Disclaimer: This custom faction build is designed to abuse the available XP in the game, and may cause violent gastric distress in those allergic to dairy products.
Kingdom of Mighty Heroes, aka The Lords of Cheese
Race: Altar(Rush, 10% XP bonus, Henchmen). The Altar give you the two best abilities to go with this build, hands down. The 10% bonus doesn't seem like a lot, but you have it from the beginning of the game, so it adds up, and as for Henchmen, they are the Swiss Army Knife of Elemental, they can do it all. Well, almost all, they can't gain access to the full Life school, but via spellbooks, they can learn any spells from the other 4 schools. Rush helps with getting in that often crucial first strike, or in position for an impale. IMO, the best rounded race in the game.
Strengths - Heroic(double XP from quests), Wanderlust(quest maps), Warrior Caste(+1 level for trained units). Heroic and Wanderlust feed off of each other quite nicely, particularly once you get some extra coin on hand. Simply spam quest maps until you have everyone at whatever level blows your dress up. Warrior Caste ensures your Henchmen start out useful; though some don't like the trait, it's worth the point for this build. I personally thought Heroic was overcosted at 2 points, but with this build I'm not so sure of that.
Weakness - Rebels(+10% unrest). The extra unrest can be easily dealt with by many factors, from buildings to good city placement, and once you get Henchmen, by your own custom Administrators.
This build is for a Mage or Commander path, and can definitely be tinkered with. The Air school(for Tutelage), General and Brilliant are the key parts. For a Commander build, I'd suggest possibly switching Attunement out for Wealthy, to purchase some early Quest Maps.
Attributes - Air Disciple. This gives you immediate use of the Tutelage enchantment, which you should cast before doing anything that might gain you XP. It also grants you Haste, Evade(which should be cast before your first fight, and might help you survive an early Bacco encounter), Aura of Grace for your troop center, and Propaganda, to get that gildar flowing.
Profession - General. (25% more XP) Still more XP abuse, the smell of cheese hangs in the air.
Talents - Attunement(+2 mana per season), Brilliant(+10% xp, +2 spell mastery per level), Tactician(+1 to army's initiative) Bonus mana from the beginning of the game is a good thing, and going first is a very good thing. Brilliant's Spell Mastery is a bonus itself, would be worth taking for the XP boost alone.
Equipment - Procipinee's Crown(no upkeep for enchantments) Free enchantments leaves a lot of mana for blowing stuff up.
Weakness - Clumsy(occasionally smacks the piss out of his buddies if adjacent) Stay out of combat, and if you have to fight, don't get next to your own dudes. Rarely has this ever caused me a problem.
If you prefer the one mighty demigod like hero, go the Mage path, and concentrate on building Henchmen. You'll need to steal spellbooks from champions, or purchase them from a friendly faction with the Decalon. A Commander path will mean more XP for the rest of your party, so is more suitable for those who want to group their heroes together.
You'll want to grab all of the XP boosting traits first, and don't forget to grab Knowledge if you are playing as a Mage. After that it's all up to your style of buttkicking.
Don't stop fighting, but try not to clear every lair you come across. Those spawns are good training for new heroes/henchmen, wait to clear them when you have to settle the area, or the AI is going to. I play with Dense everything as settings, so rarely run out of critters too early. Of course, the larger the map, the more stuff to slay.
Try to fight enemies a level higher than your army, as you'll recieve a significantly larger amount of XP; thus the higher the world difficulty, the more XP you'll receive from fights.
Typically, I research the first two tiers of the Civ line, grab Leather and Drills from War, then beeline Henchmen. After that it's really about your play style. but the teleport spells Call of the Titans and Cloud Walk, Tireless March, as well as the Destiny spells can be very useful, and should be gotten sooner rather than later. As you already are schooled in Air magic, getting Air Archmage for Tornado is a gamebreaker.
Cast Tutelage on anyone you want to advance a wee bit faster if you can afford the mana, especially good to get those henchmen up to Trainer 4.
Henchmen are your own customisable heroes. I make at least one Commander with the trainer path for every army, and give them the Veteran(+1 level), Potential(+25% XP) and Bard(+10% to army's XP) traits at creation, take the 3 general Potential traits(+60% XP), then beeline them down the Trainer branch for an additional 40% to the army's xp. Cheese oozes from their pores.
Other henchmen can be focused as administrators, and crush any shred of unrest you may still have, or be designated for road building. If you have access to spellbooks, make your own mages, without wasting a trait slot on the lesser spellbooks available in unit design.
Remember, Henchmen can be equipped just as any champion, so no need to be lugging all that extra loot around, pass it on to them. They won't say thank you, but you'll appreciate it. Also, keep in mind that they do cost fame, but odds are you'll be swimming in it. With Warrior Caste and Veteran, they'll start at least 2 levels higher, from a fully developed fortress that's level 6 from the start.
Outside of the traits and spells outlined here, there are also a few items that increase XP gain, make sure they go where most needed if you get lucky and find one of them.
Building the Adventurer's Guild and the War College should also be priorities, for still more XP gain, though very slow, it adds up.
For a final, heaping helping of cheesy goodness, build a custom AI faction with The Decalon and Wanderlust, and buy what you need from them. This allows you to switch the point in faction creation from Wanderlust to something different, maybe add a Fire staff to your Sovereign. Downside is you'll have to protect them, and wait until they research the appropriate techs, so this isn't really optimal. Just really cheesy.
Plenty of room for other tinkering with this build, faction traits and sovereign's as well. Other races may not have Henchmen, but the Mancer's +1 to movement means more fights per turn, which translates to quicker advancement, while the Wraith's dodge bonus can seriously increase your survivability. Combining other traits with some of the key elements listed here, you should be able to adapt this to fit any choice of profession, race or playstyle.
Hope ya'll enjoyed reading this, and that someone finds it useful, even folks who don't like cheese.
***I wrote this earlier for the Steam forums, in an attempt to generate some more interest, as well as stimulate discussion. Figured I'd throw it out amongst you lot and get your thoughts.