So, I recently moved up from Normal to Gifted. Which is just a increase in one difficulty level.
No matter what I do, It feels like the AI can build their basic factories in 2-3 turns to my default 8 turns. This has consequence of them building fleets before the human player can. They're also farting out medium ships way before I can fart them out. This is hurting my economy. This results into all the AI around me except for pacifists ones, dowing on me. Just because I simply can't build infrastructure as quickly as they can. I will provide screenshots of my planets if you need to.
And then, I suspect they're cheating like hell on vision. I watch a 5 movement 1 Sensor range fleet of warships chase after my Survey with 4 movement and 8 vision deep inside my territory with my ideology that reduces vision/sensor of enemies inside my territory by 25%. By all accounts the enemy fleets chasing my fleets should be completely blind. This has proven to be not the case. I watched their incredible beeline so I am forced to conclude that they have vision of entire map.
I'm fine with the AI cheating, but, um, this is kind of overkill and embarrassing to see such obvious cheats. Not even mentioning that it isn't really fun at all to not have any fleets ready to go when the AI is ready to go. I don't like playing catchup. And I don't want to drop down back to normal because Normal AI don't have any fleets for me to have fun exploding.
Yes, the AI can see where are the resources and the best planets. You can see any AI making bee lines toward a very good planet way outside their zone, ignoring lower level ones.
I had trouble too playing on gifted. Now, I can play Genius most of the time. I found a guide focusing on diplo victory for Godlike, and some of the principles are sound for any level.
But, it all boils down to the size of the map and who are your immediate neighbours. Find yourself with the Krynn or Drengin or Yor right next to you and they will murder you before you can set up some defense.
You need to do some micro-management. Use your survey ship to scout planets and anomalies. Use your scout to survey star system and find the right planets, don't leave them on auto survey/scout yet. There is one race trait that gives you free tech at start, it helps. Ideologically, Benevolent will you give you a boost to research early on, so what I usually do is alternate my decisions to get just enough point for me to grab the building creating idelogy points (it's useful for late game) then invest everything in Benevolent to get research + influence. As soon as you find a suitable planet, send your first colony ship while your shipyard is building one colony ship followed by one constructor followed by one colony ship followed by one constructor. Alternate the ships to avoid overdraining your pop. Do not colonize the second planet of your star system until you have at least 6 colonies.
Once you find the 2nd planet, buy the colony ship. As you colonize, do not forget to add planets to your shipyard.
With your constructors, start building an economy starbase near your home planets, good distance to cover at the very least the two planets in the solar system.
As soon as you find anomalies, explore them, they often give boost to research, as you know. They are invaluable. Any ship you find, bring them back to your shipyard and upgrade them as needed.
When you meet a new race, try to discover their nearest colony. Buy a trade ship, send it over there. Do it for every AI nearby. It gives you better diplomacy with them, it will avoid them declaring wars on you immediatly.
Do not hesitate to trade with races. Even if you need to give them lots of money&techs to get the small and medium hulls, it's worth it.
As you colonize your planets, you can build Missionary centers and the other one for Neutral ideology. With neutral, using the perks that have the AI be at peace with you for 50 turns can be invaluable as you can use this time to finish building your economy, researching weapon tech and building a fleet. By the time this over, the AI will have good relations to you due to your trade and diplomacy bonus, so neighbours are less likely to attack you. When you have a really decent size empire, you can also pursue the Malevolent ideology and pick the diplomacy bonus from there.
All the while, send constructors to build starbases on relics and minerals, but don't waste time upgrading them yet. They will be the first casualty of war anyway.
However, if you have time, build a military base near your home world, to protect your shipyard fleet and your economy starbase.
Eventually, one hostile race will want to take your planets. They are likely not able to reach you at first, but keep a close eye on them. You should build planetary defenses, particularly the elerium shield, it will likely prevent the AI from conquering your planet. See, there seems to be some flaw in the AI, it can't seem to be able to see clearly what is in your empire, so it will tend to focus on one planet to invade, if there's a transport ship built in a nearby shipyard. Otherwise, it may not even try to invade. Anyway, the AI will attack a planet it can "see" from his colony's point of view and this planet should be protected. Once the AI has conquered one planet of your empire, they will likely fall one after the other.
So what you do now, is stall the AI. You fleets will often be destroyed, so you should have a secondary shipyard to build colony ad constructors if needed while your home shipyards pumps starships. Stall the AI, attack his isolated ships, try your hand at destroying his fleets, rebuild, counter attack, weaken it. Use diplomacy to convince other races to declare war on this AI. Eventually, you will either outpace the AI in your ship design of there will be an event for galactic peace which you can use. If you go for the peace, try to increase your trade capacity and then trade for this AI.
Then you can either wait until you have researched all military tech and have fleets doing 80 000 beam damages before the ennemy is able to respond, or pick a weak neighbour and expand there. By this point, the game is yours, you are an unstoppable juggernaut. The trick is to survive the first encounter(s). If you can manage to be at war no more than with one race, you can survive and conquer that race eventually.
EDIT: if all else fail, use the cheat code that reveal objects through the FOW, you will be on par with the AI to begin the colonization phase.