if you placed it in Antarctica, but there was a system for aliens and their bases. In this game, though, what happens is more linear and follows more closely what you research. Things appear because of XCOM, and the geoscape simply as a button to "scan", meaning, "advance events". There isn't much to the physical location of things, other than the necessity of placing satellites in certain countries/areas in order to check their panic levels and prevent abduction missions.

Having just one base, to me, isn't that big of a deal. On the original games I really didn't like much having more than one base, and perhaps a secondary one, simply because multiple bases would only increase micromanagement of troops and supplies, and would double the amount of missions you could have. So having just one base, in my mind, is arguably a justifiable game design option.

The game does leave you with one recipe for survival strategic-wise, which is to do a satellite rush as soon as possible - otherwise, the rate at which panic levels rise will inevitably make countries leave XCOM funding. The game does not give you much incentive to focus on improving research or building laboratories, which is a shame. Actually, it's a little the opposite of the original, where veterans have the instinct of boosting research as soon as possible to keep up with the aliens, and much less pressure to focus on amassing engineers and workshops. Being able to cover a continent with satellites gives you a specific bonus and provides added management depth.

However, one thing to notice is that the concept of Satellite coverage itself is a little silly. While in the original you relied on the pure physical scanner range, in this one a few of the satellite slots are the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. Again, this is another area where the game attempted to abstract from pure pure "physical" game features, into a streamlined conceptualization, with mixed results. Sometimes this streamlining gives you more management options and freedom, but it can distance itself from the realism that made the original game something special.

In this game you don't recruit engineers and scientists like soldiers, nor do workshops/laboratories have a maximum workforce capacity. Instead, your base has a generic pool of total engineers, and another one of scientists (god knows where and how they sleep). Engineers/scientists "come" with each workshop/laboratory you build, and are also awarded by countries and through missions.

But, engineers have this contrived mechanic whereby their amount/threshold is a precondition for certain buildings (okay I guess, they staff buildings after all), but they don't decrease item build times, instead they make each item costs less (what?), and, they can build as many simultaneous (non-instant) items as you wish, all at the same time, taking the same duration to manufacture regardless of item amount and parallel projects. Building 1, 10, or 200 satellites always takes 20 days, even with other similar ongoing projects simultaneously. What?

These must be a special breed of engineers, surely able to pull all-nighters and time-space paradox tricks out of their asses at will. Bad jokes aside, this is extremely counter-intuitive and hard to take in, even considering that's the way the game is balanced. Purists such as myself, even if they find the game fun and engaging, can't help but feel a little nagged by these things. In the original, more engineers needed more workshops to work, and could built things faster (or more things in the same period of time). Simple.

Much of the game's fun comes more from its difficulty - as intended - less from the underlying realism of game mechanics.

Soldier Level-Up and Specialisation

Something that received more attention and love was individual soldier progression. In the original all soldiers leveled up with missions, but that wasn't much specialization once they did: you had one recipe for success once you had the tech: everyone with heavy plasmas (perhaps one or two with a Blaster-Launcher), everyone with the best armor, etc. Soldiers did start with specialized "human" weapons: auto cannon (machine-gun), light rifle, rocket launcher, but that distinction didn't follow when you researched better tech - there was no plasma sniper gun, or "shotgun", for example.

In this game, however, that received deserved attention, and soldiers have specific classes and respective weapons, which follow up when new tech is researched. Furthermore, each soldier class (sniper, assault, etc) has a little trait tree that they unlock when they level-up. I just wish the traits were more. There are only two measly traits from which you can choose per level. Not suggesting to turn this in to a full-fledged RPG, but two traits feels a little skimpy. As do the armor/gear strict limitations (no inventory), and hard restrictions on the classes' weapons. Also, soldier's personal stats were reduced from the original array, to just hit points (plus defense), will, and aim.

I do understand. Again, another area where the player's choices are more narrow, in the same train of thought of stricter rules on tactical battle: it's meant to provide a more narrow ruleset to place the AI on, and to reduce your own micromanagement and delay. It works, I think. It does make what it's supposed to do: it streamlines the experience and abstracts some of the chores of equipping soldiers. However, the end result is debatable, because it denies me the juicy pleasure of mixing and matching things the way I please. If Firaxis wanted a more modern and less wasteful game for the new millennium, they did got it: this is a good game. But if they wanted a game for the ages, reducing the array of choice from the player worked against it, in my opinion.

You could elaborate and differentiate a little more each soldier's traits, for example a soldier with naturally high accuracy and low carrying capacity would necessarily had to be the sniper. These would be soft-imposed rules, not arbitrary restrictions - big difference. I guess the biggest critique I can make of the game is that all these abstractions and "optimizations" make it less real and sandbox-y, while more linear and intense. And yes, "real" is important, okay? Because this is XCOM. You can love it for what it is now, but the game exists because of the original. Also, I can mess with my soldiers haircut, race, tone of skin, choose its class traits, but not choose its class...? Hmmm... not sure what the game gains with that. 

Perhaps the hard restrictions on classes, and the inability to choose a class, are meant to prevent you from using only one or two classes while skipping others altogether? If that's so, firstly, that would be my own choice. But, perhaps more glaringly, that may well be an option of self-defense from the game and its devs, in order to hide any possible less-than-perfect balancing of the game mechanics. Mechanics that should gently, through careful balance, suggest you the need of having all the different classes, for the game's different situations, much like most rock-paper-scissors you have in strategy games like the Total War franchise, or some RPGs, such as WoW and its classes.

That, in my book, is the hallmark of a great game: giving and leaving more choices to the player, while having enough in-depth design to balance those choices appropriately.

What The Game Did Right

- A passionate re-invention of a fluid, streamlined, and solid combat system (tactical), with a decent variety of attack types and enemies, together with considerable management decisions and rationing of resources (strategic), blend in a solid game, true in philosophy to the original.

- Extremely high and punishing difficulty levels, especially in the early game, but with rewarding achievements, make you tense up and glue to the chair, hoping for another day to go by to see if you can pull it off. Resources (money, alloys, ellerium, etc) are not as easy to come by as in the original, greatly increasing the need to prioritize your actions.

- Being difficult as it is, once in a while the game throws you into an overwhelming, suicidal situation, one that makes you sit up from your seat wandering how you're going to play the game when you restart. Yet, you  may just be able to survive such a situation, if you know what you're doing, if you make your moves right, and with a little bit of luck. It'll be just the more gratifying considering its immense difficulty. Such a game has the magical ability of giving you tales to tell, and leaving you craving for more. This is one of those games. It's the best compliment I can give it. It follows on the original's footsteps, which had the same ability, and also on games like Rome Total War, or Jagged Alliance, for example, where you can overcome inhuman odds.

Yesterday I survived a hairy terror mission with 3 groups of cryssalids plus zombies, and a cyberdisk+drones group, with one high-ranking casualty and multiple wounded. Once I migrated the Gaul faction to Rome, fighting with my Spear Warbands every single Triarii group. Once in Third Age Total War I fought a scripted defense force in Moria, which included a Balrog group, and only a meagre handful of units plus the general survived. These are the stories you'll be telling others when you speak of the game. This is one of those games.

- Soldier focus and in-depth specializations, which don't dilute and devolve into a single cookie-cutter class as the game progresses. Reasonably balanced classes which provides variety and coolness to soldiers.

- Existing game mechanics are balanced properly and invite the player into specific behaviours in order to survive: prioritize satellites in order to shield nations/continents from abductions, reduce panic, obtain funding, resources, and bonuses; value defense over offense in tactical battles, making you think things through and be cautious instead of doing whatever, because you're severely punished for losing soldiers/missions; soldier classes and skills are sufficiently different from one another so they are useful and don't overlap each other and become redundant.

- Often overlooked, but worthy to point out: the graphics, scenery, and especially the intricate soldier /alien animations and general movement, are all carefully crafted and fluid; it's something the player may forget when mentioning the game, but it is very well made, and it does add a sense of realism, action, and fluidity to the game. Switching weapons, walking through short obstacles or windows, climbing and descending, all of these small movements are very nicely done, both for humans and aliens. Have you seen the animation of a zombie descending from high elevation?

- Introduction of new concepts or tweaks: country panic levels, simultaneous alien missions which prompt your strategic choice, resources and bonuses from protecting countries/country groups, instant item fabrication, shotguns, scopes, critical hits, soldier and alien skills (mind meld, intimidate, poison shots, high ground, variety of  psionic attacks), alien weapon self-destructing upon owner's death, forcing you to stun if you want to scavenge alien hardware, alien corpses that are usable resources rather than to merely sell. Explicitly notifying that certain alien vessel components are meant to be sold, is a wonderful, fantastic touch.

- Keeping certain hallmarks of the original's design: research and production; alien autopsies, capture and interrogation; discovering how to beat the aliens by said research/interrogation; the cryssalids and their zombie-making ability; most alien names and their conceptualization; psionics; (relatively) destructible scenery; exploding cars and gas pumps; panicking soldiers; countries leaving X-COM funding; intercepting UFOs; taking care not to damage downed UFOs; scavenging alien hardware to use in research; in-combat explosions destroying said hardware.

- Clearly identifying plot research items, and directing you through them. Removal of the "search for the last alien" patience-defying moments, using 'squads' of aliens and smaller maps. Also, having a single base does reduce micromanagement, being the notion of the aliens also having very few bases, and
overseeing  the invasion from a few mastermind ships
a plausible notion to go along with that idea. Arguable, but plausible/neutral/acceptable design choice in my view.

- Overall the game doesn't stray too far from the original's philosophy, therefore the sense of vulnerability, urgency, yet evolution of your forces according to your management, all of these elements are present in the game in some way, and in essence remain true to the original.

What The Game Did Not-So-Right

- A streamlining which pulls away from a 'realistic' simulation combat system, namely the dropping of completely free aiming, type of shots, spontaneous/ reaction fire, time units, full-range inventory management, picking items off the ground, fighting in night time, cover being the actual objects between a weapon and a target (instead of a shield drawn in the side of things). Streamlining is a good principle; abstracting may not always work for the best, however.

- Hard restrictions on inventory items and class armament, instead of balancing game mechanics and giving the choice to the player. Not possible to manufacture items for profit (acceptable as a design choice), but the ability to sell excess weapons/items has been removed altogether (save for some council/country requests). What if I want to sell my extra medikit to cut my losses? I can sell sectoid corpses in a grey market, but not a medikit X-COM themselves have researched? What?

- More linear plot advancement; irrelevance of geoscape in terms of 'physical' strategic options, other than satellite placement. No day-night cycle and no choices at that level either. Lack of management depth and design mechanics funnels the game into a single cookie-cutter competitive strategy: satellite rush above other priorities; ignore plot advancement research until ready; ignore scientists and laboratories altogether. It feels what happens at strategic level serves player, rather than giving the idea that the aliens are a tangible organization with a mind of its own. You are being given a series of events, rather than attempting to discern with your radars and ships where the alien craft are, and what they're doing - which happens in the background regardless of you being aware of it or not. In this game there are specific fixed timeline events, such as, for example, Muton Berserkers appearing on month four, always. While there was a progression in difficulty in the original, there were no such strict rules.

- Panic, together with the simultaneous abduction missions, is the single player-pressuring game mechanic in the early to mid game. It's the danger, the chasing monster; the rebel fleet of FTL; it's what challenges the player into making strategic choices and prioritize, and threatens to defeat him all the way. However, once Panic is controlled, the player now has substantial funding, and is now pretty much free to do as he pleases, and when. A playthrough is clearly divided into two stages: the early to mid game until you manage to cover the world in satellites, when you're literally unsure if you'll succeed or fail - where the game draws much of its difficulty from; but then, after that moment, the game then becomes fairly straightforward, or, dare I say... boring? Insert the word to prefer here.

- Pre-made maps sure are hard to overlook, when the originals got us used to random maps. The existing ones are built to go along with the game's tactical mechanics, and I'm sure the devs found it too resource-consuming to develop randomization with their current combat mechanics. In a map, alien groups follow the same fixed off-screen teleport patrol routes (a map is not that large anyway), so when you see a map you already played, you already have a good idea where aliens are. But pre-made maps can get repetitive with multiple playthroughs, and it generally feels a little off once they repeat. Pseudo-generation, with an assortment of area modules, would be best.

- While certainly difficult and tense, the game doesn't quite convey the sense of terror and dread from the original, and especially its sequel, when the curtain closes ("alien activity screen") as the aliens take their turn, creepy suspense music plays, civilians scream in agony as they die in the background, and you are shot dead from the middle of the night by an enemy you can't see - blank screen again. This game is more about action and tension, rather than danger and fear. And again, if you survive the first two months, the tension aspect is pretty much gone anyway.

- Tons of cutscenes, even when 'cinematic cutscenes' disabled; skipping through those (even if/when they can be skipped) can get a chore. Streamlining cut on some chores, only to add another ones. Linear gameplay and cutscenes give the feeling the game was pushed a little away from being a tactical simulation, and a little more to the Final Fantasy / console-ish side of things. I don't want to see those dudes saying the same things over and over again every time I play through the game. Enough already.

Mobile Weapons Platforms. S.H.I.V.S. aren't all that fragile. An hover/plasma S.H.I.V. on Classic has 18 HP, can fly, and can hit for 11 damage. Therefore, they can be useful, and I understand that in the game's current balance, since your squad size is so limited, they must be designed/balanced as they are right now. As it stands, though, these are useful solely to patch up your squad if everyone is unavailable for an important mission, or perhaps to absorb enemy shots and PSI attacks. They are a stopgap, a very situational auxiliary tool, one you may not use at all in a given game. Granted, you may be in dire need on higher difficulty levels, but with small squad sizes, you almost always want to be using actual soldiers. So weapons platforms in this game have a substantially reduced relevance, if any at all.

You had tanks in the original, useful both early game and later on. If you have your soldiers in Gears-of-War-type power armor and oversized weapons from the start, wouldn't it be fun to use actual mini-tanks, robots, or even mini-mecha? Balance it with uber aliens, or something. Lost opportunity there.

- Bugs/Features are not overly concerning in my opinion, with patches coming out, and all games have their quirks. But a few are consistent and becoming trademarks. These are not overly concerning on their own, but they do reveal some of the game mechanics to the player.

  1. Sometimes you gain the ability to spot alien groups being teleported across the map (why the teleporting in the first place?), mostly in occasions when you reduce soldier's LoS through Hunker Down, or using the Sniper's device to reveal portions of the map. 
  2. In these occasions it's not uncommon for alien groups to appear to teleport directly into the middle of your squad, instead of at least having some animation of 'wandering' into view. Such features let the player show how AI groups are teleported around, greatly reducing game immersion.
  3. When a mind-controlled alien dies, it affects your soldier's will as if a 'comrade has fallen', and your squad may panic as a result. Those soldiers sure got attached quick to that alien (whom they'd never met before, and was trying to kill them just a minute ago). Mind Control isn't quite workable because of it. And that is really a shame.
  4. Also, some explosion blasts (grenades, cars) affecting units through walls without actually destroying the walls; being able to shoot or throw grenades across walls; and an assortment of things of that nature. 


An actual successor in the XCOM/X-COM series, true to its philosophy of squad management and intense on-the-edge missions. Ignoring the game's re-invented tactical combat and challenging gameplay would be a tremendous injustice to the dedication put into it by the developers. But, does it reach Legendary status? Expectations are high with this one.

Too many eggs were put in the difficulty basket, while stripping some of the depth of the original gameplay. Is it a true fun game? Yes. Is it a game that will break you, one you'll feel you need to take on for the challenge alone? Yes. But, once the initial challenge is gone, once satellites are up and gear is reasonable, once you know what you're doing, the game loses all of its steam, becoming almost boring. Thus replayability greatly suffers once you reach this point.

You'll have nightmares and become traumatized by the losses this game will have you take, as I did. You'll wait for just one more day so that research comes in and you can have better armor, or weapons, before those early game abduction missions. You'll learn to roll your dice, and never feel completely safe, as a crushing defeat is but a stray shot away.

But to be honest, a part of me isn't completely satisfied. I like the graphics, the animations, and the modernization of things. Love it, keep it. But I want to handle inventories (in a streamlined fashion, of course), I want to free aim, and I want more soldiers, tanks, civilians that are actually meant to save, and aliens that behave reasonably on the battle map - instead of teleporting and 'activating'. I want time units. And I still want an actual Earth globe, with actual alien activity - rather than events - that I can fight toe-to-toe.

For these reasons, I don't think XCOM is magic v2. I don't think it matches or surpasses the brilliance of the original, and perhaps it's a risk for anyone attempting to develop the franchise, because brilliance isn't usually all that easy to come by.

It is, however, a worthy game. It's not a consentual improvement, but it's not a complete derailing from what made the original great, either - as, inexplicably, so many companies and developers persisted in doing, and will possibly continue to do, I guess. XCOM Enemy Unknown It's a labour of passion and dedication that will glue you to the chair on its own right.

Annex: Suggestions For Improvement

Standing as it is, this is already a memorable game, which not only succeeds on its own, but manages to evolve some aspects of its predecessor. Having experienced both games, one can only imagine how to take the best out of the two.

- Keep alien 'squads'. This feature helps remove the isolated alien which was programmed to stay still in a dark corner, and helps the player have a notion of how many aliens there are left. Aliens being 'triggered' should mean they've detected you, but they should behave in a reasonable manner off-screen, instead of simply being hopped around. Remove the off-screen teleporting of aliens, replace with regular pathfinding (because there will always be ways of the human player detecting aliens off-screen). 

- Remove tactical abstractions. Have time-units instead of actions; have spontaneous reaction fire instead of overwatch; have carrying capacity and expanded soldier stats, instead of hard restrictions on equipment; have cover be the solid objects on the field rather than a value that decreases chance to be hit.

- Allow free-aiming (always); bullet and laser weapons can't easily destroy solid objects, plasma can. Fire weapons and check if the shot hits the actual intended target, or an object in the way. Keep the ability to fire from behind corners, possibly subjected to reaction fire. Design class abilities and AI behaviour around time-units and simulation mechanics rather than the current rules.

- Remove location abstraction from the geoscape. Remove "event" system and let us have the XCOM vs Aliens across Earth. Get back night battles, flares - line of sight is already implemented. Keep the"panic" concept. Let player place satellites with an actual 'physical' sight radius rather than the current territory coverage (1 satellite for France and 1 satellite for Russia is silly); let "panic" be generated in areas where you physically have less coverage and simply can't see as well. Have aliens be a consistent, "physical" entity rather than scripted events more or less predictably thrown at the player.

- Have the aliens progress and increase their advances/technology/frequency, maybe affected by player success, but still in a manner independent of the player, as a form of keeping the player under pressure throughout the game until its end - instead of the panic mechanic being the sole feature for that. The way it is now, once you reach a full satellite coverage, nothing pressures you anymore.

- Increase squad size, balance with number of aliens, game mechanics, game difficulty, and map size. It's hard to justify having the organization which is fighting an Alien invasion only send 4 soldiers to a battle (!).

- Make it realistic for human early interceptor jets to not be able to catch (let alone shoot down) alien craft - maybe with ground batteries instead, with EMP ground cannons, etc. Or, hint on how top-secret jet technology is so far advanced that it allows you to catch alien ships. Consider leaving alien craft mostly unattended in the early game, at least until you have actual technology that allows you to chase UFOs reliably. Satellites should also be more way more vulnerable to an alien invasion from space - ground arrays instead?

- Option to remove all forms of cutscenes. The dude speaking in the little square at the corner will suffice for the repeating playthroughs.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Guide for Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

This is a collection of hints, tips and guidelines I've assembled from playing FE: Legendary Heroes single-player. Fell free to share, if you do please attribute to the Borderline Pandemonium blog.

About Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

FE: LH is a very interesting game that seemlessly blends 4X strategy a la Civ, games with RPG elements such as unit traits, health, leveling up, performing quests, designing and equipping units, and so forth. Its strength lies in the ability to let you have a unique gaming experience, both in the sense each game is unique and lives its own life, and also, that that you design, choose, and play the game the way you see fit.

Do you favour magic, or do you prefer good'ol steel and heavy armor? Do you prefer a climate of peace, developing slowly at your own pace, aka turtling, doing quests and be left alone? Or do you like to blitz your oponents at the earliest opportunity? Are your armies the hoplite type, spear and shield? Are they archer-based? Do you fancy having high-fantasy beasts, trolls and dragons in them? Or are they full of naked, two-handed double-axed, berserking people? The game lets you have all of that, perhaps, sometimes, some of these all at the same time, in the same game. You could say it has a high replayability value.

A "fortress" city with walls built around it, in FE: Elemental Heroes

I've played the game mostly up until expert, as I find that's the difficulty level I have the most balance between developing a long-term game while keeping the AI competitive/threatening. Lower levels may get a little too easy for experienced strategy players, higher levels make the AI have too many bonuses that you tend struggle to survive instead of thriving - which I personally dislike. I'm a bit of a power gamer. I like to specialize, maximize, level it up, and overpower. But that's my cup of tea. FE: LH let's me paint the picture the way I like it, and that's its strength.

About This Guide

This is not an introdutory guide for begginers. It assumes you already know the basics about choosing/creating factions, and how the game works. These are a few guidelines and tips that I've gathered from playing the game myself. Please refer to the manual and the in-game wiki if you have trouble about some of the basic game mechanics.

Also I won't pretend to know everything about the game. In fact, I actually don't know some things at all. I play for fun only, not to write guides, and I do so in my own way. So this guide will always be biased to my playing preferences. FE: LH has enough depth that you'll still be finding new things and experiencing different stuff every time you play a new game.

I hope you enjoy.


0. Quick Game Review

+ 4X plus RPG
+ Play as You Want
+ Lots of Items, Spells, Creatures, and Stuff
+- Terrain Randomization
- Steamroller Effect
- AI Choices
- Unbalancing

1. Choosing Your Faction

1.1 Research
1.2 Unit Quality
1.3 Unit Bonuses Example
1.4 Tactical Battle Concepts
1.5 Faction Weapon Traits
1.6 Magic Schools
1.7 The Way Your Faction Will Play
1.8 The "Spell of Making" Victory Condition
1.9 Sovereign and Hero Classes
1.10 The Role Your Sovereign and Your Heroes Play Throughout the Game
1.11 Further Notes on Sovereign Professions
1.12 Further Notes on Faction Traits and Penalties
1.13 Further Notes on Pre-existing Factions
1.14 Further Notes on Rectruitable Units From Camps
1.15 Further Notes on Races

2. Faction Management

2.1 Landscape and Tile Basics
2.2 Grain, Material, Essence Priority, City Enchantments
2.3 Settlement Types and Level Up

3. Playing The Game

3.1 Starting Location Quality
3.2 First Moves
3.3 Unrest
3.4 Diplomacy
3.5 Unit Design and Army Management
3.6 A Few Unit Ideas and Concepts
3.7 Random Unit Traits and Equipment Notes

4. General Hints and Tips

4.1 Wartime Defending and Attacking
4.2 Faction Surrendering
4.3 Dragons and Elemental Lords
4.4 'Snaking' and Bringing Resources Inside City Walls
4.5 Things that Feel Like Cheat Mode
4.6 Special and Unique Items

0. Quick Game Review

+ 4X plus RPG
Regardless of how well you feel this game has integrated these two aspects, this is its unique offer: a 4X town-settling expansion game, with the leveling up, unique item gathering, quest fetching component of RPGs. Even individual military units level-up. 

Making a direct comparison with Civilization franchise, this would be like grabbing Civ and adding to it character prrogression and tactical grid-like battles. This is a great layer of complexity added to the game - instead of simply having a ton of stacks fighting each-other on the strategic map - and places more importance to having fewer, dedicated armies.

The next step is merging Civ with the Rome/Medieval Total War series... THAT would be something.

+ Play as you want
In FE: EH you can design your military units and have them fight how you want. You can design your sovereign and its profession/specialization, and your other heroes. You can choose faction traits, and those traits heavily influence how your faction plays. It allows you to experience a game as you want to.

+ Lots of Items, Spells, Creatures, and Stuff
Upon faction choice/creation, and along the game, you'll get access to a pletora of items and magical spells, that will greatly differenciate one faction playstyle from another. There's a great variety of creatures, ways to fighting them, and also of special/unique items, many of which you may not find in one given playthrough. You'll also be given the choice of heroes for hire out of a large and varied pool, some of them quite... exotic. This adds not only variety to the game, but a lot of customization and replayability, as well. Not to mention the modding community.

+- Terrain Randomization
The quality of your staring terrain, and the circumstances of your surroundings, varies wildly. Your starting resources can be plentiful, or non-existant; settling locations (not all land is settleable) can be of high value and next to one another, or low-grade and very far apart, requiring lots of resources to tie them together; you can be given a large chunk of unnocupied, easily lockable from the AI, fertile land - or, you may be sandwished between two terrain-gobbling factions from the word go. The game acknowledges this feature, by streamlining the action of re-generate a starting game by pressing CTRL+N for as long as you haven't saved

You can see this as both a good and a bad thing. Not every tile in the terrain being settleable is an extremely refreshing novelty and it creates an additional wildcard component. However, in traditional 4X fashion, a strong start is everything in this game. Purists looking for a different challenge in each playthrough will value the ability the game has to offer you a completely different story every time you play. However, if you fancy a reasonable starting terrain to start off and not be on the back foot for the entire game, it can be extremely off-putting (and feel like cheating) having to restart over-and-over in the expectancy of reasonable starting conditions. 

- Steamroller Effect
Because the game fosters the use of less units than, say, Civilization, once you defeat the armies/stacks of an invading faction, it's a little too easy, for the most part, to grab your own armies and steamroll through their territory.

The AI isn't particularly adept at keeping reserves defending the territory, and said reserves usually take a few turns to be built. When they are defeated, heroes are immobilized inside their cities for a number of turns, heavily wounded and unable to move around. Finally, the militia units that are spawned in city defense have the best blunt weapon the faction has researched, yet, no armor, making them easy targets to dispatch. All of these factors combined contribute to the steamroller effect, where you encounter little resistance when advancing over another faction's territory.

At some points, the AI in this game may make you sweat, especially when it's way far ahead in the power ratings and it gets aggressive towards you while you're still vulnerable. At other points, however, even in Expert difficulty level, you may feel you have to hold back and turtle in order to give the AI a chance. And that is a bad thing for a game to convey to you.

- AI Choices
The AI is competent on reasonable difficulty levels in giving you a challenge from a military and economic standpoint, being reasonably aggressive and keeping you on your Research toes. However, the AI is poor at designing its own heroes, and at using magic consistently. More often than not, you'll see the Resoln AI, a heavily magical-oriented faction, leveling its sovereing as an Assassin, instead of taking advantage of its multiple magical and summoning perks. Rarely you'll see a faction's dedicated mage spewing devastating magic spells from the back at every turn he gets. You'll best remember fighting Wildling Shamans, with their Coal Stones, or Haunters, with their mass curses, for their magical prowess, rather than enemy sovereigns. The AI, it seems, is better when it's programmed to do something more strictly, than when it's given the freedom to specialize.

As a result, you'll find it more difficult to face AIs with physical bonuses to their units, such as Tough, Defensive factions, or the Ironeers race, than with factions that (should) rely on magical prowess, and/or have mediocre units. You'll find it reasonably easy to deal with said Resoln, whose units have less hit points and can't wear heavy armor, or with Magnar, which uses inferior slave units almost exclusively. For an improved challenge, try designing custom factions/leaders for the AI to use that rely on passive and durable bonuses, especially military ones such as Defensive, Tough, Master Smiths, for example, and on sovereign professions like Armorer, Warlord, or even Noble - which gives a nice economic boost.

- Unbalancing
A few things in the game feel extremely unbalanced. Archer units feel slightly underpowered, and Catapults make you feel you don't need them at all, save if you use the Archer specialization for your faction. Certain spells nearly break the game (Blizzard comes to mind) and transmit the idea that those spells, and mage heroes in general, could fight entire armies alone.

Possibly the single greatest game-breaking item in the game are the Dragons. Granted, you only get them (if you get them) in the very late game, but if you do, you got an extremely quick, blitzing unit, that is a combination of a mage with its devastating ranged attack (Fire Breath,  opens 98% of fights by obliterating the other army) with a powerful fighter unit (Tail Swipe, deals Attack to all adjacent units). One thing is being a clear advantage, another quite different is being overpowered.

The AI seems proficient at beelining its research to certain things, like Warlord Verga going straight at heavy armor and Juggernauts, or Resoln going exclusively for Magic tech and its Towers. However, they don't seem to mind Dragon tech too much - even if they have Dragon camps available in their territory. I have never seen an AI faction with a Dragon. All these little things, coupled with the AI's inability to fully capitalize on its magic proficiencies in battle, makes you feel the game is unbalanced at some of its loose ends.

1. Choosing Your Faction

I always, always, create a custom faction. I find I can't tailor what I want to do to the specific factions of the game (so that means I may be missing a chunk of gameplay stuff that may be hardwired for the original factions, but hopefully not too much). This means this guide won't speak about specific factions that already exist in the game, rather it addresses all factions and all play styles you may wish to experience.  

The beauty of FE is that you have a ton of customization as to how you're developing your faction, and your units. Plus, each game takes it own path. You encounter different neighbours, you gather different items from quests, companions and their respective spells/skills, resources on the map, and so forth. So at this point the most important decision is: how will you like/want to play the game? Are you going for melee brutes? Magic users? Archers? You could plan for a peaceful existence, but (at least on expert) the AIs that are higher on you on the power ratings tend to start getting aggressive on you, as early as the mid-early to mid game. This is especially critical if you face an aggressive warlord like Verga. and their super-heavy-armoured soldiers.

In any faction, you have the choice to go Kingdom (the "good" guys) or Empire (the "fallen"). This choice affects primarily:

1) Who you're up against in-game - factions of the same alignment have bonuses to their relations, and this can make a difference on who are your enemies and your friends. On the other hand, on higher difficulty settings, when a faction smells blood (has a higher power ranking than you) it may attack you no matter what. Tarth (archers) is the warmongering faction on the Kingdom side, Yithril (berserking melee units and juggernauts) the one on the Empire side. You can of course create many custom-made factions and pit them all against you and each other in a given game.

2) Kingdom recruitable heroes (and your sovereign) don't have access to Death spells, and Empire to Life spells. Life focus on hit point bonuses and city growth; Death spells focus on mangling enemies in every way possible. You can gain access to spells of these schools if you make a sovereign of an opposing faction surrender to you, turning it into a hero you control. This tends to happen only after you've already gained an upper hand in-game, of course. Even if you get a sovereign to defect to your side, you won't be able to make him/her level up and gain new spells in that school: you only the spells that the sovereign already learned on its own.

3) Some world recruitable 'mercenary' units are available to each side only. For example, ogre and troll recruitable camps (a resource on which you have to build a camp to have these units in your armies) are only available to Empire factions, while Knights of Asok are only available to Kingdom factions. Dragons are available to anyone.

1.1 Research

The way I create my custom faction (you can also take this for the game's exiting factions) is as follows: I always take a scholar bonus (the faction's, the sovereign's profession, or maybe both) so I have a bit of an edge in relation to the bonuses the AI gets. Research is important to keep competitive with the AI. Because if the neighbouring warlord knocks on your door with a stack of units one layer higher that what you have to offer (for example, clad in plate armour when you only have chain or leather, or with the heavier mauls), you might be in the sh*t. As the human player you always have an edge in the strategic battles, so you make good use of swarming, positioning, magic, careful choosing of your striking order, etc (more of that later)... but there's only so much you can do. If you can't put a dent on your opponent's units, you're toast.

So Staying competitive research-wise is important. You can always compensate by focusing on building research improvements in your cities and the like, but this way you get an edge.

1.2 Unit Quality

For about the same reasons I don't ever pick pre-made factions, I also never, ever use/train units the game already has designed, and are unlocked when you research a tech that enables them (Defender, Archer, Mage, etc). I always design each and every unit I use. I find lots of fun in being able to design my units exactly according to my whims. Sometimes I design weak(er) units so I can train them cheaply and faster, other times I put all the eggs in the basket, and then some.

In an overall sense, I always tend to focus on buffing my unit's hit points in some way. I love having units with many hit points. No point (pun intended) in having high-quality units if they're on the frail side. In addition, I like to role-play my soldiers trying to make them last long enough, so these same units last as long as possible and level up as much as possible. So I usually have level 8-12 units towards the late game, which I trained in the early game and then upgraded them as I could.

There are various ways to buff unit's hit points. The Ironeer's racial bonus, the racial Tough attribute (+10% hit points), casting on your recruiting settlement the Life enchantment 'Aura of Vitality' that gives +1 hit points per Essence, settlement improvements, the Town level 3 bonus of giving all your faction's units +5% hitpoints (stackable), plus unit design, traits, and equipment. Empire factions obviously don't have access to Life magic, but they do have the possibility to build a building called 'Sacrificial Altar' which is an improvement over the Cleric/Shrine line of buildings, that grants +1 hit point to trained units (not the same as Life magic, but certainly another option). All of these bonuses stack, if not even multiply over each other. An Ironeer unit, mid to late game, with all of these tactics combined, has easily hundreds of hit points to spare. On expert and above, the AI has a bonus multiplier to their unit's hit points also.

You can always focus on something other than just hit points, as I do also. There's also defense, attack, initiative. I also strengthen my units defense (armor), especially in the early game. I just don't like relying just on defense rating, because there are a number of ways your opponents can bypass armour: magic, armour piercing weapons, and whatnot. Go with what you like. If you enjoy berserking-like units (low defense, big two-handed or dual-wield axes), go with it. You can focus on archery, or on ranged magic units. Remember to balance your army composition, so you have some melee units tanking the enemy's units, to leave your ranged units free(er) to shoot away.

1.3 Unit Bonuses Example

Let's say your race is Ironeers, which have a racial bonus of  +1 HP per level. In-game, you then design a unit which has trait "Constitution", granting it +3 HP. Also, say you're training this unit in a city, founded in a location with 2 Essence, and with the Life magic enchantment "Aura of Vitality", granting +1 HP per Essence to trained units in that city. So our unit, trained in this city in particular, on top of its racial and design bonuses,will get an extra +2 HP from the city's enchantment.

(When any units levels up in the game, they get one more HP regardless of bonuses. Also, a level 2 city/fortress will train level 2 units. I'm leaving these out for the moment just to illustrate my example.)

So adding these bonuses we have:

 +1HP per level (Ironeers)
 +3HP (Constitution)
 +2HP (Aura of Vitality)

= +6 HP bonus (on level 1)

Now, this bonus is applied to each soldier in the unit. So when you're training a unit that has 3 soldiers, you're not actually giving it a bonus of +6 HP, but +6x3 = 18HP, on top of its "standard" (normal) unit health. If you're training a unit with 5 soldiers (a squad), you have 6x5 =  30HP bonus on the unit.

Furthermore, if you have the Tough racial trait (+10% HP bonus on units), this will be applied on top of all the bonuses you give the unit. Furthermore, when the units levels up, it will receive further bonuses that stack with these. For HP the calculation is as follows:

Soldier base health
City Enchantment Bonuses (included in the base value)
Health bonuses not dependent on unit level (such as the Constitution trait)
10% of total so far, if faction has Tough trait

HP level bonuses (normal is +1HP per level, for Ironeers it's +2HP)
Unit size (number of soldiers)
Total unit health

An example with a level 7 "militia" unit (more about the concept of "militia" further ahead):

A level 7 Ironeer militia unit

This example serves to illustrate that the bonuses you give to your units are stackable, with multiplier effects.  Attack is stackable with a similar calculation, so is Defense (armor rating), so is Initiative (Defense, sadly, isn't multiplied by the number of soldiers it's a property of the unit). This way you can design and plan your units to have specific strengths and optimize, or maximize, what you want them to do. For example, if you're primarily a Magic tree researcher and you want your units to attack with, say, a Burning Battle Axe, you can add on top of that Amulets and other trinkets to increase its attack even further. The ability to design your units in whatever way you see fit, and still survive and keep them competitive, is one of the beauties of FE: EH.

An Ironeer unit strongly focused on attack and HP

The particular case of HP (and defense), on which I'm focusing in this guide, is specially important because it determines 1) how long your unit will survive, and 2) how much will take for a soldier in the unit to die. When an individual soldier in the unit dies in combat, the unit loses the attack of that individual soldier on the spot, so it will cause less damage thereafter. Therefore, when you're focusing on HP for example, the idea is that it's imperative that your units outlive the enemy's. When you're playing with a faction that has penalty both on unit's armor and HP (such as for instance with Oracle Ceresa's Resoln) you should still find a way to give your units, and your game style, an edge of some kind.

1.4 Tactical Battle Concepts

Defending means a unit in tactical battle is adopting a defensive stance, gaining a bonus to its Defense rating, because it's not yet its turn to move (you'll see a little shield on top of the soldiers' heads). When the unit gets to move - and attack - it leaves its defensive stance, losing momentarily the defensive bonus. The base Defending bonus is +5 Defense; shields, traits, and special items may add up to this. Defense functions like a filter: it subtracts from the physical damage dealt by the attacker, thereby reducing the damage done. Magical attacks (from spells, ranged units with staffs, and/or when a weapon is enchanted) bypass armor completely, factoring in the targeted units' spell/cold/fire/lightning resistance instead.

A Counterattack happens when a unit is struck in melee, and strikes back. The counter happens at a fraction of the unit's Attack value - of which I also have no idea on how it's calculated, but I'm guessing around 10-20%? - however it does catch the enemy without any Defending bonus. Only specific kinds of weapons and trinkets allow a unit a number of counterattacks per round (most notably swords). Meaning, if the unit has 1 counter per round and is struck by three enemies in-between its own moves, only the first enemy will be counterattacked.

Counter-attacking is workable, but as a fighting technique it's on the underpowered side, at least compared to other kinds of mechanics. The game seems to acknowledge this by having relatively few units using swords or with counterattack (both from factions and 'in the wild').

Splash Damage is when a unit with said ability strikes an enemy unit in melee, and also deals a percentage of the damage dealt in the primary blow, to other units surrounding the enemy unit (both friend and foe), in a 3x3 tile radius, with the enemy unit at its center, without affecting the attacking unit. Only a few units possess this ability, such as Juggernauts, and Elemental Lords. It can also be obtained at the end of the Warrior specialization tree for heroes, and with a trinket (called Golden Belt).

Splash damage usefullness as an offensive weapon varies according to circumstance, being the base 25% value, that most units have, fairly reasonable to low. If you rely on it consistently, its effectiveness depends on how fast you get your Splash-ing units to the melee line. When you have Juggernauts dealing immense damage with late-game weaponry, you usually also have other means to deal as much, if not more, damage.

Swarming bonus applies when a unit is being swinged at in melee by an enemy, and is surrounded in the neightbouring tiles by at least one more enemy melee unit. The enemy units contributing to the swarming bonus will perform an "attacking" animation, however they're not really attacking, only the attacking unit will actually perform the swing. Upon practical observation, the bonus is calculated from a percentage of the Attack ratings of the units contributing to the Swarming, and it lowers the target's Defense and Dodge ratings. Therefore, you'll see the defending unit being hit both more often, and harder. In a way, it's a little like Spash Damage in reverse: swarming units contribute to the attack with a portion of their own Attack rating.

Overpower is a specific trait of some monster units (and Dragons), that allow them to multiply its Attack rating per soldier in an enemy unit, when attacking. For example, a unit with 40 Attack rating will go into the melee attack formula with its value of 40 Attack (this typically includes a range, such as 10-40 damage, not the absolute value), times the number of soldiers in the targeted unit, for example, 5. In other words, the unit is dealing damage per soldier instead of per unit, compensating for the fact that, usually, only single-creature units have this ability.

Maul is another trait that is specific to some creatures, such as Cave Bears, and selectable as a trait to Juggernauts. It allows the unit to keep swinging in melee repeatedly, with a slight cumulative accuracy penalty per attempt (-15%, I believe), for as long as the previous attack connects with the enemy unit (i.e. the enemy unit doesn't dodge). Juggernauts make the most out of this abilty, as their attack "features" can be taken to the fullest by applying them repeatedly when striking an enemy unit multiple times. The "hero" (a feline character) Ascian, which you can get via a Quest, has the Assassing specialization, which allows you to choose traits on level-up that increase both critical chance and accuracy, turning Ascian into a deadly character to have.

1.5 Faction Weapon Traits

Following the reasons discussed above, you may prefer to choose one or more traits related directly to weapons, which unlock specific weapon types that differ from the standard ones:

Defensive: the bonus here is that you can combine the otherwise relatively lightly-armoured (shieldless) spearmen, with their armour piercing ability and immunity to counter-attacks, with the ability to sport a shield. Because spears are immune to counter-attack, these units will always be "defending" when they are hit, so you can take full advantage of bonuses of the type "+x defense when defending", which shields and design traits provide. This is the idea if you want to have hoplite-style solid units do a steady (if unspectacular) job against most opponents, even heavily-armoured ones, as spears are also armor-piercing. Also, the Short Pike top-tier spear doesn't need metal to produce, so you can design capable cheap militia/leather units that don't require much metal to create, but still have a capable attack rating.

To be honest, counter-attacking is not that much of a widespread threat. And the reason is, not that many units use swords (which allow the unit at least one counter-attack when struck in melee) and/or have counter-attacking ability - either faction-trained or monsters. It's there in the game, yes, but I feel it's probably not enough reason by itself to go for "Defensive" trait. This is probably another reason why this trait also gives bonuses to units in siege defense, which is nice to have in a tight jam. However, I find myself usually not risking siege defense if (I have the choice). I prefer to defend with a dedicated army, because loosing a city to the AI is a large blow indeed. But in such instances when I am able to field a strong army to defend my borders, the AI is reluctant to attack a city with the army in it. So what ends up happening is that I fight invading armies on the field more often than not.

Despite what I've just said, I more often than not go use the Defensive trait, because I'm a sucker for hoplite spear-and-shield units. Guess it's my Spartan past-life.

Archers: this trait is two-fold: first, the specific bow line is slightly more powerful, slightly faster, and the last-tier bow is armour piercing, thus practical and effective against late-game armoured units. Secondly, and possibly as important, these bows do not cost metal. You generally want archer units to be fast (sufficiently high initiative). Why? They tend to not do as much damage as most same-tier melee units, so you really need them firing consistently to compensate, to pepper the enemy and weaken their units from afar. You can make devastating high-attack archer units, of course.

Regardless, you may have the tendency to use mostly leather, chain mail armour at most, when designing archers. Ranged units usually only have to deal with (are targeted by) other ranged units - unless your melee units die or an enemy melee unit sneaks behind your melee line. Plus, ranged weapons have a high penalty to initiative, as does heavy armour. So unless you want to design ranged units that never queue up to shoot, your archer's armour will tend to be on the light side. And with the Archer trait, you can design powerful leather-archer units that cost no metal whatsoever.

Axe Mastery: this unlocks dual-wielding axes instead of the the regular two-handed ones, which makes available to you the possibility to design units that have very high attack stats. Plus, axes don't have a "power attack" mode like blunt weapons, but they are way more likely to hit because of the backswing ability, and the unit won't be "dazed" (inactive) for one turn. Thus, the Axe Mastery trait is for the offensive-minded player who likes to keep charging forward and quickly blaze through the enemy with its units.

Wanderlust: while not advertised as a 'weapon' specialization, this trait does unlock the Fending Blade and the Athican Longsword, two mid-level swords with high initiative and 2 counterattacks per round. It also unlocks the Athican Leather Armour, a torso leather armour with 3 Defense rating and 50% fire resistance, instead of the regular leather armor with 2 Defense (little difference, but oh well). Wanderlust as a trait gives you the ability to use Quest Maps, and indeed, a few monsters you'll fight use Fire as an attack form, such as Fire Shrills and Flame Lords, which most other armor doesn't protect against. So this build is meant to provide you with very solid early to mid-game units.

While not cancelling out higher-level armor and weapons, this traits clearly suggests unit builds with swords and leather, which will be especially fast (high initiative) and reasonably well-protected as far as leather units go, even into mid to the late-game. It's perfectly feasible - although depending on the situation - to use solely leather armor througout the entire game, provided you invest on weapon quality, shields, and in unit design/enchantments. Without special attacks or abilities, though, you may find the straightforward sword damage to be a little off-putting against really heavily armored opponents, and you'll find plenty of those in the late game. So you'll need to use magic, other kinds of units, or other tricks up your sleeve for these cases.

Hammer Mastery: hammers are meant for sheer power. Why? Late-tier hammers are very powerful, with a high attack rating. They are not armour piercing like spears, or "guaranteed" to hit like axes, but they have a special attack whereby the unit strikes the opponent for double damage, rendering it inactive for its next turn (dazed). So hammers are meant to destroy opponents with carefully placed strikes at specific moments of your choosing - a dead opponent can't fight back. This can get especially effective when you need to bring down a specific troublesome opponent or monster.

Hammers have other advantage: you can equip a shield with them, as they're all one-handed. So units with blunt weapons will also have high defense, perhaps to compensate for the specific moments when they're left inactive in their turns. Spears are defensive, Axes are offensive, Swords are balanced (allow counter-attacks, although the AI doesn't seem to focus too much on them). Hammers, on the other hand, also allow a balanced unit design, and are very effective throughout the entirety of the game, from low-ish "militia" to high-cost "elite" units you design. Cheap blunt-weapon units with little armour but using a shield will still be effective fillers in your armies, doing a respectable job - again, taking advantage of that double-damage ability. Blunt weapons, in my opinion, are the most powerful weapon in the game in the hands of the AI. They are the only weapons that 'scare' me when I'm fighting other factions. This is because the AI can deal a huge amount of damage with the Power Attack ability, especially in the late-game, with the most advanced mauls.

Whatever your strategy for your units, have one. Remember you live and die by your units and how you play with them.

1.6 Magic

You're going to choose magic schools with your sovereign, and later when you get further heroes. You may choose to endeavour in a less magical, fully "physical" military might, or you may use spells extensively to sabotage and damage your opponents. Regardless, magic has its uses in all game situations, be it in battle, but also in an economic sense, because each school has specific and powerful bonus it gives to cities. This is also why the number of "essences" in a city is somewhat important, depending on what you want to do with the city. So here's a quick rundown of those magical schools.

Life: I get the feeling that the Life school, together with Death, have slightly more powerful spells to them, particularly because they aren't available to all factions. Kingdom can choose Life and not Death, while Empire the opposite. In terms of enchantments to cities, Life has a first tier spell for growth bonus to the city itself (+1 growth, relevant to grow settlements quickly and offset pioneer training), and Aura of Vitality, which gives +1 HP bonus per Essence to units trained there. Life also has very useful spells for combat, such as healing spells (one unit or the whole army), protection against death, and Growth and Shrink. Growth improves by +50% a unit's damage rating - useful to cast on your stronger units - while Shrink reduces by 50% (halves) an opponent unit's attack - very useful when you're fighting strong monsters with a high attack rating, such as that pesky escaped Juggernaut that is spawned in a random event.

Death: Death spells have curses that affect enemy units, such as to remove their armour entirely, penalize their accuracy, or actually just... kill them. The extremely useful and early Opression spell lowers a city's unrest by 10%, one of the few non-improvement ways to deal with unrest. Death can be a very fun school to play with, that it's at its best when messing with other people's units.

Air: This school focuses on bolstering Initiative, both in combat and in city bonuses to units, and also dodge bonuses. Aura of Grace adds +1 Initiative per Essence to units trained in the city. Propaganda is a city enchantment that produces gold per Essence. Offensive spells use lightning, and there's also ways to teleport both a unit in a battle, as well as the army within your territory. Finally, tutelage is a unit enchantment that increases the rate at which it earns XP, very useful indeed.

Earth: Earth focuses heavily 1) on unit defense, and 2) in city production. The first-tier Enchanted Hammers adds one material to a city, and one could consider on a whim that this school is worth the choosing for that spell alone. Not really, but at the start of the game, where every turn building stuff counts, having +1 material  in your cities can be very, very relevant. A similar spell can also be researched in the mid to late game by all factions in the Magic school, Arcane Forge, that adds +1 material per Essence to the city, but that's further down the road - I guess because if it was the Earth school's basic spell it would completely unbalance the game. A mention to Aura of Might, which adds +1 defense per essence to units trained. Finally, this school has spells that allow you to manipulate the terrain somewhat, breaking down mountains and hills, or creating land out of water.

Water: Water is most known for the Slow spell, which reduces an enemy unit's initiative in battle, which in turn is very useful to be able to attack a very powerful enemy without getting attacked in turn, or at least, to reduce an enemy unit's influence in a battle (lower initiative means it will do less actions). Water also has the Freeze spell, which immobilizes an enemy army that enters your territory for 3 turns - extremely useful for territory defense, obviously. I believe it also works for any other armies on the same tile. Water also has an assortment of various offensive spells, casting interruption, and a +1 research city enchantment (similar to Earth's Enchanted Hammers).

Fire: Focuses almost exclusively on attack, both to increase your unit's attack, and to attack directly other units with offensive spells. Fireball, a powerful, ranged, area-of-effect attack, comes to mind. Can also attack armies directly, if in your territory, causing damage to all the units in them. Heart of Fire adds +1 attack per Essence to units trained in a city.

1.7 The Way Your Civ Faction Will Play

You'll always have to adapt to your terrain, your surroundings, your opponents. Still, you'll choose a faction, or design one, based on an idea on how you want to play it, or how you like to play it. This impacts heavily on your choices. You can choose a faction that mostly produces high quality troops, be it defensive (to turtle most of the time) or offensive (with the objective of taking over the AI's cities). Or, you can invest heavily in magic. Or somewhere in between. 

It's going to be your research focus to determine how your civ plays. There are three separate research trees: Civilization (=economy), Military, and Magic. You'll best focus primarily on one research tree. On lower difficulty levels you'll get away at researching evenly all three trees and still keep up with the AI. However, at higher difficulty settings, you may just find Warlord Verga (or Altar, or Capitar, or whatever) knocking at your diplomatic door with a few stacks of Juggernauts and "Opressor" units with plate armour and heavy mauls, while you're still researching that town hall and your units are merrily killing bears and shrills in leather armour. What this means is something I've already said, and I'll repeat: it doesn't really matter what you or your opponent researched, what they're up to, how far above you their power score are: you're safe if your armies can defeat their stacks; you're dead if they can't. Your survival relies on your fighting ability. That is not to say you have to research exclusively military tech. What I'm saying is, you simply need to plan and have an answer to what comes your way. If you're fighting heavy melee units, are your units armour piercing, or perhaps quicker (higher initiative? If you're fighting specialized archer units, do you have archers of your own? If you're fighting an enemy that throws stacks and stacks of units at you, are your units better, and/or can you outproduce them? So let's take a look at research trees and how your civ may play.

The Civilization tech tree focuses on your economy, settlement buildings and diplomatic options, boosts to food and growth, unrest management, and so on. The Military one focuses almost exclusively in raw, non-magical weapons and armour, and better ways to recruit/produce military units. The Magic research tree focuses, well, on magic, mana producing, shard harvesting, trinkets/charms to equip on units, magical staffs to create ranged mage units, and also, magical versions of weapons and armor you find in the military tree. These weapons are more powerful than their non-magical counterparts, and while the armor is generally much lighter (the Aegis robe has 6 defense, plus the some of the cloaks can add 2 more), the Arcane Amour near the end of the tech tree is the most powerful armour in the game. Researching and using magical weapons on your units (say, for instance, a Lightning Hammer) does not need any prerequisite on military tech, so you can still have capable military if you don't focus especially on the military tree. 

The difference is, broadly speaking, non-magical weapons, and armor from mail upwards, require metal (iron ore) to produce; magical weapons and armour require crystal to produce. The cost when producing a unit is multiplied by the number of soldiers in it. Furthermore, the game is balanced in such a manner that production costs for units, in terms of metal and/or crystal, can get pretty high in relation to what you can produce/harvest per turn. So if you want to focus on a strong military on the iron side, you're going to need to focus on securing and harvesting as much iron ore resources on the map as possible; the same applies if you focus on magical items, with crystal resources. Shard resources give mana plus an elemental shard score, but not crystal. So metal and crystal are fundamental items to consider when planning and playing your faction, and there's a need for a specialization/focus of sorts (more how to design and plan units further ahead). 

You can always harvest both resources, metal and crystal, but in the early and mid game, where you put your priority upon is what makes the difference. If you research the magic tree heavily you'll have an easier time having more crystal, for example, because that's where the crystal harvesting techs are. A faction trait like Master Smiths, which halves metal and productions costs for weapons and armor, as well as making twice as easy to upgrade existing units with new apparel, can be of great benefit in this area (unit's weapons, armor and apparel - add-ons, trinkets, etc you can research and use in your units - have a base production cost to them, and some have, added to that, a given resource cost, like metal or crystal).

Another obvious consideration is mana. If your faction and heroes rely heavily on spells, you do have to commit to the Magic tree to boost your mana generation, choose the conclave specialization in a sufficient number of cities so as to have mana-generating buildings, and harvest as much shard resources on the map as possible.

It's important to notice that the Military tree increases your army size (the maximum number of units in a single army), but it's the Civilization tree that expands the number of soldiers in each military unit. So while you might have designed a unit of heavily-armoured soldiers (let's say you researched exclusively the military tree) with 20 hit points each for a grand total of 20 hp/soldier x 3 soldiers = 60 hit points/unit your neighbour might have units each with 5 soldiers in them. The defense, attack and hit points stats in a unit multiply with the number of soldiers in it. An archer unit with 5 soldiers in it has a completely different attack rating, i.e. does much more damage, than the same unit only with 3 soldiers. Therefore military tech per se isn't the only aspect to consider.

1.8 The "Spell of Making" Victory Condition

A consideration about tech trees is that the Magic tree has the tech(s) that are necessary for one of the winning conditions: the Book of Mastery tech, and its Spell of Making. If your objective is to defend your turf and win by casting this spell and meeting its prerequisites, Magic is obviously the way to go. This winning strategy/possibility is a viable solution on higher difficulty settings, by rushing to it, as it doesn't force you to focus heavily on your military, or on conquering everyone on the map to win the game. 

However, I'm going to get honest at this point, I usually disable this victory condition in most of my games, because I dislike the feeling of developing my faction nicely, playing on my own terms, but them feeling rushed by the possibility of the AI arriving at that goal (you'll see an indication below each nation's power ratings when they've built the victory condition's tower's, so you have an idea how far are they from casting the Spell of Mastery). Such an AI may be close to you so you may invade, or it may be far away across the map. There are ways to deal with this, of course. You can rush yourself to this objective; you can bribe other factions to go to war with it, you can sabotage it, invade, and so on. Still, when the AI (or you of course) rushes and beelines their research path directly to the techs that allow the towers to be constructed and the spell to be cast, they'll begin to do so as early as early mid-game. It might be just me, but this always puts the feeling on me that it cuts the game length and expectation a little short, to see AIs building their towers a little too early in game, when it was supposed to be a final, grand push, or race. I don't know. The game length with such a victory condition may be just the same, but it just bugs me immensely seeing the AI progressing towards victory that early in the game. My personal opinion, anyway.

I'm more than sure that many people enjoy contemplating this victory condition and playing with it, and towards it, but because I'm usually get more pleasure and accomplishment by developing a solid economy on my terms, and overpowering the other factions with a great army towards late game, I normally play with this victory condition turned off. Therefore be advised that this guide was made mostly without the "magical" victory condition in place.

1.9 Sovereign and Hero Classes

In the very early game, after the first or second fight your sovereign takes place and he receives enough experience to increase its level, you'll be asked to choose his/her rpg class specialization. Furthermore, you can't change class once you choose it. A quick rundown of the classes:

Assassin: Unlocks skills that boost crit chance (unavailable for significant amounts otherwise), critical damage multiplier, dodge rating, and generally different ways to deliver devastating, calculating attacks intended to outright kill (or severely wound) a specific foe. Can equip up to mail armor (with trait).

Critical hits work the same way as in other games: for each attack the unit has a chance (if "crit chance" is greater than 0) to inflict more damage than it would. Also applies to ranged attacks, and also to magic offensive attacks. As for just how much this damage is, I'm not entirely sure how it's calculated, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around 50 - 100%, plus specific bonuses to crit damage that items may give.

An example of an Assassin hero

Defender: Focuses on skills that boost self-defense (hit points, defense, dodge, spell resistance), as well as some that help with the army's defensive traits, such as dodge and spell resistance. Can equip up to plate armor (with trait).

Commander: This class has two distinct trait trees you can venture through. One benefits the army the unit is on, namely accuracy, initiative, and experience bonuses, as well as giving some manipulation on when units get to act. Another trait line benefits your economy as a whole, allowing the sovereign/hero to generate money and research on its own, as well as heavily reducing the unrest rate the hero happens to be stationed at. Can equip up to mail armor (with trait).

A word about a trait that grants the the ability to create roads, which other than created automatically where you place cities and outposts (with the right techs), you have no other way to create them! Roads can be very effective to manage and defend your territory, by allowing your armies to go from one border to another in a sort time. I've come to not rely on the game's automatic road placement, because it's often ineffective and sub-optimal. For these reasons, the commander class is one that I leave to another hero, other than my  sovereign and "fighter" heroes, to have.

Mage: This class focuses heavily on magic using, to increase spell potency (including healing spells), reducing mana cost, and, particularly powerful, reducing casting time by -1. Heroes can cast spells regardless if they're mages, warriors, assassins, defenders, etc - but one thing is to cast spells casually, a quite different experience is when a unit is specialized in doing so. Further comments below.

The Mage class also has a summoning tree, which allows a variety of beasties to be summoned in each of the army's fights. The summoning usefulness is, in my experience, moderate. It's primarily intended to help you through the early to mid-game. Summoning creatures boosts your numbers and gives your opponent additional targets to worry about, being therefore an extremely useful venture in the early stages. Some summons, such as the Air and Fire elementals, are reasonably powerful units. However, in general the summons match your current unit's level, and in the late game your units will tend to be more powerful than any summon you can get.

Warrior: A classical and straightforward fighter class that focuses on offense in all ways possible. All skills in the trees bolster the attack rating in some way, varying between spear, axe, mace or sword specializations, adding counterattacks per turn, attack bonus versus certain units, splash damage (damages multiple units), steal HP in each attack, and so forth. Can equip up to plate armour with traits, but that's pretty much all the defensive boost you're going to get through skills. 

A class has multiple trees and skill sets. During the run of a game, it's extremely unlikely any given sovereign or champion will level up enough levels so he has all skills in the tree (unless you really put an effort to it). For example, it's going to be difficult for a Commander hero to be proficient both at traits that give bonuses to its army (the general aspect) and bonuses to city management and economy (the administrator aspect). So again comes the need to specialize as you level up. You can always put an effort to it, of course, and anything is possible, but there's only so much fights that happen in a given game, therefore there's a (soft) "cap" of sorts to the overall amount of XP you can get (which you can also boost with traits and trinkets, by the way).

What I wanted to mention is how your sovereign's (and hero's) roles scale with the progression of the game, namely during combat. This is a classical case of "linear warriors, quadratic wizards".

1.10 The Role Your Sovereign and Your Heroes Play Throughout the Game

Generally speaking, your heroes are the only ones who can cast magic, and thus affect your whole army in a way other units can't. In the early game you may be interested in keeping your heroes and sovereign in the same army so as to have an edge over beasts and units scattered in the terrain. But because the bulk of experience points are divided among heroes if they are present in an army, you are encouraged by the game to have an army be led by, at most, one hero. You can of course use two heroes or more in the same army throughout the game (for example a fighter type and a mage type) and make it work, so if you want to that's perfectly fine. However because I'm strongly interested in making my own units level up, I isolate and dedicate an army to each of my "fighting" heroes, so both them and their army's units can level up properly.

So what I'm about to say comes from the perspective of having one hero per army.

Having a warrior sovereign (all of this applies to other heroes as well), with fighting traits upon creation (might, hardy, and so forth) makes for an easier early game, as he/she will be at least as powerful as your early units. By the same degree, having a mage-type sovereign makes for a more difficult start of the game, as you may have some trouble killing early low-level monsters. Also remember that even if you learn good spells on level-up, you are still limited by the amount of mana you produce, which won't be staggering in the beginning of your game no matter what you do.

On the other hand, and by the same perspective, a warrior hero doesn't scale properly as the game progresses, while the exact opposite happens with casters. Why is this? Because of a number of factors.

As powerful and full of traits your hero is, he/she's a unit with just one person in it. Even if he's fully geared up in heavy armour and trinkets, and even if he has a weapon  that strikes for 40 damage... he's just one unit, while your soldier units will have 3-4-5 soldiers in them, each  one with a weapon delivering a good deal of damage, and possibly even having much more health than your lone hero. So, do the math. Unless you're using a faction that has penalties on unit's abilities, you haven't researched properly, or you're giving yourself a challenge in unit design, your mid to late game units will surpass your hero melee or archery wise.

Another factor against melee heroes is that there's a stiff penalty for a hero to fall in battle. While your sovereign can get away with a little mana cost and without much problems if he "dies" during battle, your other heroes will earn themselves a "wound", which translates to a penalty of some kind. For example, less X% hit points, less dodge, less initiative, less experience, etc. These wounds, while not game-breaking, can certainly deter and possibly spoil your hero's performance and levelling, and can only be healed with specific potions that say in the description "cures a random wound". These potions are either obtained through quests or goodie huts/monster lairs (you're down to luck), or they may be bought at an apothecary, which is a high-level conclave building you're likely only get far down the road into your mid to late game. Therefore healing wounds is far from impossible, but not that easy nonetheless.

So if you don't want your prized heroes running around full of wounds, you're interested in keeping them as safe as possible for the most part. However, if you bring them close into melee range to mid to top tier enemy units, some of which do the likes of 18-22 x 5 damage... and some of which use blunt weapons which can therefore strike for double that amount... you do the math. In the late game, even simple militia units in enemy siege defenses will be armed with the best blunt weapon their faction has researched (because the game determined that blunt weapons bring some use to defending militia units). So even frail, a simple militia unit can deal a great deal of pain.

For these reasons, it's fair to say that your high-end units will easily take over melee duties from your sovereign and heroes at some point during your game, save for some unexpected or emergency situation. This isn't necessarily true in  all cases. Again, if you're not focusing on unit military design, or if you have some kind of penalty to your units, your melee heroes can still remain an important piece in your army puzzle.  I've seen people who complain the exact opposite, that their heroes mid to late game are overpowered and pretty much can fight on their own powerful armies. This isn't my personal experience though. I find melee heroes are great to have at the beginning, and tend to be less useful as the game progresses.

One thing your armies can't replace, though, is the ability to cast spells. In fact, this scales perfectly in the opposite manner as the game moves along: you generally have more mana available, you learn more spells, and your heroes may even specialize in magic using if they choose the Mage class (they don't have to choose that class in order to cast spells at all, though). What ends up happening in my games is that I usually find myself keeping my hero/sovereign at the back, in front of the archers, casting spells according to what's needed - even if he's in full plate armor and levelled as a fighter.

Remember that if your hero is casting a spell, he's not moving around and attacking other units. When the opposing armies get big, with lots of units, your sovereign tend to lose relevance, that is, it doesn't act as often. An action is either a cast or a melee/ranged attack - not both. So your hero leading the army will either be mage-ing of fight-ing, not both at the same time. The exception to this is if he has specialized in short-range offensive magic or abilities, and he has to move in melee range to cast said abilities.

So this information is meant to guide you through your hero leveling planning. Defender, Commander and Assassin heroes all fall somewhere somewhere in between these two classes of fighter and mage, in terms of roles they play. The Assassin is a melee specialist so will fall towards the fighter-type; the Commander (if leveled to give bonuses to armies) is naturally a dude that stands back and lets its army take advantage of its bonuses, as well as directing it sometimes, so it has some synergy with a caster-type or a ranged attacker; and the Defender is a Fighter that has specialized in bolstering its defense to survive longer, instead of attack.

This is not to conclude that you should play your sovereign and all your heroes as mages. I think you should play exactly as you want. This game lets a guy in full plate armour stand back casting spells (even if plate armor reduces your initiative), while a bunch of  elite super-soldiers (or naked rabble for that matter) charge the enemy. Nevertheless, it stands clearly that a mage, with its magic specialization and mid-to-high initiative will remain as useful and as powerful throughout the game.

But this is not all. Just because when your chose your sovereign and/or heroes to be mages, that doesn't mean they're safe to be unarmored, with low hit points, carefree about others attacking them during battle. Enemy ranged units (and faction armies, depending on the faction, can sometimes sport quite a few in their armies) will generally target that which they perceive is a combination of the softest/easier to hit unit, while also being a threat. This generally means enemy archers and mages will quite often target your own archers, mages, and catapults from afar, almost always focusing their fire on a specific unit until its dead (just as a human player could do, and this is also why HP is important). Sometimes, though, if they feel your sovereign has low enough defense and/or hit points, they will consistently have a go at your hero during battle. So this means that, even if your hero is a mage, be careful to invest in quality armor and trinkets, in its hit points and defense, unless you want it to be seen as a arrow magnet - and having you worry likewise.

1.11 Further Notes on Sovereign Professions

Your sovereign can only have one profession and it's chosen upon creation (or it's already preset if you use one of the standard factions). In my view, professions that help with the early game are more relevant than those that improve over time - because in this game, a strong start is everything.

Adventurer: +10 fame for completing quests
I'm not entirely sure how important fame is in this game, save for the purposes of getting heroes faster. This is important, I guess, to have access to more spell schools, and to play with lots of heroes. I understand the developers created the Fame mechanic to avoid having heroes scattered across the map. On the other hand, heroes tend to lose relevance battle-wise as the game progresses, and might even become outclassed if they're focused in melee. You're encouraged in having one hero per army, perhaps two max if you really want to, and throughout a game you don't have that many armies. So you don't really need that many heroes - you wouldn't know what to do with all of them anyway. Thus, having a profession that gives you Fame (or faction traits that revolve around questing, for that matter) isn't really helping at all, IMO.
Quests are indeed fun and an excellent source of unique items, money and experience. But still, the way thegame works, I'm not sure how exactly +10 fame per quest is an important component when it comes to build a competitive game-winning faction. I guess I'll never know, because I never use this meaningless trait.
Grade: D

Bandit Lord: player starts with 2 bandit units and can convert bandits
This is meant to ease your early game, by allowing you to attack weak monsters from the word go, and it's obviously more advantageous to you if you happen to spawn in an area full of bandits. Bandits are rather weak units (weaker than beasts), so the advantage may wear comparatively shorter. Plus, they cost money to recruit and maintain, which it's precisely in scarce supply in the early game, so recruiting bandits may hinder you instead of helping. On the other hand, you may get access to ranged units earlier in the game...
Grade: D

Diplomat: +30% value of trades, and the silver tongue ability
The silver tongue allows the sovereign to convert enemy trained (faction). I suppose it has synergy with a defensive-minded playing style, as is the bonus to trading. Trading can be a viable way to exchange your surplus resources with  research/money/resources from other factions, and a bonus to it helps to get more whilegiving away less. Diplomacy trades, however, while useful, aren't that much of a vital component of your faction's game, and converting units costs 100 Guildar. While presumably assuming you're taking advantage of your slick trading skills with factions you aren't at war with, spending 100 Guildar to bribe an enemy unit (and then having to pay up its wages) may not feel very nice.
Grade: C

Hunter: +50% attack against beasts
This is an outright bonus to fighting beasts, which is a good chunk of the enemies you'll fight in the game. Still,  this is strictly a very narrow, early-game bonus, and it affects the sovereign only. I'd rather tame beasts, than having a single-unit bonus to killing them. I must apologise if the bonus applies faction-wise, because that's not in the description, and because I'll never -ever- choose this profession, not even for testing purposes. Horrible.
Grade: F

Scholar: 20% research
This is a faction-wide 20% bonus to Research (not limited to the city your sovereign is in), and it's cumulative with a faction's Scholars trait (10% bonus), which when coupled, will provide your faction with a whopping 30% bonus to research in all cities. Needless to say, this gives you a massive edge over the AI, and there's a reason why there aren't any pre-made factions with this combo, otherwise they would probably, in practice, play as if a couple of difficulty levels higher than they were configured to (just speculating, as I never tried it myself). If there's one thing worth pointing out against it, is that taking this profession obviously prevents you from picking a more "fun" and proactive one, such as Warlock or Beastmaster. Still, very much worth considering.
Grade: A

Warlock: sovereign's spells do 25% more damage
A very viable choice if you're doing a sovereign mage, or if you're simply intent in casting offensive spells more often with him. You'll feel the effect the longer the games goes by, and the more mana you have available to cast spells. Mages in this game are very powerful - in your hands - and keep getting more and more overpowered powerful as they level up and pick up traits and trinkets. A 25% bonus, on top of other bonuses you may pick up from other sources, is considerable. In certain situations, a mage can turn a tight battle against superior AI units, into a no-contest. This isn't particularly useful in the very early stages, but you'll feel it throughout the entire game. Still, you already have plenty of sources to pick up spell damage multipliers, and for that reason the grade isn't higher.
Grade: B

Armorer: all units have 25% defense
Another major boost to defense. It's more or less negligible when you use regular leather, and if you don't boost armor/defenses in any other way. But it becomes significant 1) as the game progresses and you move on to mail and plate armor, and 2) especially, if you stack Defense-bolstering techniques on your units, such as training them in Fortresses, and using Earth-based enchantments. As with everything, this trait depends on context: bonuses to Defense only makes sense if you're investing in your Defense. Still, an extremely valuable bonus.
Grade: A

Beastlord: can take control of enemy beasts
This is as fun to play as useful in the early game. In fact, what this ability actually does, is allowing you to fight with an army of heroes and tamed beasts, foregoing in the early game the need to train military units. This is a actually a very good bonus if you consider the turns you spend training units, and the wages they cost - money and time you could be spending in another way, such as spamming/rushing pioneers and town improvements. Every help you get in the early game multiplies as the game moves along. In fact, low-level animals that you can approach in the early game generally have little to no armor, but most animals have some skills unavailable to faction units, that make up for it. If you tame a Cave Bear, for example, they have quite a few hit points, and they Maul when attacking (continue striking until they miss or the target is dead). Some spiders can entangle enemies in place, others poison them, and so forth.

In Legendary Heroes, quite a few beasts are powerful enough to be decent mid-game units. Therefore, the usefullness of the Beastlord isn't restricted solely to the early game. Furthermore, as you play the early game, being a Beastlord makes you feel the terrain map like more of a world full of oportunities, rather than a hazardous place. The only issue with beasts is that a) most are one-soldier units, which doesn't scale well as the game advances, and b) they have low-ish defense, which means you have to be more careful not to expose them to high Attack enemies.

Everytime you tame a new beast, its stats are factored in your faction's power score, just as if you had trained a new unit in your cities. Plus, beasts, as any other unit, level up with experience, gaining HP, accuracy and magic resistance as they do. So in a way, you're encouraged to keep these tamed units and treat them as any other, throughout the game. The idea of the Beastlord, besides being professionally awesome, is that you may skip training units of your own  at certain points in the game, devoting instead that time into growing your faction economically. Or to chew your opponents face's with lots of teeth and claws.

Dances with Cave Bears
The only issues here are, a) is if you have 40 mana to cast the taming spell, and especially, b) if the animal happens to resist taming. In the very early game, and more often than you'd like, that may end up with your sovereign defeated, your army dead, and turns spent healing in your cities. Animals can have up to around 30% resist to taming, depending on their level and your sovereign's. When you do level up, though, taming resistance of animals does tend to drop considerably.

Beastlord is is a fun and great way to amass decent units - for no upkeep, good for your wallet - and bolster your power score in the early game, even if an army of beasts really isn't meant to be used for the long haul.
Grade: B+

Pro Tip: when you see an Umberdroth, tame it immediately. They are extremely rare, yet their stats are late-game worthy, plus with Overpower (Attack rating is per enemy soldier instead of unit).

General: +25% to army's experience
A decent option if you're intent on investing in your unit's level progression. Affects your sovereign only, though. Doesn't offer a significant advantage in the early game, rather, it's a long term effect, if you intent on having higher-level units as you enter the mid and late game. May have synergy with other experience-enhancing traits (such as using the Men race), and especially if you have many bonuses to your units that improve on level-up, such as hit points. Otherwise, this is not a grand game-affecting bonus by any means.
Grade: B, if you love to roleplay, if your units' stats rise significantly on level up, and you're investing in all of that. Otherwise, not very interesting. D

Noble: -10 unrest in all cities
Unrest is the single most important factor when it comes to building a thriving economy in this game. High unrest means your city is not producing anything at a viable rate, and it's not pumping out research either. The most relevant factor that creates unrest is the number of cities you have, and there aren't that many efficient, faction-wide means to effectively deal with unrest, at least until you get to a reasonable stage in the game. So having a -10 unrest modifier, in practice, means that your cities will produce more, your economy will be much more solid, and it allows you to simply be able to have more cities. This is primarily a strong, early to mid-game boost, but also a very strong bonus from an economic standpoint. Sadly, the coolness factor of being a noble, compared to, say, a Beastlord, or a Warlock, is not that great...
Grade: A

Summoner: +2 level for summons, unlocks Summon Shadow Warg spell
A boost if you plan on being (your sovereign) a summoning mage. I've spoken before about how I see the usefulness of summoning, and I'm not sure if +2 levels to your summons is that big of a bonus. Still, if summoning is something that you have fun with, by all means go for it. Coolness tops practical wherever possible. Summoned units, while not game-changing, are moderately powerful and serve an auxiliary purpose.
By the end of one of the summoning mage traits, you have a particular summon that costs 500 mana: Delin, the Fire Lord (an Elemental Lord), for "3 actions". Sounds awesome, but what they didn't tell you is that the duration of the summoning is 3 actions of your army. So it's very possible for you to summon Delin, spending 500 mana, and have him not queuing up in the initiative queue in time to act, only perhaps contributing to swarming action. This one impressed me, in a very negative way.
Grade: C

Warlord: -50% to unit wages
This is a big one, as unit wages are one of the big burdens on your account throughout the game. Money can  otherwise be spent on things such as rushing improvements and units, upgrading units, diplomacy, buying gear at your shop, and so forth. Your economy's budget ceiling determines the limit of units you can have at a given moment, and it usually drives you into a strategy of fielding a few lightly equipped militia units mixed with heavier, more elite units (and you can even find more advantageous in this game to having lots of mediocre units, than a few elite ones). This trait, however, gives you a lot more freedom in this respect. With it you can a) have more money left, b) have a larger standing army, and/or c) train only top-tier military units. This also has synergy if you're the Quendar race and you can train slave units that cost no wages.
I haven't found exactly how a unit's wage (money cost per turn) is calculated, but it's directly related to how much the unit costs to train. A unit in plate armor has higher wages than the exact same unit in leather armor. You can see how much the unit's wages will be when you're designing it, and in the training screen.
Grade: A

1.12 Further Notes on Faction Traits and Penalties

I've discussed before martial specializations (Defensive, Archers, Great Hammers and Axe Mastery), as well as the Master Smiths and Tough traits. I'm also not addressing all of the rest of them, but I'm going to speak about a few.

Light Plate costs 0 points, as it's basically a choice for you to have a stronger version of the middle tier armour (which is normally mail armor) in exchange for higher metal (resource) and production (time) costs. I recommend choosing it only if you're either playing toward it (focusing on gathering iron ore in-game), and/or  you also have the Master Smiths trait, which halves production and metal costs for units altogether. Otherwise, metal costs for metal armor can get pretty niffy. Masterwork Chainmail is the opposite; it trades the top-tier plate armor for a lighter (less armor rating and less cost to produce) armor, and the purpose is to cut down metal and production costs at the expense of defense ratings. This has synergy with the Archers trait as you also won't need as much metal with it, and it's perhaps meant to discard the need to have a large territory and many sources of iron.

Stealth is a large boon because monsters won't attack your units. Otherwise, not only do you have to be careful about leaving your units (military ones, scouts, pioneers, everything) next to monsters when their turn ends, but most importantly, you're more or less constrained as where you can build cities, if settling spots are near monster lairs. This is because if your city territory encompasses a monster/bandit lair (because you're built the city next to it, or because the city territory has grown) the monster group in that lair will become "dislodged" and start to roam your territory, sometimes destroying terrain improvements, sometimes attacking your city(s). This is not very important if the monsters are low-level and you can handle them; but if they're not and you can't fight them just yet, you're in for some trouble. This trait ends that issue, though, and that's why it costs 2 points to get.

Scholars, as I already mentioned briefly, is a large bonus to research, and you can create a sovereign with the Scholar profession that further adds to this amount. It also opens the Study immediately, allowing you to build it right away at the start of the game. The only thing is that you may be able to get around research shortcomings by focusing on good city planning, prioritizing research buildings, and also if you intent on focusing heavily on just a few techs and don't intent to research them all. So this trait can become a little relative and it's dependent on your playing preferences.

Enchanters allows you to increase a city's Essence count by +1, which is the main plus of this trait in my view. If you use heavily Essence and enchantments to give stat bonuses to yout trained units, with this you can have a 4 (!) Essence Fortress training units with +4 Fire Attack, +4 Hit Points per soldier, +4 Defense ... Enchanters also gives you a special melee staff weapon (an extremely cheap way to train simple units with a decent attack rating) and a unique lighting-attack ranged staff, to create mages with.

Heroic doubles the amount of experience from quests. It has synergy with 1) Wanderlust, 2) the racial trait from Men that already improves gained experience, and 3) the General sovereign profession. When you go through mid-game and the world starts getting settled and monster lairs start running out, you can make use of quests to earn money, unique items, fame, and above all, experience. Also, when you play the race of Men, their units have a trait available to them, Potential, that further adds +25% experience gain for the unit. Go for these combos if you want to maximize gained experience and develop high-level units easier.

Civics makes the unit start with the Civics tech, allowing it to begin rushing production (of pioneers, mainly) and producing Bell Towers (decrease unrest) right away. Personally I'm not entirely sure if it's worth a point spent on your faction, but the rush ability from turn one has synergy if you make your sovereign have the Wealthy talent, making it start with 500 gold, while the decreased unrest allows the faction to build things faster at the beginning of the game. Consider coupling it with the Earth school of magic, which allows you to cast Enchanted Hammers on your starting cities and further boost production.

Binding and Cult of a Hundred Eyes are 2 traits that are meant to compliment your armies with further units that either spawn in your territory, and/or you can train them  in your cities. From personal experience I didn't find the specific units particularly useful or strong, but these traits are more defensive in nature, because they are meant to assist you with providing more units to your armies if you're not focusing heavily on production and unit tech.

Slave Lord is a trait that transfers half the population of a city you raze to your capital, and men or fallen (humanoids) defeated in combat are transferred to the nearest city as population. Population growth, which allows your cities to level up giving you powerful bonuses (both for the city and faction-wide) can be relatively hard to come by. Therefore this expensive (2) trait can be a useful to have, but only if you plan beforehand being at war with other factions a lot, so you can fully benefit from it. There aren't usually enough  neutral bandits and syndicate thugs around to justify having this trait.

Warrior Cast is a rather mild bonus, considering a unit leveling up "only" affects 1) hit points, 2) accuracy, and 3) spell resistance. It's a bonus you should consider as a combo for other straightforward combat traits and unit bonuses, such as Tough, but that I usually don't consider seriously having. It should probably have a cost of 0.5, IMO. Warriors makes you start with the tech that allows the building of barracks, which has no other use, in my mind, than to spam military units throughout the early game, for example to do a zerg rush your near neighbour can't defend against. Otherwise skip it.

When designing a faction you may also be interested in taking a weakness, i.e. a penalty (only one is allowed without mods, sadly) so you may have an extra point for traits. Some penalties are more "penalizing" than others.

Vulnerable to Magic (-20% magic resistance) is, in my mind, the mildest of all penalties. While it kind of makes your units more susceptible to magical effects (and ranged mage attacks, I believe), the effect could be worse if the AI made a more concerted effort with using magic effects. This, in my experience - at least as far as the expert difficulty - isn't the case, at least, I don't feel it penalizes you that heavily. It would take a  seriously hardcore magical enemy casting powerful and crippling spells left and right to make you really hurt this magical resistance penalty, but those are not that common when you play. Magic in this game is relatively powerful and versatile, but it's not something that *usually* takes a central part in determining battles - unless when you use it, naturally.

You can compensate this penalty in some ways, being two main ones 1) focusing on leveling units up, as units get bonuses to magical resistance when they level; and 2) choose the Ironeer race, which has a natural 30% resistance to magic - so you'll design a race with 30% - 20% = 10% base overall magic resistance. Not too bad. Keep in mind, though, that this penalty is a percentage, therefore if you take it, your units will never have any meaningful spell resistance no matter how much they level up.

No Armour and No Ranged Weapons may seem a big deal, but depending on how you want to play, they might not be that problematic. The first means you can't wear armour more advanced than leather or robes. I played once a game with the Quendar race, and most of my late-game units were slaves wearing no clothes, just weapon and shield, and they were very capable in their own right. I know by experience you can have efficient units in the mid and late game even without mail/plate armor, if you design them right, if you allow them Defense and Hit Point bonuses, use shields, traits and trinkets that enhance Defense, and so on. But even if you don't care about enhancing your unit's Defense ratings, late game weapons sting just as much in the hands of plate armored units as in naked ones.

The second trait, No Ranged Weapons, may be offset if you focus on melee. It's perfectly possible to field a melee-only army, and you can still build catapults, which do a good job of weakening enemy ranged units, and use ranged magic. You'll just have to worry about facing an opponent that focuses heavily on ranged units (arrows or magic), in which case you need to design your army to have sufficiently high initiative and mobility to get to those units in the back of their lines, before they seriously hurt you.

The remaining two penalties are actually much more serious, and could had been designed to give you +2 trait points, or even more, for their actual worth.

Rebels increases your unrest by 10%. Unrest cripples your economy production and research, and ways to deal with it in a sistematic, faction-wide manner, exist, but don't abound. If the early start is fundamental in a 4X game, having your production and research crippled from turn one, and throughout most of the game, is a seriously violent drawback. I'm used to getting things done as fast as possible in the early turns, and everytime I choose this penalty I feel so pulled back that I usually give up and start over. I suppose it's bearable if you're planning to have a small, defendable territory to begin with, if you love to turtle with a single city or two. But who does that? How often do you settle for two or three towns in your games? If you are an experienced 4X gamer, you know size matters: you develop the instinct to expand as fast as possible, to reach a critical mass, the point you usually feel safe enough to build upon. Therefore, this is not a penalty I'd choose lightheartedly.

Uneducated gives you a penalty of 10% to research. Research is vital for you to be able to survive and put up a fight - differences between different tiered weapons really show. I suppose there are ways to compensate for this penalty, such as planning for, and focusing on your research efforts, but you'll always be dependant upon your terrain quality. I always shiver at the thought of choosing this in higher difficulty levels. This is a game that, when designing your faction, is all about combos and maximizing bonuses that work well together. And this penalty looks to me almost as the perfect opposite of that: a penalty to everything. Too bad you can't choose Rebels and Uneducated, it would certainly give you a feeling of living in the stone age forever (if you managed to survive other factions long enough, that is).

1.13 Further Notes on Pre-Existing Factions

I don't ever play the pre-existing factions, nevertheless I want to add some notes about how they should play, based on how I played with their racial, faction and leader traits, and how they behave as AIs. I guess this is meant to talk a little more about racial and faction traits that I haven't mentioned yet.

Tarth (Kingdom)

Sovereign: Lady Ariadne (Hunter, +50% Attack vs beasts, Air and Life magic)
Race: Tarth, +3 Attack, +3 initiative when in army of 3 or smaller, Double Strike, strike twice for -20 accuracy
+Master Scouts: no movement penalties
+Stealth: monsters don't attack player
+Archers: bowline that is more powerful, fast, and doesn't cost metal
+Masterwork Chainmail: lighter and less costly armor that replaces plate
-Rebels: +10% unrest

Tarth is geared towards having a 1) fast start scouting-wise, moving freely and fast around the map, and clearing terrain from beasts and monsters on its own terms, with its bonuses to combat in small armies, while being able to choose its best city founding perks regardless of monsters; and 2) having a slow start in terms of city productive ability, due to unrest penalty. Tarth seems to be geared to have a small territory, with less cities, while on the other hand having some advantage to spot the best locations fist and choosing where to place them. The Archers trait, together with Masterwork Chainmail, plays along the small territory idea, as it 's meant to reduce greatly the amount of metal your units will spend, if you focus on training light archer units and mail-wearing melee units. Lore-wise, Tarth seems to be a kind of rebel, nature-loving, hardy and honorable warrior-gladiator types. Be sure to use Life and Air magic to boost your unit's health and initiative. You won't always be able to field small armies of 3 or less units, living up to the Tarth motto of "a few and elite" and using guerrilla-like tactics, but when you can, do take advantage of their racial bonus when fighting with small armies, which is +3 attack per soldier - not too shabby.
Tarth is generally an aggressive faction when controlled by the AI, which actually doesn't favor them, as their small territory tends to place them at the bottom of the faction power score, hence they often get attacked and defeated instead of defeating others.

Magnar (Empire)

Sovereign: Magnar (Warlock, +50% spell damage, Death and Fire magic, Brilliant, 10% experience and spell mastery per level)
Race: Quendar, 50% fire resistance, -50% cold resistance, Flame Tongue, does 2 fire damage per level, melee range ability, ability to train Slaves: human unit that has -1 HP per level, -10 accuracy, -4 initiative, costs no wages to keep)
+Slave Lord: Razing a city transfers half population to capital, men or fallen defeated in combat are added as population to the nearest city (doesn't have anything to do with the racial ability to train slaves, you can choose both separately on faction/character creation)
+Flesh Bound Tome: unlocks death-type destructive spells that focus on sacrificing units and resources to gain some kind of bonus for the short-term
+Masterwork Chainmail: lighter and less costly armor that replaces plate

Magnar is an interesting combination of traits that can be both fun and advantageous to play. First of all, the ability to train slaves is phenomenal. That penalty that slave units have may be misleading, and is by far compensated by the fact that these units do not consume wages. This is like having a sovereign with a Warlord profession, only better. You usually are forced, throughout a game, to ration your unit-building resources (metal, crystal, production times, money). You need a considerable number of units to be able to defend your territory, but it's generally impractical to build only elite units, simply because of lack of resources, and money, to do so. So what I end up doing is designing top-tier units with the best equipment and bonuses, and then serviceable "militia" units, that are effective at what they do, but usually use leather armour, less traits, and so on, that cost less to train and maintain. But with the Quendar racial ability to train slaves, your "militia" units will be replaced by slave units, which instead of costing less to maintain, cost nothing. And you can for example equip a slave with a full gear of your best armor and weapons, without gear limitations. You can do such things as designing slave scouts, to save on scout wages. You can do all sorts of things with units, and the penalties to HP, accuracy and initiative, for a unit that doesn't cost maintenance, can be compensated with other things, if you know what you're doing.
Other than the ability to train slaves, Quendar (non-slave, original "race" units) have Flame Tongue, which is a little ability that is akin to breathing (spewing) fire. Now, this ability does 2 fire damage per level, per soldier in unit. That means, for example, that a level 5 unit, with 4 soldiers in it, will do 2x5x4 = 40 fire damage of "magic" damage, just by breathing fire. Any unit, even a pioneer! It may not look much on the description, but if you're focusing on leveling up your units, this can get to be an extremely powerful little ability. Other than Flame Tongue, the racial resistance modifiers are a like-for-like trade, that isn't too significant and can be offset with gear if you so choose it.
Slave Lord, a trait that I've already discussed, is at its best when you're dedicated in war efforts against your unfortunate neighbours, obviously more intent on vacating (destroying) their cities instead of keeping them. So in a way you're encouraged in investing in your own original settlements rather than conquering a large territory of half-developed cities. Interestingly, the AI playing Magnar is also more interested in building up its economy before throwing themselves into war. But because they seem to invest heavily in slave units instead of their native Quendar ones, this may actually make them, and their territory, look vulnerable and juicy to your human eyes, if you're playing next to them. Magnar himself is a Death and Fire Warlock, which asks you to develop him as a fully offensive mage, powered by the mana produced abundantly by your well-developed conclave cities. Having this well-grown cities and economy principle in mind, be sure to make good use of the Death Opression spell, which reduces unrest in each city by 10%.

Resoln (Empire)

Sovereign: Oracle Cereza (Summoner, +2 level for summons and Summon Shadow Warg, Death and Water magic, Attunement, +2 mana per season, Sovereign Bond, allows summoning of Familiar - can cast your spells - Scarred, always heals 1 HP per season regardless of level - which is a bad thing)
Race: Wraiths, +20 dodge, -1 HP per level, Wraith Touch which drains 1 HP per level from the victim
+Adepts, can harvest shards from turn one and have +40 mana at start of the game
+Death Worship, unlocks some pretty nasty spells even compared to 'regular' Death magic, and can convert any shard to a Death shard
+ Binding, an assorted array of beasts/demons/monsters of average strength spawn from shard harvesting shrines under your control
+ Cult of a Hundred Eyes, can train a few types of spiders in cities
+ No armor - yes folks, only leather and robes allowed

Resoln is the extremely magic-oriented magic faction if I have ever seen one. Starting with the sovereign herself, she's all about summoning things and plenty of them, with several different traits combined that grant bonuses and summoned variety. Other than summoning, she's extremely versed in Death and Water magic, which is the combination to go if you fight your battles almost exclusively with the intent of messing with your enemies around. Curse your enemies to completely remove that annoying heavy armor defense rating, make them suffer critical hits from all attacks, slow and freeze them, suck their health dry, and then make all these negative afflictions spread from one single unit to all others in their army! And to top it off, Cereza can summon its familiar to cast all of these goodies twice as fast. So if there's a faction that is completely focused in fighting with magical things, it's Resoln. For this reason, playing with this faction can be a fun and different experience.
The upside of this magic specialization is that the actual military component suffers. Wraiths have less hit points due to racial attribute (although they do have extremely high dodge ratings, and it shows in battles), can't use armor greater than leather/robes, and lack of access to Life magic reduces the ways you can boost your unit's health. Furthermore, this faction asks you to go deep into the Magic research tree to make the most out of its strengths, and that usually ends up neglecting the Military one (you can't use armor anyway), so the shields you can equip aren't going to be top notch either. All of this means that your units towards the mid to late game may tend to be a little less competitive in comparison to other factions.
The two faction traits that grant you extra units, plus your summoning skills, are meant to compliment your roster and help defend your territory, giving you lots of average magic and fantastical units that are best suited to further mess around with your foes and making them die in a slow, horrible, and extremely dishonorable manner - rather than actually killing them with a few strong punches. But you'll never actually own uber units that are great at stomping all over your neighbours, unless you're extra careful with your unit design. You can for example recruit a hero with the Earth school of magic, and train your units in a fortress with Aura of Might cast on it. This would be an example to bolster your unit's defense throughout the game.
Cereza's army in particular will have the whole lot of sumoning and magic options available (since some of those nice spells are only hers to cast) and thus you'll be able to work... magic... with her. You can play both an offensive and a defensive game, but you'll probably find that Resoln is actually better suited to sit back and achieve a magical victory, rather than a conquest one, since you're going to invest heavily on the magical tree anyway. And this is actually what the Resoln AI, more often than not, ends up doing. Sooner or later you'll see those little towers appearing below Resoln's power rating, eagerly anticipating the Spell of Making  victory. When fighting against Resoln, expect a little bit of ranged mage units, some spiders and daemons, and a lot of weakly wraiths in robes and leather armor, trying to suck your life from you. For this reason, though, Resoln's military is not the strongest to fight against, because of the native penalties to their units, and because the AI also follows Resoln's motto of "magic first and fight later". When you wish to invade, simply invest in your unit quality, watch out for Death magic casters, and you should be just fine.

Gilden (Kingdom)

Sovereign: Lord Markin (Armorer, 25% defense, Earth and Life magic, Hardy, +1 HP per level and immune to poison)
Race: Ironeers, +30 spell resistance, +1 HP per level, tactical (battle) spells cost +50% mana to cast, can train Golems (trainable mid-level, single unit constructs, with 100+ HP and 30-40+ defense)
+Master Smiths, 50% reduction in resource and production costs, 50% reduction costs in upgrading units
+Great Hammers, (even) better hammers than the default versions
+Light Plate, replaces mid-tier mail armor with a better and more expensive plate "light plate" version

What to say about this one? Gilden (or the Ironeers) is the complete opposite of Resoln or Magnar: it's meant to pretty much forego magic in battle, and instead hitting you hard in the face with a giant maul, preferably only once. Ironeers already have +1HP per level; Aura of Vitality cast in fortresses will see it that each Gilden unit has a lot of health indeed; and Earth's Blessed Hammers combined with the Master Smiths' trait, will see that your units are going to be pumped out sufficiently fast. Light Plate takes advantage of your discount in training units in metal armor, and the cherry on top of the cake is the Great Hammers: your units won't hit hard, they'll hit extremely hard.
However, once you design, and fight with, a unit in heavy armor and wielding a blunt weapon, you'll soon realise that these unit's initiative won't be very far away from a measley 10. Initiative determines when a given unit will be given turns to act in a fight. 10 is a very low number; 16 is an average to decent one; 20 and higher is a good value, that will allow your units to fight first and more often. A unit with higher initiative may very well act more times than units with comparatively lower values. So you see, so take advantage of Guilden's traits - Master Smiths and Great Hammers, you're aiming at having extremely resilient and hard-hitting units, that are extremely sloooooow to move, effectively trading speed for strength and stamina.
When playing this faction you're foregoing the heavy use of magic, but to defend from it (and from being so slow) your units get a very reasonable +30 magic resistance bonus, which only grows as your soldiers level up. This is a nice faction to play if you're going for a straightforward, non-complicated way of playing this game.
Golems are a nice-to-have addition to your mid-game roster, as their extremely high defense rating (for the mid-game) coupled with over one hundred hit points, gives your AI enemy a large brick wall to hit. Think the tank role in WoW or any other rpg. However, each Golem is o one-soldier unit, and will do one weapon's worth of damage in its turn, therefore it's intended as a defensive, hard-to-kill weapon. Also, if you're really investing in your soldier's design, your top-tier units will surpass Golems in defense and hit points if you so wish, so it's not like the ability to train Golems is a massive game breaker.

Yithril (Empire)

Sovereign: Warlord Verga (Warlord -50% unit wages, Earth and Death magic, Hardy, +1 HP per level and immune to poison)
Race: Trogs, +2 Attack when under 50% hit points, Berserk ability: +2 attack, +2 initiative, unit is under AI control and acts independently from the player
+Warriors: factions can build barracks (unit training discount building) from turn one
+Warrior Caste, units are trained with +1 level than they would normally
+Tough, all units have +10% hit points
+Axe Mastery, unlocks dual-wielding versions of all the regular axes in the game (higher attack rating - and initiative?)

If Gilden is about having resilient, heavily-armoured and hard-hitting troops, Yithril - despite its delicate sounding name - is a faction of pure rage, power, and berserking through and through. The multiple warrior traits are meant to bolster unit's hit points (higher level units have more hit points) while making them easier to train, and able to train them earlier if you so wish to - also helped by Verga's Earth magic and its Enchanted Hammers (+1 material in city). More on a long-term note, Verga's Warlord profession allows you to field a larger number of good wage-costing soldiers, without your economy being quite able to support it otherwise. This is all of the economic help Yithril is going to get, though, so if you play this faction you better be strongly inclined to spend your entire game on everyone else's face.
In fact, when Yithril is being controlled by the AI, you can pretty much bet that Verga's stacks are the first ones that come knocking at your door. He's very easy to ask for tribute and to declare war, once again, showing that the AI really lives true to the faction's lore. You can expect Verga to research almost exclusively the Military tech tree, sometimes getting to the end of it - thus unlocking really powerful stuff like heavy armour and Juggernauts - well before you're trying to grow your farms properly. You can expect really strong, powerful, and heavily armoured units that don't die easily, even if each unit might have less soldiers than you, because they haven's dedicated themselves to research the Civilization tree. Also, if anything, there's no ranged units available to them: it's all melee. If you see Yithril's power rating suddenly shooting up by large chunks, stuff is being trained over their territory, and you can expect trouble (or someone can, at least).
The Trog race allows you to click a button and let your units scramble forward on their own (controlled by the AI) as you watch, hoping they will subjugate the enemy by their sheer power, effectively giving you the feeling that they're really "berserking". Personally, while I do understand the concept, I love to direct my units and making all the choices, so this racial trait kind of puts me off. The other racial trait, +2 attack when under 50% hit points, means in practice that Trog units tend to have not only more hit points, but that their attack rating suffers less if the unit is half-damaged or below, still giving them a viable chance to kill the enemy when wounded. And this is more noticeable, both if Yithril is your opponent or if you're playing them yourself, the better the armor they're equipping. But, what's really, really fun (to you if you're Yithril, or to your Yithril opponent) are Juggernauts.
These little beasties are akin to Ironeer's Golems, except with the opposite idea: they have lower  base defense rating, lots of hit points, and above all else, special traits which greatly bolster their high attack rating, and also do splash damage (damages the struck unit, and a percentage is also delivered to anyone else to the sides, including allies). Juggernaut's attack animations are even speeded up, so you're guaranteed to have a kick when one of them reaches the enemy's melee line and units start flying through the air (if you're Yithril you get a good kind of kick; if you're fighting Yithril, you'll feel a different kind of kick, I guess).
As with Golems, Juggernauts are not necessarily the most powerful thing ever, or at least, not everyone's cup oftea. A unit of 5 mounted knights fully clad in plate, and with proper weapons and bonuses, will be a much more solid, durable, and effecive unit than a Juggernaut, while retaining some design flexibility to still be able to deliver a lot of damage (5 soldiers with weapons). Lower defense, and inability to wear body armor, means that Juggernauts always be squishy targets, and you better make them get quickly in melee to have them do their thing. Although, you do have the possibility to exchange some of the offensive traits with defensive ones, plus you can give them a shield and one-handed weapon just like anyone else. This, with a couple of defensive-minded bonuses and trinkes, should make for a relatively durable Juggernaut design, if you so choose it.
Still, Juggernauts do scale much better than Golems, because of their multiple bonuses to attack and spash damage, meaning they can take full advantage of top-tier weapons to inflict an healthy dose of carnage, despite being a single-soldier unit. A Juggernaut with axe(s) and maul, will strike and keep striking until it misses, and when it does, it will still do a backswing with the axe. With the latest axes in the game, two-three strikes and the enemy is dead. There's always something coll about a Juggernaut lunging forward with two huge axes in each hand. Though, If you do reach this stage of the game, chances are it doesn't really matter what you're using, as long as it's cool.
Juggernauts are extremely fun to fiddle with. The idea here is that they are "all-attack" type units. When you're battling a Juggernaut, being the smart player you are, you're going to focus all your ranged, melee, and magical attacks and effects on it, to reduce its impact in the battle and to bring it down as soon as possible. The spells Slow (Water) and Shrink (Life) are my favorites when fighting Juggernauts.

Kraxis (Empire)
If someone ever designed a turtling faction in a 4X game, this is it. Kraxis and emperor Karavox are the epitome of being "peaceful", quiet, and slithery in everything they do. A Defensive faction (uses "hoplite" units and has bonuses defending cities), its racial features are having +8 Defense when under 50% hitpoints (the conceptual opposite of Trogs) and the ability to "fortify" tiles in battle. A unit inside a fortified tile, if its defensive bonuses aren't enough already, gets +10 accuracy (so it makes sure it does kill whoever is attacking it) and +20 dodge (so it's harder to hit). Karavox himself is a Diplomat by profession, meaning he gets +30% value in all trades, and can convert units trained by other factions. If I'm interpreting the value of trades correctly, it becomes much easier for you, as Karavox, to have better deals with other civs factions, and to bribe them to go to war for you. In fact, this is what the AI Kraxis also loves doing. Furthermore, Kraxis starts with 500 guildar (Healthy trait), and has Fire (attack magic) and Water (versatile magic). Last but not least, the faction trait Betrayers grants a spell that can convert an entire city to you (!) through magic. I'd say that Kraxis is screaming for you to stay at peace (or staying in a defensive attitude in wars) at all costs, dealing your dice in diplomacy, manipulating your enemies, and possibly conquering their cities through "other means".

I'll refer briefly to the remaining factions, Altar, Capitar, Umber, and Pariden, since they're the ones I'm the least familiar with. Altar and Capitar seem to be all-rounder, adaptable "human"-type factions, which let you play however you see better. Altar are clearly focused on doing quests, while Capitar are a little more versatile and economy-driven, with some bonuses to money (guildar) producing.

Altar's racial attributes (Men) grant them +10% to experience of units, the ability to train Henchmen (trainable heroes with low-level magic spells), and they can Rush. Rush is a nice, versatile ability that allows your units to move twice in battle, effectively giving them double movement points in that one turn - which in practice is very useful and is meant to rush your opponent, or at least, take better advantage of positioning and swarming bonuses, for example. The racial experience bonus is nice to have, I guess It's only worthwhile - i.e. it will make a significant difference if you really do lots of quests, or if you design a custom faction with further bonuses to experience (Lord Relias is an Adventurer and not a General, for example, but he does have Air magic, whose spell Tutelage grants bonus to experience gain to individual units). Training Henchmen, on the other hand, is borderline useless IMO, as leaders tend to lose relevance to military units as the game progresses, and if you want all the spells in the game, you can access new magic schools by getting new heroes via Fame with Altar, if that's your thing.

Capitar's Carrodus is in fact a General (could probably trade places with Relias to take advantage of the experience bonus?) but Cautious (can leave battle if things aren't going your way, without penalties for losing - or if you didn't want to fight the battle in the first place, very useful) and Tactician (+1 initiative to its army). Also he has Life magic (more hitpoints to your units and powerful useful spells), and Air magic (more initiative and dodge to units). Capitar starts with Civics (allows rushing from the get to), and has Legacy of Serrane (more money available, the Bazaar improvement (cuts down rush cost and gives more money when a city is building Wealth), and Caravans are never attacked - rare, but it can happen) and Lucky (all units have 25% accuracy and 25% dodge). All of these seem to indicate both economic and military bonuses, both in a offensive and cautious sense. Capitar also has warhorses, which give one more attack and initiative in the first turn than normal horses. Capitar's race, the Mancers, have one more movement point (both in the strategic map and in battle), which is very nice, and +1 accuracy per level, to help make sure you do strike your opponents, both with melee and ranged attacks. Capitar has the lore of being solid yet mobile, and in fact it has special horses to go along with that idea. When you battle them, you'll find balanced armies with cavalry, foot melee, and archer units, while their economy will usually be solid, if not among the best in any given game.

Pariden are the "good" magic users, and they have the faction trait The Decalon. Sadly I haven't experience this one yet, but it's supposed to let you your sovereign and heroes learn magic schools that they haven't started with - because otherwise a sovereign/hero is stuck to the spell lines they began the game with. This ability seems nice (it costs 2 points in faction design), and I'm sure I'll eventually give it a try to explore it. Together with their other traits, Pariden is a purely "magical" faction like Resoln, but this time focused on the Kingdom side instead of Empire.

Finally, the Empire of Kulan are from the race Urxen, which you can translate to "wolf-men", "beastmen", or maybe werewolves, if you'd prefer (they're humans with a little more blu-ish hair on their faces and a general beast-like look). Lore-wise, Kulan and Urxen are supposed to be a more in-tune-with-nature faction much like Tarth, but this time on the Empire side. Urxen get +2 Attack (per soldier) in armies of 5 or bigger, and they have double the swarming bonus, so the game is asking you to act like wolves and "overwhelm your opponent from all sides", so to speak. They are Warriors and Master Scouts which again gives the impression that they run around like wolves through the forest, unimpeded like regular humanoids. Like Tarh they also use Masterwork Chainmail, so he idea is to have cheaper top-tier units, and also much like Tarth, Kulan the sovereign is "Cruel", which is a penalty that gives him +1 attack but +5 unrest in all cities (a little like Tarth's Rebels trait, to align with the idea that these are beast-like people).
Umber also has the trait Assassin's Tools, which can make your units deliver poison damage in their attacks something that is only available to sovereigns and heroes through items) and use a sword that has high initiative, has 1 counter-attack (like most swords) and can backswing. This, together with Kulan's Air magic, suggests you should design units that are quick, fast, and should swarm its targets as much as possible. Last but not least, Kulan does have access to Death magic.

1.14 Further Notes on Recruitable Units From Camps

You can train specific units from specialty camps, that is, you don't train them in your cities like other units, instead what you do is to build a camp on the terrain resource, and by doing so that camp will continually spawn new units of that specific type, to a maximum of two. That means if your faction controls two special units of that specific type, the camp will only respawn another if you lose one of them. These camps usually are extremely rare in a map (you may never find them in a given run through a game), making them a viable way to turn the balance of a game in your favor.

Each camp is usually guarded by one or more of the units it spawns, or an army with them in it. As a general idea then, you must be able to defeat the unit type you're trying to gain control of. In 'normal' difficulty levels you can get away with extending your territory over the camp in question, and let the 'dislodged' units wander around for a while, without fear of them attacking you... but in higher difficulty settings, they will, most often than not, dart into your territory, with ill intent towards your property. Even monster units dislodged by other factions in their territory will have this tendency to dart towards you, while leaving the AI alone and living among them in peace and harmony if need be... just because.

Anyway, because the units in these specialty camps are mid-tier decently strong units, you generally may not be able to defeat and safely use them, until your late early to mid game.

Dragons are recruitable by building dragon training camps on the respective resource. This is available to any faction alignment, but it is mostly an end-game feature (because the camp will be guarded by a DRAGON), and by that point, hopefully, if you've thrives through the rest of your game, this won't make that much of a difference. But it's still awesome, nonetheless

Kights of Asok are human-like mounted units in horses, in mail armor and with two-handed spears, available only to Kingdom factions (Empire factions can't access the technology, thus can't build the respective camp). Because they are armored in mail, that makes these knighs extremely solid mid-tier units, which you can take advantage of in your mid-game, if you happen to have access to the resource and you beeline your Research to the Alliances tech. However... in true mercenary fashion, each one of these units will cost you quite a few Guildar per unit to maintain. A decent early to mid game unit has a maintenance of about 0.4 - 1.2 Guildar; a Trog Juggernaut costs around 1-6 to 2 Guildar in maintenance; but one of these knights will have a wage of about 6 Guildar. These units, therefore, are meant to provide you with a considerable boost... at a cost.

Ogres are single-soldier 'horned monster' units wielding a large blunt weapon, allowing them to power-attack, and with the ability to 'throw a boulder', a ranged attack that has reasonable damage to it and that it's meant for the Ogre to still attack someone while it's making its way to the melee line. Ogres have 3 movement points, a robust Attack rating (around 20-ish), and decent hit points, but little to no armor. This is a reasonably solid attack-minded unit that's meant to rush to the opposition and bash it silly - although it can get wounded and killed fast enough if the AI happens to focus on it first (it doesn't happen all that often though). Ogre camps are usually guarded by a respect-imducing army with an assortment of Ogres, Bone Ogres (stronger), Trolls, and mire skats.

Trolls are also 'monster' units much like Ogres, also available to Empire factions only. Although in the same line of though as Ogres, Trolls have slightly lower stats than Ogres and are innacurate in their club swings, however, they regenerate health per turn (most often +4 hit points), making them an annoying thing-unit for the AI to deal with. Troll camps are generally available in the terrain only inside wildling/specialty areas, the ones which are unlockable only when you explore all of their bonus/camp/goodie tiles.

1.15 Further Notes on Races

Your choice on race, either by picking a pre-designed faction or by creating a custom one, is another layer that adds variety to your playing style. Races have different combat skills, and some of them also unlock special traits to be used in unit design.

Men (Amarian) units have 10% bonus to experience gain, and the Rush ability. Rush is an ability on cooldown that allows you to move the unit twice. Thus, when you're using men you have an added ability to ...rush... your opponent to their melee line, or at least, to better position your units for strategic purposes and swarming bonuses. In practice, your units will be able to move twice when you use Rush. A foot unit will move 4 squares instead of two; a unit on horseback will move a maximum of 8 tiles instead of just 4; a foot unit on an army with Tireless March cast on it will be able to advance 6 tiles. This is a rather practical and useful ability, which you'll learn to depend upon when you use it, and miss it when you can't. 

Men also have an unique trait available to their units that grants a bonus of 25% more experience gained by the unit, cummulative (I suppose) with its base bonus of 10%. Since each unit only has 3 trait slots available, it's arguable just how much are you willing to spend one of them for this trait; but it does allow you to create a unit with a much greater bonus to level-up.

2. Faction Management

2.1 Landscape and Tile Basics

You can't build settlements anywhere. Only a portion of the tiles are "settleable", when they have marked their food/production/essence yields. Also, your city only uses the tyle yields it's created on (unlike other 4X games like civ), and it blocks in a given radius around it (6 tiles, I think) any other potentially fertile tiles from being settled, both you and by anyone. For these reasons, one could say the land that is available for cities is at a premium, both in quantity and in quality.

A little further into a game, you can research in the Magic tree a spell to turn fertile portions of land you own in your territory, so you can hopefully have more spots to settle if you need them. Also, the Earth school has ways to convert hills, and even water, into flat land. For some reason I don't use these tools much. For now, and for the purposes of speaking about city placement, I'm going to ignore these features.

The tree yield types of settleable tiles are as follows:

Grain: determines 1) the max population cap in a city, and 2) how much it grows. 
The Grain value (let's say, 3) is used to calculate your city's actual Food value (each Grain produces N Food). The difference between the max population your city can possibly achieve and its current population is used to calculate its "Food Surplus", determining your Growth value. A Growth of 2 means your population will increase by 2 every turn (season). At the base of these calculations is the Grain value of the city, and the Food it draws from it.
In the city you will be able to build improvements that will increase the amount of Food each Grain provides to it, possibly increasing its max population and growth.
When the city, of whichever type, reaches a set level of population, it levels up, unlocking a few bonuses that may affect it and/or your whole faction, as well as bolstering some of its production values. In a certain point in time, the amount of Grain/Food may cap your city at a certain population in a way that it can't level up.

I'm not going into detail just how exactly are the base values and calculations, because it's not that visible or intuitive in-game. Over time you'll get an intuitive grip on how much the tile values will then translate into actual city growth and size. 

Rest assured, 3-4 is an average value that's decent for every city; 5-6 are excellent values and will make your city grow the most quick even without much improvement; and 1-2 are very low values that will cap your city at a low level, and it won't grow much beyond level 2 for quite a while, at least until some of your other cities (of the Town type) develop improvements that grant faction-wide bonuses to Food. 

Material: Determines your city's Production, which it uses to build improvements and train units, therefore determining how fast things are built. Each Material translates to a given amount of Production, and you can build certain improvements that increase the amount of Production calculated from each Material. 

Essence: Determines the following: 
1) How many magical enchantments you can place on a city;
2) The effectiveness of some enchantments, namely those that provide 1 something per Essence, such as:
 - Arcane Forge (Researchable): +1 Material per Essence in the city
 - Aura of Grace (Air): +1 Initiative per Essence to trained units
 - Aura of Might (Earth): +1 Defense per Essence to trained units
 - Aura of Vitality (Life): +1 Hit Point per Essence to trained units (*)
 - Heart of Fire (Fire): +1 Fire Attack per Essence to trained units (*)
 - Meditation (All): +1 Mana per Essence generated by the city
 - Propaganda (Air) +1 Guildar per Essence generated by the city
 - Gentle Rain (comes with Hidromancy, Mage trait) +25% Food per Essence in the city
 - Pit of Madness (Death) +1 Research per Essence generated by the city, -1 Growth and attacking units have Fear cast on them
(*) per soldier
Other enchantments don't depend on Essence, for example Life's Sovereign's Call , which adds +2 Growth to the city, or Water's Inspiration, which makes the city generate a flat +1 Research.
3) Essence also affects the effectiveness of a few select buildings. For example, a conclave's Alchemy Lab improvement gives +1 Mana +1 per Essence, +1 Research +1 per Essence, and +1 Material per Essence; a Temple of Essence, which you can only build one per faction, provides -10% Unrest and +1 Mana per Essence in the city where it's built. You should therefore pick cities with Essence to build these special buildings.

Some harvasteable resources increase +1 Grain (Wild Grain) or +1 Material (Clay) in the city, and they stack if there's more than one. Hence these are extremely valuable and you should definitively consider them for your city placement. It's completely different having a city of 2 Grain - 4 Material, or 3 Grain - 4 Material with a Wild Grain farm.

2.2 Grain, Material, Essence Priority, City Enchantments

In my opinion, out of the three tile attributes, Essence is the most important and generally takes priority, not only because it's far rarer - it's possible and common for "fertile" tiles not to have Essence at all, but they always have minimum 2 Food and 2 Material - but because Essence gives an added degree of flexibility to your economy, mostly because of enchantments. If one of your heroes or sovereign knows Earth magic, you can place Enchanted Hammers on a city and give it +1 Material straight away, just like that - it makes a big difference in the city's production, and especially crucial early game. If you happen to have Life magic, place a Sovereign's Call and you have +2 Growth, making the city level up quickly. If you need Mana because you're focusing on using magic, place a Meditation spell to have +3. 

If you have a building or bonus in the city that increases Mana output by a given percentage, your Meditation spell that gives you +1 Mana per Essence will be included in the multiplier.

If you have a city that has 3 Essence, imagine you place Arcane Forge, Meditation, and Propaganda in this city. These spells will add +3 Material to the city (which then will be multiplied with the base value to calculate Production), +3 Mana per season (before multipliers), and +3 Guildar per season (also is affected by multipliers).

If you have a Fortress city where you train your units, imagine you place Aura of Might, Aura of Vitality, and Aura of Fire. Units of size 3 (with 3 soldiers) will have a bonus of 3x3=9 Defense, 3x3=9 Hit Points, and 3x3 Attack... and these are the flat bonuses, before being used by multipliers and any other factors. Even simple low grade militia units will have decent stats thanks to these.

So you see that Essence's bonuses can grow exponentially based on the enchantments you place on a city, depending on what you're focusing upon. Remember you won't have 40 cities in a average game, you'll be restricted to just a few, at least in your early and mid game. So every detail and bonus you can get with enchantments is vital and very important. 

Of course, you do need access to these magic schools to be able to cast these different kinds of enchantments to suit your needs, but they won't all be available to you throughout the game, and certainly not at the start of the game. So how do you get them?

Well, you'll get them through new heroes. You'll get to choose a new hero from two options, everytime you reach a threshold of Fame, which you get by fighting battles, building certain city improvements, and performing quests. When I'm given a choice for a new hero, I tend to pick one that has a spell school that I don't have yet, unless I feel like having some of the unique melee and fighting skills some heroes have, for example. You just need one hero with those spells available to be able to cast them - even if you let your hero at a low level, full of wounds, standing still inside a city, etc. Heroes won't access higher level spells in their schools if you don't actually use them in battle, but economic city enchantment spells tend to be in the lower-tier levels in their schools anyway, while the most powerful ones are either battle-driven, or strategic spells that aren't city enchantments. So the game allows you to keep non-fighting heroes for the sake of their usefulness further back in your territory, while you invest in leveling up your "fighting" ones to unlock spells and skills usable in battles. By mid to late game, you'll have a decent range of spells with 3-4 schools available to you if you play your cards right, if not actually all of them. If you're a Kingdom and you make an Empire faction surrender to you at some point, you'll get their sovereign as a hero, and if that sovereign has Death spells, you'll have access to Death spells as a Kingdom (and vice-versa as Empire and Life spells).

Settling locations with high Essence values (2-3) may not abound (3 is particularly rare). In a given game, you may only have readily available to you one or two locations with high Essence, if any at all. So you'll have to prioritize what kind of cities you'll want to build to take advantage of its Essence. If you're focusing on having a solid economy, you'll turn your high Essence cities into Towns, and cast enchantments to bolster Growth, Money and Production (more about city types later). If you focus on military might, your 3-Essence city must be a Fortress, and you'll cast Production enhancement magic and/or enchantments to unit defense, attack, hit points, and so forth. Likewise for a magic-focused faction, who'll turn its Essence cities into Conclaves.

The possible exception to this, when you may forego a location with Essence (or if you don't have much choice, really) is if you consider a tile location 1) next to a river, or 2) next to a wooded area.

Wooded areas generally tend to have less Essence yields in their tiles, most of the time, actually none. However, if you place your city next to a wooded area, you'll unlock the Logging Camp/Lumber Yard line of improvements, which further enhance production rating, and which you can build in addition to workshops and all other improvements that improve production (but the wooded area has to be right next to the city center, won't work if you build the city far away from the woods and then expand your territory to them). Wooded areas are generally great for production and less good for food, therefore the city you build there may not have much Essence or a good Growth rating, but it will build/train things faster. I generally prefer to build Conclave cities in these areas, or a Fortress if I have a need for one and/or I don't have any better place to found my main unit-training city. 

If you place your city next to a river, you'll unlock the Dock/Harbour line of buildings, which greatly bolster Food, Money, and Production ratings. These improvements can be built in all city types, but because they are great all-rounders, and because they really focus on Food and Money, these may be prime motivators to specialize river cities as Towns. High level (grown) Towns, as we'll see further ahead, have the ability to  provide Food per Grain bonuses to the remaining cities in your faction, allowing you to raise their population cap so they can level up that way.

2.3 Settlement Types and Level Up

Once a village reaches level 2, you'll be asked to choose one of three specializations to it: Town, Fortress, or Conclave. Each level up grants you a certain boost to Money, Production, or Research, respectively. Also, each new level unlocks higher tiers of buildings and building improvements to construct. Furthermore, upon further level ups beyond level 2 (up to level 5), you'll get to choose a specific bonus, according to the settlement type, which will benefit the city or even your entire faction. Therefore city Growth is important 1) to continue bolstering that particular city's main production (money, production or research) and 2) to benefit you with faction-wide benefits.

The difference between city types is as follows:

Town: Bonus to Guildar generation, building line focuses on guildar and food/growth
Towns focus largely on food, growth, and money. They should be placed on the high Grain tiles, because when they level up, their high-tier buildings will grant bonuses to Food per Grain both to the city itself, and faction-wide, i.e., to the rest of your cities. This means that Conclaves and Fortresses that you've built that don't necessarily have high Grain/Food values and are capped at a certain level of population, will have have their population cap and growth increased, possibly allowing them to level up. You could say that it's the towns that provide your entire faction with growth. Towns also grant other very useful faction-wide bonuses on level up, that benefit your economy. Most of the bonuses of the multiple cities will stack up with each other, so it's in your interest to have a few of them and have them grow as much as possible.

Bonuses on Town level up (you can only choose one out of three, at each level up, per city):

Level 1 (village)
Level 2 (Town specialization)
Level 3:
  Guild Grocer: +5% Hit Points to all your faction's units
  Slums: +5 unrest penalty, +3 Growth
  Guild Warehouse: +50% Guildar when the city is producing wealth
Level 4:
  Embassy: Negates unrest penalty from number of towns
  Governor's Office: +1 Production per Material in all cities
  Almshouse: +1 Fame per season
Level 5:
 Guild Lendinghouse: instant 2000 Guildar
 Mint of Ruvenna: +5 Guildar per Material
 (other bonus)

Fortress: Bonus to Production, building line focuses on training units
Fortresses can build but the most simple of research and food-related improvements, but have unlocked specific barracks, forge, and blacksmith-like improvements that reduce unit training costs and give them stat bonuses, which aren't available to other types of cities. IMO, when selecting a city to be a Fortress, you should prioritize Essence/Material, and only then Grain, so you give your units the best stats possible, and have them train as fast as possible.

Bonuses on Fortress level up (you can only choose one of three, at each level up, per city):

Level 1 (village)
Level 2 (Fortress specialization)
Level 3:
 Infirmary: Trained units get +1 Hit Point per level, heals 10 Hit Points per season to all stationed units
 Strike Garrison: trained units get +2 initiative
 Watchtower: Trained units get +1 Move and +2 Attack in first turn of combat (Impulsive trait), +1 Catapult when defending this city
Level 4:
 Gallows: Unrest doesn't affect production
 Prison: -10% unrest in all cities, -1 Growth in this city
 Mining Guild: +2 Metal per season
Level 5:

Conclave: Bonus to Research, building line focuses on research and mana generation
Conclaves are specialist cities that focus strongly both on Research, and also in magical enhancements and Mana generation. Conclaves have access to the Sage line of buildings, which specifically improve Research.  Likewise, on level-up, Conclaves provide both local and faction-wide bonuses to things related to Research and Magic. Naturally, if you're heavily magic-driven, you want to prioritize Concave placement and development, but you don't want to neglect them either way, since they're the foundation of any faction's Research efforts.

Bonuses of Conclaves on level up (you can only choose one of three, at each level up, per city):

Level 1 (village)
Level 2 (Conclave specialization)
Level 3:
 Archivist: +50% Research when city is building Research
 Oracle: +1 Essence in city
 Scroll Scribe: +20% Research in city
Level 4:
 Academy of Revelation: +10% Research for entire faction
 Amethyst Vault: +2 Crystal per season
 Tenfell university: Unrest doesn't affect research
Level 5:
 Hedigah Bathhouse: +1 Water Power, -30% Unrest in city
 Pyre of Anniellum: +2 Fire Power
 Tower of the Magi: +10 Spell resistance for trained units

When you're planning your faction and choosing city types, I have the impression that the proportion of Towns/Conclaves/Fortresses among your cities is not that different for each faction. Because from early to mid-game you have a limited number of a few cities, and you're never going to have 4-5 Fortresses among 6 cities, or 1-2 Towns for that matter. You want one main Fortress (and maybe a secondary one) where you train most of your units, with good production and enchantments, so your soldiers get maximum bonuses; and you always need a backbone of Towns to generate sufficient money, and a backbone of Conclaves to generate Research. Yes, you may replace a Town or two with Conclaves if you're magical faction. Another consideration to have more Fortresses is that they can build walls (improves that city's siege defense), and at level 4 they allow you to choose a bonus of -10 Unrest in your entire faction, which is extremely useful. But this is not a critical point when you're designing your first few cities in the beginning of the game.

What I find what's most important and relevant is not the proportion of city types you have, but how you prioritize your cities with the terrain available to them. If you like having lots of money to support a large military (and maintain a large territory) you're going to give your best city locations to Towns; if you need mana and magic more than anything else, your best locations will have Conclaves in them. And if you're like me and your unit's quality is above all else, that one location with 3 Grain / 3 Material / 3 Essence is always going to be a Fortress.

3. First Steps and Playing The Game

Early-Game is, obviously, when you start up the game, and your main focus is on exploring, clearing goodie huts, and settling cities, carving space in the world for your faction. You're very cautions on where you leave your units, and where you can or cannot settle cities, in order to not have them attacked by monsters you can't handle. In the later portion of the early.game, you'll be focusing on consolidating your power rating in relation to bordering factions, researching techs to develop a minimally competent military, and clearing your territory of most beasts. You are still relatively frail, and your cities are all level 1 and 2.

Mid-Game is when you start to become aware that your armies, or at least your main army (most likely with your sovereign in it), is able to handle devent to strong 'wild' monsters. Hence you transition from a perspective of  powerlessness, to an empowered state - meaning you now seek monsters (or possibly a weak faction, depending on your options), instead of trying to negotiate your way around them. With the exception possibly of elemental lords and dragons, monsters start ceasing being a menace throughout this stage, that role being taken over by other faction's armies. In fact, most wars initiated by AI factions start somewhere this phase, and the issue in the mid-game is if you are able to defend from an attack from the AI. By this stage, your cities are mostly all in a contiguous and solid-looking territory block, eliminating for the most part Unrest from not being in 'touch' with your capital. You may think about expanding again, by settling a few more cities, if the room is available both inside or outside your territory, and you think your economy (meaning, your Unrest-dealing measures) can handle it. Your top unit designs are armored in leather, and you have some decent weapons and bonuses from city enchantments to play with. You may start letting cities reach level 3 and beyond (training pioneers delays this process, and you may bot have enough food faction-wide for it to happen anyway). Another obvious note, the quality of your mid-game depends greatly on how well your early game turned out. The later part of the mid-game is, hopefully, when you feel you can/could take out an AI faction if you wanted, instead of rushing to solidify your defenses.

Late-Game is when you have enough confidence in your military (and/or overall fighting techniques) to start thinking about winning the game - and if it's via diplomatic/conquest victory, that implies clearing the world's surface of some folks in a systematic manner (meaning, blitzing with multiple stacks from multiple sides). Your top units are clad in mail and possibly plate armor (or you have some high-end tech/magic that makes your units great); your cities are mostly at level 3 or above; and the alternative to conquer factions is to clear wildland/elemental lord areas. Dragons are accessible to fight, depending on your unit quality. Again, the amount of leeway you have when you start reaching top tech, depends on how well the previous phases played out. Normally, though (and at least up to expert) if you managed to survive the early and mid-game, that means it was because you were thriving.

3.1 Starting Location Quality

In any 4X game your starting location and your early moves heavily influence how the rest of your game will work out. A good start will leave you in a strong position throughout, while a shaky one may leave you on the back foot for a long time. It's very much true in FE: LH, even so because your power ratings (your overall "score") directly affects if and when other AI's feel ok to attack you.

When you start a new game, you can hit CTRL+N to regenerate the map, if you don't like your starting location and the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, you can hit CTRL+N as many times as you like, until you make your first save (not counting auto-saves). In my mind, this is the game acknowledging that you're indeed allowed to restart a game, not only if your capital city tiles aren't good enough, but also, if the first turns reveal nearby settings such as terrain, surroundings, and neighbours, that aren't quite to your satisfaction.

Each player will have its own stance regarding this. Some players love starting a game and take it from there in a "whatever happens, happens" mode, while others are perfectionists and find it very hard to start off their faction when they happen to have 3 AI factions all gobbling up the land around him. Personally and honestly, I feel a little put off (not to say the game has been spoiled) when you start your game and you have AI's right next to you, spamming pioneers and taking up all your available space. This situation may perhaps call for an early-game military rush, and that can indeed also make for a good solid start in its own way. But most often than not, I tend to give up and start over. I prefer to, swiftly but in my own terms, develop a solid economic base before I'm forced into fighting, and I love seeing well-developed cities and a healthy economy in full throttle.

Starting locations vary a lot. Sometimes your starting location and surroundings allow you to block off the AI just enough so you can develop a decent economy; sometimes there simply isn't any settleable locations anywhere near your capital (cities whose territory isn't in contact with your capital's will have an unrest penalty). And sometimes, you spawning in the middle of the map (specially the larger ones) means you'll get pounded from all sides by multiple factions. On higher difficulty levels, it may not be possible to survive this. I always try to have a starting location somewhere in the periphery of the map.

So I think you shouldn't feel guilty or like your cheating if you use CTRL+N to choose your starting location wisely, and to see if the beginning turns develop in the way you want. It completely depends on how you feel and how you'd like to play this game at the moment. If you want a challenge, pick the very first start you're dealt; if you fancy a quality game, repeat CTRL+N until you like what you see. This game has a lot of variants that can go wrong. If you are a military faction that spawned in a location with barely any iron ore resources, you're in for a very crappy game, in the sense you're not going to capitalize on your strengths, or be able to play exactly how you want to. So again, I think FE: LH, even in this aspect, allows you to have the game how you prefer it.

The AI doesn't frequently cross over with its settlers pioneers behind your territory, and to the open space behind it, to build cities there - at least until there's a true scarcity of available land - because a city that's not adjacent to the capital's territory will suffer an Unrest penalty. However, The AI can do so, and what it most often does, is to build outposts to occupy unclaimed resources. Despite of this, you're still more or less restricting the AI's expansion if you block a small gap of land, or a passage between mountains, with your territory (from a city or an outpost). The AI will be reluctant to cross over, and have a segmented territory, instead preferring to expand into open terrain adjacent to its existing territory, elsewhere. Therefore, occupying choke points in order to secure your breathing space is a strategy as viable as any, and you'll have plenty of opportunity to do so in this game.

As for your actual starting tiles, not much to elaborate on, really. You can plan to make your capital a Town, Conclave, or Fortress, according to the tiles you start on, and/or in any way you see fit. Your capital will generally be the most advanced and Unrest free city you'll have for a long time, but it'll be tasked to pump out pioneers at a reasonable pace. So if you want to focus on unit production make it a Fortress, if you want more Growth and money make it a Town, and if you want a slightly more robust Research rating, a Conclave.

In determining this, the starting tiles also have something to say, of course. In general though, you want a tile with high Food, Material, and Essence. Simple. Starting tiles of 4-3-2 are popular choices for a capital, as are tiles near rivers, and also, those precious little 3-3-3 tiles, where I always build my main Fortress (even better if it's the capital!). Also very important in your surroundings is the presence of Grain/Material resources such as Clay and Wild Grain, which will turn your 4-3-2 city into 5-3-2 and/or 4-4-2 (or more, if there are more resources). Crystal can also be important if you're planning of using it a lot (you are a magical faction and you want to recruit mage and trinket-buffed units). Elemental Shards are good but not extremely crucial in the very early game; Iron Ores, while extremely necessary for metal-using units in the mid-game (you'll find you just never have quite enough Metal), are not needed for the early-game itself: they are a resource you'll have to gather and secure over time, as a long-term necessity.

3.2 First Moves

You've got some leeway in the order you build things, in the sense that the game isn't going to punish severely if you didn't rush a pioneer in your capital by turn 8. In fact, the AI itself tries to strike a balance between early expansion, building up their cities with a few improvements that are crucial to them, and training a few decent military units. So you should do the same - but the priority in the early game is always to settle multiple cities. 

However, you have certain restraints when it comes to training pioneers. In addition to Production, A pioneer unit costs 30 population over your city level's minimum population. What does this mean? 

A village will level up from level 1 to 2 when it reaches 50 population. When it's level 2 and has, say, 70 population, it won't let you train pioneers: you need 30 population in excess of the minimum level of 50, i.e. 80 population, in order to queue up a pioneer for training. And when you do, your city loses its 30 population, returning to 50. So as you can see, training pioneers is an activity at odds with your growth. Not only will you not be able to train pioneers every other turn, but doing so is a game you'll want to play by trying to balance your growth with your expansion. 

Plus, if you rush pioneers leaving your staring city(s) at level 1, you won't have city specialization bonuses for level 2 (nor do you unlock some of the level 2 buildings), so you'll start to feel your economy fall behind in relation to other factions.

One idea is to let your starting city level up to level 2, all the while building a relevant improvement you deem worth it and a unit or two. And only them you start thinking about training pioneers. Exploring the terrain with pioneers is actually a lousy idea, as they are slower than scouts and most monsters will attack and kill them on sight (monsters stationed in lairs will only do so sometimes, but roaming monsters will always go for the kill). Pioneers are unarmed and will, for all purposes, "die on contact" when attacked. However, monsters (at least that I've see so far anyway) only move 1 tile per turn regardless of their movement points, and you can safely count on that. I guess the world is already a dangerous place as it is, let alone if you let all the monsters run wild in full movenent points. Doesn't apply if your faction is "Stealth", of course.

I'm not sure if there's an optimal strategy for first turns building order. The very first thing I usually queue up in my capital is the Tower of Dominon, which will remove in your capital all Unrest from the number of cities (more on that later), and perhaps much more relevant for the very first few turns, will give you +10 Fame, which will instantly give you a choice for a second hero right away. Your second hero will allow you to engage in fights with low-level monsters and starting to clear the surroundings (join him/her with your sovereign and his starting units). But perhaps as important than that, or perhaps even more, is the new spell school you might be able to obtain to bolster your cities with (IF you are lucky enough to be given the choice of at least a hero with a new spell school, AND if you choose your new hero based on its magic schools). 

An alternative to building the Tower of Dominion could be to build a Study if your faction is Scholar, or a Bell Tower if your faction has the Civics trait. You can also build a marketplace, a terrain improvement you can use right away such as a Clay resource, or a Food building, for example if your capital is next to a river. All of these are possible. Turn your taxes to "none" in the very first few turns of the game, to maximize the amount of production you have in your capital - however city improvements that provide money like marketplaces won't work at all as long as taxes are set to "none". Research-wise, the very first tech you should probably research is Civics (if you don't have it), because it allows you to rush production (you do need money for that). Later on you may be interested in placing your taxes to low and start collecting enough money to rush Pioneers, when your city is at level 2, to expand as fast as possible.

In between your very first city improvement or two, you should train a Scout, at least one, if not more later on. You need to gain knowledge of your surrounding terrain. Here's a trick: edit your Scout in the unit's design, and give it the Stealth trait, to reduce the chance monsters will attack it - if you happen to leave your Scouts next to monsters in a given turn (because you really want to scout the terrain, sometimes that's inevitable). After building your Scout, use it to explore the terrain in any given direction, around your starting territory. Its objective is first and foremost, to spot new settling spots and know where you are, and also, to contact other factions and know where they are.

With your sovereign's starting army, you have two options. You can separate all units and have them spot the surrounding territories just like your Scout. And/or, you can begin to use them as an army to start clearing the proximity of any monsters you are actually able to engage. I sometimes use them to scout a bit, but after a few turns max I start using them in an army to clear monster lairs and do quests, as that provides experience and fame to your sovereign. In any case focus on bringing your sovereign and/or hero to goodie huts, as they provide with some bonuses like pieces of equipment, research, and sometimes good early game units, like a sand golem, which is a relatively common "drop".

An army with your sovereign, its two starting units of militia and spearmen, your secondary hero, and a sand golem, are more than capable of facing most low-level monsters at this point. Monsters/Ruffians you should be able to face would be: groups of ruffians, bandits, wolves (but perhaps not an army with a Great Wolf) mites and darklings (but not with shamans in them), shrills, bears and bear cubs, and groups of weaker spiders. At this point, stay the heck away from daemons, white-robed mages with snakes and cats, and anything else that is described as "Strong" or above. You can roughly trust the estimation the game provides about an army's strength (i.e. weak, medium, etc) - although this starts to get a little innacurate as the game moves on and you have better armies. Don't worry too much if your starting spearmen and militia units eventually die off, you will design and train better units later.

Finally, as I mentioned before, be extra careful in encompassing monster lairs with your city's territories (if you found a city next to a lair, or if your territory grows to envelop it). Monsters whose lairs are inside your territory will be "dislodged" from them, and start roaming inside your territory, randomly attacking your improvements, units, and sometimes even your cities. Each time a monster ends its turn next to an improvement or an outpost you own, there's a chance that the next turn it will move into your improvement's tile and destroy it. If these are monsters you can defeat in combat, then it's no big deal; however, if you have Flamy the Fire Lord, or Rocky the Bone Ogre, attack one of your cities, you can say goodbye to your beloved city that you had so much work building up and caring for. Oh, and when a city is razed by a monster (or a faction), the tile it was built upon is not settleable anymore. It's lost for good. Monsters aren't guaranteed to go on a murderous destructive spree, though. I believe their rate of destruction towards your real estate varies according to the difficulty setting of monsters at the game setting up. They will, however, tend to approach (1 tile per turn) weak units like pioneers to attack them. What you need to consider is if you're able to deal with them or not.

For these reasons, monsters can be an important consideration when expanding, and deciding where it's safe to settle and where's not. One thing you may be able to do is to delay the territory expansion of a settlement you founded, to avoid it reaching a particularly dangerous monster group, at least until you have units strong enough to deal with it.

3.3 Unrest

Unrest is the single most important determining factor to your economy and kingdom size. Unrest is a percentage penalty to a city's a) Production, and b) Research, and it's a property of each individual city. Cities with high unrest will slow down your economy immensely, because they won't build things in a useful timing, and won't produce Research. Unrest is a soft cap to how many cities you can have, therefore determining your maximum city count in any given moment of the game. Because...

Unrest is created by:
 - Taxes (the higher the rate, the higher the Unrest)
 - Number of cities (+3 Unrest per city you own)
 - A city not being in contact with the territory your capital is in
 - Certain buildings improvements create unrest
 - Occupation of an enemy city immediately contributes with +50 Unrest in that city, which will decrease slowly over the passage of turns (seasons)
 - Certain magical negative enchantments your enemies might cast on a city you own

Unrest is decreased by:
 - Some city improvements - the Bell Tower/Town Hall line of buildings, and the Cleric/Shrine one
 - Harvesting the Honey terrain resource with an Apiary - each Apiary you build reduces faction-wide Unrest by -2 
 - Having a sovereign/hero stationed inside the city (a sovereign reduces Unrest by -10, a hero by -5, a hero with certain Commander specializations may reduce more). However this is obviously not a widespread solution. You won't have that many heroes, and not all of them are meant to stay put inside cities, but instead in the wilderness fighting. Therefore this is more of a fix of specific situations
 - Death city enchantment Spell Opression, which reduces a city's Unrest by -10
 - Researchable city enchantment Bless City, which reduces Unrest by a whopping -30 (do you see why you need Essence? costs 500 mana, though)
 - Level 4 Fortress upgrade Prison, which decreases faction-wide Unrest by -10
 - Noble sovereign profession, which reduces faction-wide Unrest by -10

Unrest can be managed and countered by some things, but the most influential and difficult aspect to negate is the number of cities you own, which increases Unrest faction-wide. A city with 30-40 Unrest or more already has a severe penalty to its Production and Research, which you'll begin to notice when things take a lot longer to build and train. You can also look at faction-wide Unrest bonuses as "permission" to have more cities. For example, an Apiary stands for -2 Unrest, which is almost equivalent to an additional city (+3 Unrest). A bonus of -10 Unrest, from a Prison or from a sovereign profession, for example, means you'll be able to have 3 more cities than you'd normally be able to - or, at least, your existing cities will be more production, and/or you'll be able to tax them more. You can keep a small number of cities in order to give you the freedom to pump taxes up, but I usually keep taxes as low as possible, in order to have the largest possible territory, with the best Research and Production possible.

3.4 Diplomacy

From the moment you find another faction on the map, you'll be able to compare your power scores. The game orders these scores at all times, and the AI's draw from it heavily their behaviour towards you.

I don't know exactly how a faction's power rating is calculated, but my best guess is that it's a combination of how many towns you have, their level and improvements, your territory and resources gathered, your economic strength, techs researched, and also, each military unit you trained and is under your control. 

At any given moment, factions might be hostile, neutral, or friendly to you - shown in the power ratings chart with a little red angry face, a yellow indifferent face, or a smiley green face, respectively.  This attitude comes from a number of things. A similarly aligned faction (a Kingdom if you're a also Kingdom, for example) will tend to foster better relationships with you, as well as treaties that you might arrange between the two. On the other hand, having their territory close to them, having attacked other factions of the same alignment, or simply being envious and/or more powerful than you (according to power ratings) will all contribute to bring about an angry red face. 

It's the factions above you in rating, or competing for about the same rating you are, that you have to worry about. Lower graded factions will tend to act humble and even spontaneously offer tribute to you (a tribute offer guarantees fixed peace for 30 turns and it's a self-defensive measure the AI is taking). However, factions above your own will very easily turn their preying eyes on you and attack, as soon as from mid game onwards. Sometimes, even similarly aligned factions will take their chances with you (Kingdom vs Kingdom and Empire vs Empire), if the relationship stacks on the wrong end bad enough. There's no fixed rule for this, however, factions above you may still be happy with you and all interested in establishing treaties, while lowish factions canstill get angry and declare war.

In any case, you'll develop the habit of constantly monitoring the power ratings to check if you're more or lesse likely to be attacked, and by whom, at any point in time. You'll also try to have a higher rank as possible, because in fact, bolstering your ranking is by far your best protection against unwanted war.

From my experience, one of the greatest, fastest ways to raise in power quickly, is by recruiting especially strong military units, most notably Juggernauts if you're using theTrog race. Just by training one you'll shoot high up the power table, presumably representing the fear you instill on other factions by having such things fighting for you. Even factions that began wars with you because you were 'weaker' than them, as soon as you shoot up in the ratings, may courteously ask you to cease hostilities and forget all about it.

Also, be very careful whom you exchange (or give) tech, and establish trading caravan treaties, because depending on the faction (some will make better use of tech and treaties than others), and together with all the bonuses the AI gets, one misplaced contribution from you may make their own power ratings skyrocket - and that means danger to you.

On the other hand, striking an Alliance with a friendly faction will lock your relationships firmly in a "perfect" status (blue smiley) for quite a long time, effectively ensuring you've got your back covered and you. won't be attacked, at least from that side. Faction relationships towards you may float greatly over time, so this is a good thing. You can pass freely through the territory of your allies and take advantage of movement bonuses of roads in their territory (you wouldn't otherwise), as well as access to what's available in their shop, when you access the shop screen in their territory - they may have items available that you haven't researched yet.

Very often a conquest victory turns into a diplomatic one, when you manage to defeat all hostile factions and the remaining ones are all allied to you.

3.5 Unit Design and Army Management

Military-wise, in the midst of its complexity, this game pretty much uses a rock-paper-scissors concept: unit designs will dictate their inherent strengths and weaknesses, and how to counter them when being employed by the AI.

None of this is actually very important if your units completely overpower the AI's. But in harder difficulty settings it's not uncommon to be reasonably matched in terms of military tech, especially if you didn't start off  that well in the game, for example, if you didn't have a nice continguous settling ground, and you spent a lot of time settling and consolidating your territory. Some AIs, especially the more militaristic ones, tend to go through the entire military research tree before you do, and in these cases you may find yourself facing catapults and units in full armour, while you're still trying to research that nice economy tech. It's also for this reason that you should spend about 30%, perhaps 40%, of your research efforts in economic research, and most of the rest in your 'specialization' research of choice - military or magic.

However, seeing uber units coming your way doesn't necessarily mean you can't deal with them. First of all, being the human player means you obviously always have an edge. You can predict and plan your battle much more effectively than the AI, making the most out of your unit's strenghts, traits, special abilities, and magic. For example, an AI may charge forward into melee with a hero/sovereign that it has leveled as a mage, which in a tight/even battle probably neither takes advantage of its design choices in the first place, nor is it something the human player would probably do. These little quirks often mean your mid-game army with your sovereign is able to more or less easily dispatch multiple stacks an AI faction sends your way. And I'm also not considering if you have specialty units such as Juggernauts, Dragons, and so forth.

Another thing to consider is the rock-paper-scissors principle. Don't despair when you see a badass unit with its face covered in plate. Open its description and take a look at its stats. What does its initiative look like? Is it 10? Heavy units with blunt weapons have an horrible initiative stat, meaning units with 16-20 initiative will move/act about 2/3 times before that one unit even thinks of doing something. And when fighting it, you either avoid it and isolate it from the rest of its (not so resilient) army, or you focus everything you got on it (and you can also cast some things on it, such as Shrink, for example). This is also why units in leather armor and with swords (or other weapons), Roman Legginnaire-style, remain very competitive throughout most of the game, because they'll have high initiative. The Roman Leggionnaires defeated the Macedonian phalanxes in a few tight, crucial battles, because, while similarly disciplined, they were less specialized and more flexible in the way they fought.

To counter a faction full of heavy-armored melee units, use units of your own with high initiative (and decent attack), and/or magic. Units in leather (or no armor) can still use blunt weapons and deal some heavy damage with Power Strike, while still retaining a decent initiative value. Units with spears and swords also have few penalties to initiative.

To counter a faction full of strong ranged archer units or ranged magic units, use ranged units of your own, offensive ranged magic, and/or agile/speedy/mounted melee units. Some racial traits allow units to move fast, such as Men's Rush. Fire's Fireball, catapults, and other ranged units work wonders on enemy archers. Ranged magic units bypass armor, so be careful with them. However, factions who employ them are usually tend not to be that militaristic.

To counter a faction with so-so units, with average/decent/balanced stats, initiative, mounted units, etc. Normally, you may have a better time dealing with these, because they don't have a specific 'strength' to compensate for you being... human, so you're free to design units to your choosing.

You'll find out, in most cases, that if you try to train your high-cost military units exclusively, your budget will quickly be bloated with unit wages, and you'll be able to afford a small amount of units. If your territory reaches a reasonable size, it'll be risky defending it only with a single army, or two half-armies for that matter. Your enemies will also be on the lookout (via power ratings) if you have a weak military, and if they sense blood, they're going to be more likely to attack.

One thing you may end up doing is designing two lines of units: one top-tier line, were you design each unit exactly how you want, with all the toys and trinkets you wish; and a militia cheapo version of the same unit, with the same idea/functionality, but with less (or no) armor, a weaker version of the same weapon, no traits and/or no trinkets, and so on. The idea is to reduce the resource/wage cost, to be able to have more units (I suspect each and every single military unit you train contributes to the power score with its attack, defense, etc ratings), and also, to be able to train a lot of these units faster, in the case of an unexpected emergency. You may then take the militia units and mix them in your armies with your top units, or you can go abroad with an army full of your most powerful units, and leave behind the militia ones, to ensure you are able to deal properly with sudden threats from factions, random events spawning monsters (such as the pesky skeleton plague) and so on.

If you know what you're doing and have enough techs to play around with, militia units may not be all that weak. A foot soldier with little to no armour, but with a good shield and a blunt weapon, and with a strategically placed trait or two, can still be a solid (not die-on-touch) unit, and with a kick to it. And, if you by any chance are using Magnar, or the Quendar race, you're able to use this strategy to the extreme, by being able to train Slave units, which can be equipped just as well as normal units, but cost a little less to train, and no wages. None.

Units designs should take advantage of 1) your faction traits if you have any, 2) your tech and orientation towards magic or "physical" fighting, 3) the resources you have available and their amount, and 4), perhaps most important of all, your personal preference in fighting. Remember magical items and trinkets generally cost Crystal per soldier, while "physical" ones cost Metal. Here's a few ideas.

3.6 A Few Unit Ideas and Concepts

"Hoplite" units are shields with spears, which you can use with the Defensive trait. They lack the "burst" ability of blunt-using units, but you can design them to be all-out defensive units - good for militia cheap units also, and they'll still bite, in the sense that their attack, even if a spear's attack rating is relatively smaller than of other weapons of the same caliber, it will pierce armour and do a consistent amount of damage. Late-game spears and pikes have a considerable attack rating. Also, spears can Impale, meaning you strike an enemy unit in melee, and the one behind it.

Units with blunt weapon and shield are a staple of all faction's armies, because they are balanced, versatile units, capable of both solid defense (shield gives a flat bonus to Defense, and another bonus when the unit is "defending") and a strong burst attack, because you have the ability Power Strike on all blunt weapons. Militia units also will typically use this design, as its balance of defense and power attack render them effective units as well. Blunt weapons, however, have a reasonable initiative penalty to the unit, which makes them a strong but slow, thus more defensive, choice.

Spearmen use double-handed spears (which don't allow shields) and it's what most factions will design when they don't have the Defensive trait. Spearmen are effective when you're facing people with high armour ratings (spears are armour piercing), but they will have a relatively low Defensive rating themselves, at least until you can put them in heavier armor. For the record, I'd take spear-and-shield over double-handed spear, any day.  

Axe units can Backswing, that is, the soldier with the axe will attempt to strike the enemy one more time if it misses. Axes also have a second ability, Cleave, that strikes 3 adjacent enemies. Regular axes are two-handed and thus don't allow shields, but they have less severe initiative penalty than blunt weapons. For this reason this is a far more offensive weapon than blunt weapons, intended to keep your melee units act faster and move forward, making sure they strike the enemy down. The dual-wielding double axes that the trait Axe Mastery unlocks don't actually have double the regular axes Attack rating for balancing purposes, but they do have higher Attack ratings, and even less initiative penalties, making them even faster.

Sword units don't seem to see widespread use by the AI. Swords are slightly less powerful than axes, and don't allow you to crush your enemy like blunt weapons. What they do, is a) allow you to equip a shield  -thus, they also allow for balanced unit designs - b) they are really fast, in fact, they give a bonus to initiative to the unit, and c) they have 1 counterattack per round: when the unit is attacked in melee (if it survives), it will strike back the unit that attacked it. This counter-attack bypasses any bonuses the enemy unit might have  had from being in the "Defending" stance, and can be especially effective in Assassin-type heroes and units with a high dodge rating - not get struck, and strike back an "out of balance" enemy. In theory, swords are meant to allow the design of versatile and adaptable units. However, not only doesn't the AI seem to favor them, because they don't really allow that great of a focus/specialization on a really defensive, or a really offensive unit designs, I too end up neglecting swords entirely.

Mages are units that use magical staffs as ranged weapons (thus typically costing a good deal of Crystal), specializing in Cold, Fire, or Lightning damage. I get the sense, even if it's not explicit in the weapon's description, that their magical attacks bypass armor/defense ratings, if not completely, at least by a percentage. You'll notice their ranged attacks consistently deal a good amount of damage despite its attack rating, and thus these units can be a great addition to your armies, even if you're a "physical" military type.

Archer units use bows. Bows are (obviously) ranged weapons that have a considerable penalty to initiative. In game balance terms, this means the game is suggesting you to design archers with light armor at most, so as not to have extremely slow-to-act units which end up not affecting the battle significantly - although you can design an archer clad in heavy plate, and try to compensate by giving it Initiative traits and equipment. Bow attacks take into account the target's Defense rating. The resulting practical effectiveness of having ranged units in your armies falls somewhere near the "nice-to-have but not essential" idea. Late game bows can indeed decimate lightly armoured units, but then, so can a Catapult. This means ranged units fall into a more supportive role, i.e. a unit that is far from the melee line but still assists out the fight... unless you bring a lot of them - which can be risky against really strong melee units. The exception to this is if you have the Archers perk. The unique bows unlocked by this trait are slightly stronger, faster, and the last top-tier bow, the Ram's Horn Longbow, ignores 50% of the target's defense, which makes for a powerful archer unit. Oftentimes, archer units have a mini/separate battle among themselves during battles in mid to late game. Crossbows are a new addition in Legendary Heroes. They have have a reasonable, if unspectacular attack rating, and they have the Power Shot ability, which damages N units in a row. However... they aren't armor piercing, and they have enormous penalties to Initiative, greater than any other weapon type. The game also doesn't seem to have very few (if any at all) unique crossbows to equip heroes, so game design-wise, there doesn't seem to have been a deep investment in Crossbows. Because of these reasons, I usually completely neglect crossbows in my unit design - and the AI does seem to do the same. If only units could switch between two weapon types in mid-battle...

Catapults are single-"soldier", siege weapon units, that have an area of effect (a 3x3 tile) 28 (base) Attack rating, at any range. It also has a high Defense rating, around 30, meaning lore-wise that it's made of wood and it's a solid object, rather than a squishy person. Enemy ranged catapults, when not trying to kill each other and/or your sovereign, will often target your catapult(s). But there's a good reason for it: Catapults decimate  people. It's more blatantly obvious when you're fighting an army that has a nice cluster of lightly armored archers amassed at the back. Simply aim your shot to hit for as many units as possible, and then sit back and watch the carnage. Catapult shots are often dodged, but because they can hit many people at once, they more than make up for it. In the late game, if you don't have the Archers perk, you can easily replace your archer units with Catapults in your uber elite army.

3.7 Random Unit Traits and Equipment Notes

You can design your any of your units (except Juggernauts, Golems, Catapults, and other specialty things) in Wargs or Horses if you researched the tech (and if you actualy have Wargs and Horses resources in your territory to build them). Both mounts give movement bonuses to the unit.

Horses give a unit +2 Movement. A foot unit which would otherwise move 2 tiles per turn (both in tactical combat as well as in the strategic map) now has 4 moves - but remember an army will always move as fast as its slowest unit. Horses also give +2 Attack, +2 Initiative at the first turn of combat. For this reason, cavalry units tend to be the first to move in tactical combat.

Wargs, on the other hand, only give +1 Movement to the unit, but, it will give them a permanent bonus of +2 Initiative, which means units will move more often by being mounted on Wargs. For this reason, I sometimes design archer units mounted on Wargs to take advantage of their initiative bonus, even if they generally don't have to move that often. And, when one doesn't have access to horses, one must use Warg cavalry. Also, did I mention that being able to train Wargs and mount people on them in a game is just AWESOME?

As far as traits go, one of the single most powerful traits you can design your units with is Bloodthirsty: +25% Attack on wounded opponents. And it works on ranged/archer units too. This means that when you strike a unit that isn't at its 100% health, you'll attack with 25% more rating than what you have. If your unit's rating is 5, you'll strike with 6; if it's 12, you'll attack with 15... and so on. This is a significant -and fun- bonus, that's more significant the higher your unit's Attack is. Give it a try if you haven't already. You won't be disappointed.

4. General Hints and Tips

4.1 Wartime Defending and Attacking

When a faction declares war on you, their plan almost always consists in throwing absolutely everything they have, in a military sense, at you. This means every stack of units your enemy has will come your way, into your territory. When dealing with them, a particular useful spell is Water's Freeze, that immobilizes an entire enemy army (can only be cast inside your territory) for 3 turns, hopefully giving you a little window of time to bring your defenses to the area and prepare.

The thing is, if you do manage to defeat these invading stacks, the attacking faction usually doesn't keep much of anything back to defend their territory. The AI, perhaps poorly in my mind, most often than not uses a "all or nothing" approach into military campaigns. What does this mean? Counter-attack time. Once you defeat their invading armies in battle, as soon as you see that they don't have any more stacks coming your way, move your defending army(ies) towards where the others came from. Maybe you'll still encounter one more stack, perhaps, but you'll certainly have a window of opportunity to more easily invade and conquer their cities - provided you feel you have powerful enough units to defeat their town defenses. Also, the enemy heroes and sovereign, whose stacks you just defeated back in your territory, will still be immobilized and severely wounded inside their towns when you invade - if you move quickly enough - meaning the leaders themselves won't even be that much of a threat.

Obviously, when you're pondering invading and conquering someone, you should always consider, apart from immediate military concerns, if you're ready to withstand the increased Unrest in your home cities if you keep your conquered ones, and if you do, with whom will you open new borders with, and if you're capable of defend the new territory.

4.2 Faction Surrendering

When you manage to beat a faction up enough, that they still have one or a few cities left, but their power rating is far lower than yours, you may be able to have them surrender to you. To do so, open up the dialogue with them, and see if they can accept the "Demand Surrender" option under Treaties (you must be at war with them). If the option "It is agreed" is open and ready for you to click it (not greyed out), then you can make that faction surrender.

A faction surrendering to you has the following effects:

 - all their cities, outposts, and units completely disappear from the map. Except...
 - their sovereign, for example Oracle Cereza, joins you as a hero, bringing with it any magical spells and abilities it may have developed on its own.
 - the sovereign will have all of its enchantments on it when it comes to you. For example, you can normally only cast Tireless March on a hero/sovereign once (army gets +1 Move in the strategic map as well as on tactical combat); but if the surrendering sovereign has it cast on it as well, you get to keep it.
 - a curious and wonderful thing: that one sovereign will have with him/her lots and lots of items, some of them quite powerful, such as weapons you'd be given as quest rewards. The items are yours, which you can sell for a good profit, and/or use for your own heroes. It really is like Christmas.

The vassal sovereign, however, will have the Broken Spirit trait: -25% hitpoints, -25% accuracy, -25% Spell Mastery. Still, since by these stages another faction's sovereign will be high level, most likely above level 12 at least. So this one trait, although apparently crippling, has done nothing to hinder my usage of them. The most troublesome is the hit point penalty, but nothing a few well-place trinkets won't cure.

4.3 Dragons and Elemental Lords

Native, unmodded dragons break the game when you are able to recruit them. Simple as that. Unless possibly, if you and the AI are evenly tied in unit quality by the end of the game, I guess, but this has been my experience nonetheless. To recruit dragons, you have to build a resource-harvesting building on a dragon camp in your territory - which is usually guarder by a dragon which you must (or should) defeat. You can also earn a Dragon through a questline.

Dragon to Juggernaut: Do you think we'll win?

In either case, when fighting one, or with one, a dragon's stats may be a little misleading, because they are high but not that high. However, a Dragon has an insane Initiative rating - top 20s up to +30 - which means they'll act very often. And what they do when they act, is spew a fireball spell at you (Fire Breath, a catapult-like 3x3 tile attack, of fire damage equal to the creature's Attack rating), which is devastating, especially because at the beginning of the turn the Dragon is the first to move, and your units are all nicely cramped up together to receive the brunt of that spell. Also, Dragons have a Tail Swipe attack, which delivers its Attack rating to everyone within a 1 tile radius. Storm Dragons also have single-unit, random hitting Storm spell, which causes lightning damage. Last but not least, Dragons also have Overpower, which means their attack rating is multiplied by the number of soldiers in the unit. In practice, units with Overpower count their attack rating per soldier instead of per unit, which leads to a devastating single-strike attack.

The result is that while you're trying to think about killing the damn Dragon, meanwhile he's actually killing you. Your choices are either bring along top-tier units (you should be able to handle anything in the game with your late high-level units), and/or try to use a Slow spell on the dragon, so you give your units a chance to actually move in the combat, instead of just standing still and being eaten. When you do have a Dragon, however, you get to bring along all that nastiness with yourself, and use it on your unfortunate AI puppets. 

Elemental Lords are those huge beasties located inside "locked" (unable to build anything) terrain areas, and they make the ground shake when they move on the strategic map. These elementals have lots of hit points and an assortment of abilities, btu perhaps the most significant one is that they also have Overpower, making their attacks very dangerous. So when fighting an Elemental Lord, you should focus on clearing out all the lesser beasties in their army, and then focus completely on bringing it down, not neglecting spells that in some manner alleviate your unit's trauma of bearing all of its might - spells like Shrink, Slow, or Curse, for example (shrinking a monstrous elemental is kind of fun in its own right).

When you kill an elemental lord (kind of like a boss fight) you get a super cool, unique, purple-colored item to use in one of your heroes, and a special "marker", or "item", to place in one of your cities, which will grant it unique bonuses. I just wish the city choosing screen in this circumstance wouldn't just let me browse my cities by name only, not letting me see any other city stats to help me make my decision.

4.4 'Snaking' and Bringing Resources Inside City Walls

Under Advanced Options in the game settings, be sure to check "Manual Improvement Placement". Not only is it more fun to have your cities look uneven and realistic-looking, but placing settlement improvements manually lets you direct where your city territory expands. Even if the territory of a given city isn't set to expand one tile at the moment (for example when you build a monument, or when you choose a Town specialization at a city's level up) when you finish building the improvement you just placed, if that improvement is next to the edge of the city's territory, the territory area itself will expand in order to always leave at least a one-tile gap between the city's physical walls and its edge. In practice, by placing your buildings one after the other, or in a given direction, you can "project" your  territory in a specific direction (or directions) in order to get far away strategic resources - in this game's circles this is often referred to as 'snaking'.

Another thing you can do with it, is to bring harvested resources inside your city walls. Let's say you have a Gold Mine, a Clay Quarry, or any other resource-harvesting construction inside your territory. If at least one building in a city you own touches with its edges this construction, it will enveloped by the city walls, in practice being inside the city itself rather than outside. This ensures that wandering monsters and enemy units can't just walk into the improvement and destroy it; they would have to attack the city to do so. Not that this makes the improvement immune to attack, but you know, a city's defenses are certainly better than, well... nothing at all. Plus, monsters are probabilistically less likely to attack cities themselves than outposts and lone improvements. I think.

4.5 Things that Feel Like Cheat Mode

  1. Having a Dragon (or Dragons). Dragons are obtainable through certain quests, and by building dragon camps on specific resources on the map, with the high-end tech 'Dancing with Dragons'. Nothing in this game tips the scale in your favor more than having a Dragon. Even if you got to the end-game and the AI's troops match your own, a Dragon will let you slice through the AI at ease.
  2. Leveling up a Mage with the Savant trait: reducing casting time by -1. You can cast those offensive and/or important spells, most of them otherwise taking 1 turn to cast, instantly. Spells like Fireball (offensive spell) or Wellspring (heals everyone) can be cast over and over. Even more powerful if you focus on traits that magnify their effects, such as increasing spell damage for your Fireball-casting mage. And if you give your sovereign high initiative, this can be quite game-changing. This is one way to have an 'overpowered' sovereign/hero. Try also giving him some critical hit chance...
  3. Casting Blizzard, especially the rarer more powerful versions available through quests and goodie huts. Blizzard is a cold-damage spell with a 6x6 tile, that deals somewhere from 16 to 20+ damage, depending on air shards and/or spell version... per soldier in units. Most of the time it obliterates entire armies to almost nothing. Some would say it's OP, I'd argue that's definitively unbalanced.

4.6 Special and Unique Items

These items are given in quest rewards, slaying powerful enemies, elemental lords, etc. These are not all of them, just a list of a few I've encountered so far (and in time to to add to this guide). There are too many special and unique (purple) items for you to encounter them all in one specific game. Also, some I considered too common to list, such as Stone Mace, etc, while others I didn't have the saved games so I could remember them.

*warning: contains spoilers*

Heart of the Glacier (unique two-handed sword, when defeating cold elemental lord)
56 Attack (28 physical, 28 cold attack)
+1 Counterattack per round
Allows the user to cast Blizzard, a version of this spell that deals 22 cold damage per member

Titanic Maul (one-handed mace)
50 Attack
-6 Initiative
50% Splash damage
Knocks victims 2 tiles back unless they resist

Sythe of the Void (unique two-handed sword, from arena epic quest, or Abomination spawned from random event)
42 Attack
-100% experience bonus
+1 Counterattack per round

Legendary Greatsword (two-handed sword)
42 Attack
+1 Counterattack per round

Brutal Broadsword (one-handed sword)
30 Attack
+2 Initiative
+1 Counterattack per round

Heartseeker (one-handed sword, from arena epic quest)
28 Attack
+2 initiative
+15 Crit chance
+1 counterattack
+100% critical damage

Legendary Broadsword (on-handed sword)
25 Attack
+2 Initiative
+10 Accuracy
+1 Counterattack per round

Guiding Pike (two-handed spear)
20 Attack
+20 Accuracy
Ignores 33% of victim's defense

*Champion's Spear (two-handed spear *can't remember the actual name, sorry)
20 Attack
Ignores 66% of target's armor
+10 Attack vs Dragons

Shadow Broadsword (one-handed sword)
18 Attack
+2 Initiative
+1 Counterattack per round
Ignores 66% of the victim's defense

Toxic Short Sword (one-handed sword)
16 Attack
+4 Initiative
+1 Counterattack per round
Victim takes 4 poison damage per turn

Venomous Short Sword (one-handed sword)
14 Attack
+4 Initiative
+1 Counterattack per round
Victim takes 2 poison damage per turn

Banishing Warhammer (one-handed maul)
14 Attack
-4 Initiative
+10 Attack vs elementals

Sharp Axe (two-handed axe)
12 Attack
-2 initiative
+5 Crit chance

Windhammer (one-handed maul)
9 Attack
-4 Initiative
+1 Lightning Attack per level

Impenetrable Plate Cuirass (special Plate Vest Armor)
16 Defense (highest defense rating I've seen so far in a piece of armor)
-2 initiative

Spectral Plate Cuirass (special Plate Vest Armor)
12 Defense
No initiative penalty

Reinforced Plate Cuirass (special Plate Vest Armor)
12 Defense
-2 Initiative

Spectral Chain Shirt (special Chain Shirt)
8 Defense
No initiative penalty

Naja Skin Gauntlets (simple/leather gauntlets)
2 Defense
+2 Accuracy

Dancing Boots (simple/leather boots)
+1 Moves
+5 Dodge
+5 Crit Chance

Dragonscale Shield (special Kite Shield)
8 Defense
+8 Dodge
+15 Defense when defending

Mirror Shield (special Kite Shield)
6 Defense
+6 Dodge
+15 Defense when defending
Reflects 25% of damage back at the attacker

Shrill Shield (special Kite Shield)
6 Defense
+6 Dodge
+15 Defense when defending
+50% Lightning resistance
When struck, lightning strikes a random enemy for 4 (+1 per level) lightning damage

Shield of the West Wind (special Round Shield)
6 Defense
+14 Dodge vs ranged attacks
+10 Defense when defending

Cloak of Stars (unique cloak)
3 Defense
+24 Spell Resist
+50% Spell Damage

Ring of Wisdom (trinket)
+25% Experience

Flickering Ring (trinket)
Allows the unit to cast Blink (teleports anywhere on tactical battle)

Band of the Stalwart (trinket)
+2 Defense
+2 Spell resist

Delin's Ember (unique trinket, when defeating Delin the fire elemental lord)
+100 Fire Resist
+12 Fire Attack
+50% spell damage with Fire spells

Compass (trinket)
No movement penalty in Forests and Swamps

Telescope (trinket)
+1 Sight

Ring of Calling (trinket)
+1 level for summons

Spell: Confusion
All enemy units have 50% chance of striking the wrong target in melee, unless they resist

Spell: Transmutation
Converts 100 mana into 100 Guildar

Spell: Vatula's Dragonslayer
A spell which is supposed to outright kill a Dragon... or so it says. When I tried it on a Dragon it said "No Effect". Possibly an in-game joke?

Spell: Summon Abomination
Summons a Juggernaut-like "Abomination". You get a Juggernaut with all its standard perks, such as a Guillotine Axe, Maul, Ignore Pain, Splash Damage, and so forth. You can summon one per hero.