Having been a bit critical of the A.I. in the past, I did feel at least obliged to play through 1.4 after the patch. To be fair I also tried the hard level and picked a leader/race without the 'cheap' buffs. In the meantime I'd also acquired the then 3 DLC packs*.
Introducing: Artamainen of the Kingdom of Norroway. Traits: Mancer, Hardy, Brilliant, Cautious, Air Apprentice (just to be certain of Tutelage), Might, Heroic (for extra XP) Light Plate (Master Chain is arguably 'cheap') Master Scouts (obvious upgrade for Mancers).
The other players: Altar (in case I run short of quests) Capitar (random), Umber (random), K'mool (random) (Trog Empire, led by warlock Hrakn; Juggernauts, Death/Fire Apprencice, Brilliant, Disciplined, Lucky, Master Chain, Quick, Tough). Key troops Ironic Bowyers (Fast, disciplined, light armed) Jugggler (Juggernaut with Best Sword/Shield, Banded Belt,Belt of Speed)
The map is Dust Bowl. Noteworthy features: Each player has their peninsula next to a sandy central area which is full of monsters and has most of the resources, esp Iron. There are no horses that I could find - a refreshing change actually, and no dragon statues. Extra monsters, More Random Events selected.
I start in the North-East. I wasn't particularly lucky with heroes (missed Ascian somehow, got Iriel and Arcturus, plus trusty Bacco). Quite a few random events in the first hours; Blood Moon, Meteor Strike, a lot of skeletons, so basically plenty of pressure around the edges of the kingdom which kept me busy protecting resources for the first 200 turns or so. However the need for iron from the dustbowl meant that my crystal builds in my own peninsula tended to get overrun by the wilds, an interesting strategic trade-off.
By the 6 hour mark I've explored about 1/3 of the map including what the caravans to Altar, Umber and Capitar have revealed. My 'main' stack (just heroes with the occasional guest appearance from a sacrifical built unit) is essentially tied down with guard duty. 3 towns (Uxstead, the capital, Hornsby Abbey (no essence, and never able to develop an apothecary, whcih was a setback) and Fort Hedeby, fortunately a powerhouse for building units - eventually - for Hedeby has a linking via outpost with the capital, which also gets razed regularly. The open quests are Open Tomb, Heroes Tomb, and the farmhouse with spies, all a bit beyond the capabilities of my troops at this stage. My main units are militia and Townswomen (light-armoured girls with axes). K'mool is well in the lead (76-vs-63). There is an utterly dire Death Demon in the south-centre of the dustbowl which rushes out to attack (and wipe out) any units that get within about 3 squares, so I've had to build roads round to the north.
Fast forward to the 12-hour mark. I've found a transport and seen nearly all the map either by land or by sea. Umber has paid for its temerity in always declaring war 2-3 turns after K'mool does, and I've added one of their towns to my set - not without cost I might add. Apart from that the political map is not that different. My main army in the centre can hold off the ravaging hordes of wild creatures and keep K'mool at bay, but their towns are still much too tough. The Ironic Bowyers turn out to be quite excellent against my light troops and the Juggglers also inflict losses because they are so quick. To counter act this, I build (1) Pledged of the Blood God - slow light-plate armoured hammermen who can absorb a bit of damage, and (2) Mages of Niflheimr - light armed mages with a bit of dodge (a successful build, I was still using the same guys even near the end of the game by which time they had a ton of health). I am now ahead of K'mool (137-vs-105). K'mool is stil competently raiding my central outposts though, and also has a habit of leaving troops to guard stolen outposts. I still have essentially one main army guarding the dust bowl.
The game was won somwhere between the 12 and 16th hour, by which time I'd allied with Altar and Capitar and started to grind down K'mool. I used Ascian's collar to capture the Krigoth, a useful substitute. I also used my vassal Kulan to capture Ssrip. Another good recruit, but why are they both so small? Couldn't they be at least a bit bigger to reflect their putatively 'Large' size?
Other small points that occurred to me: why not add player-altered names to the repertoire of names in-game - at least the first 4 or 5 per newly created race; I noticed that some troops near the edge of the tactical map still have strange lighting effects (especially noticeable with the Mages because I gave them white robes); the game still tends to crash if the cursor is left over an enemy unit at the end of a turn (though not so often as before). Otherwise, pretty crash-free unless reloading the same batle several times (which ppl shouldn't really do anyway).
General assessment: I found the tactical A.I. greatly improved. Kulan tornadoed my army most effectively at strategically inconvenient times which resulted in heavy losses. I didn't see any pointless withered caravans either. Equally, K'mool gave me a hard time with attacks from 2 directions into my dustbowl outposts which were a real handful to cope with. Where I did see weakness was in Kulan's and Hrakn's apparent inability to field improved units in the middle game, responding to what they could see I was building. If lack of resources was an issue, either could have had access to the iron mines I was exploiting; alternatively, the map needs some redesign. Instead I saw the same thing as before, light armoured troops with mauls never getting in a hit. I also noticed that some AI cities were taking forever to build units - 20 to 30 turns, for example.
All in all, a massive improvement in AI in the early stages, hearty congratulations for that; work still needed to keep up the pressure later on, please. Last but not least, please consider adding a few pre-set scenarios with properly managed triggering events.
*(Loot pack is good, map pack is ok but expensive for what it is, quest pack is pretty thin.)