So I just thought I'd give my nuanced impression of the early crusade game as I've started and re-started enough games to feel like I have some input on early game decision tree constraints due, largely, to balance and snowball issues.
I'll just say to start that, this is from the perspective that the overriding imperative early game is to "get ahead" and start snowballing ASAP.
There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to not rush a shipyard and immediately start building a colony ship. The main reason for this isn't just the colony rush (which is usually the overriding imperative in 4x games) but rather to acquire Ideology points as quickly as possible - and the fastest way to get them is to colonize a planet. Again, I'm assuming that most people are playing with ideology and random events "on". I haven't been then turning around and rushing the colony ship but in any competitive situation I could see where this becomes a "must" also. (or build the shipyard organically and rush the col ship, since they take longer to build than the yard, although they are more expensive to rush).
Research, the +1 Moves from "Artificial Gravity" increases rush speed by 50%, I have yet to play a game where the +1 Move isn't obviously the best thing to get immediately. As an aside to this turn 1 issue, movement itself seems to be under-valued by the AI and, when designing a custom race going for +2 ship movement seems to be pretty automatic for me, I mean for the same 2 points you could get +10% social production - the +2 movement will snowball you past +10% anything-else pretty quickly.. but I digress..
Turn ~20 or so..
Poop out a colony ship and colonize the best planet that your scout/surveyer has found. And get the ideology points!!!
Most of the Ideology stuff doesn't do a ton early game, but there are 1-3 that are "must gets" depending upon what you're doing.
First and foremost there is the 'Pragmatic Builder Tier 1: Constructive' - this is the one that grants 3 free constructors. This tech is ALWAYS THE BEST! Building 3 constructors at turn ~25 or however long it takes you to get your ship to the planet represents something like 40 turns of ship production worth of ships. Furthermore after the citizen system when it, it also represents +3 free administrators. These 3 constructors will get sent out to build 3 Mining Starbases - if each mine on average of 3 resources @ 0.1/turn (which I think tends to be a reasonable average), this is 0.9 resources x20 (1/2 of 40) turns of resource production, but more importantly - you successfully cock-block anyone near you from those resources pretty much forever as starbases are invincible until late-midgame. In addition you gain colony ship range to carry on the colony snowball..
Secondly, there is little "choice" in whether to take 'Benevolent Enlightenment Tier 1: Educated' for many (most/all?) civs which grants 150 research points. Again, at turn 25 for many races that don't really have much in the way of research ability before researching research tech (Snathi are a race I've messed around with a lot, as an example), those 150 research points usually also represent something on the order of 30-40 turns of research. I always use them to get the research snowball going, but it's possible that researching some other thing is better in some circumstances. For the Snathi, they get no research structures until they research xeno - so I have to research-rush xeno every time..
These 2 ideologies (especially the constructor one) are absolute musts every single game - even if you plan on just being pure malevolent (which I usually do because it's more fun)..
Most of the other stuff isn't even considerable because you haven't finished building up your productive infrastructure on your home planet yet. So +% bonuses, or ability to build ideology buildings or whatnot are useless, because you don't have the capacity to build/use them yet.. They can easily wait for a later pick.
From thereon out, you're really snowballing, but if you don't take these, you end up really far behind the rush.
I know that Ideology is getting a pass for balance/tweaks, and the early-mid game balance d/t poor AI ship design will probably get improved as it seems like it's bugged (AI just builds tons of small crap ships), but I'll offer my two cents on possible addresses to the above issue whereby my first 30 turns end up being the same every single game..
Firstly for fun, and predictability, the first planet should always 100% of the time get an ideology event, (if they are not disabled on galaxy settings). The first ideology tier acquisition is so important that not getting it may very well lose you the game - or at least severely set you back (on balance I would say it loses you the game minus the variability of luck/placement from game to game).
On shipyards and the "shipyard rush build imperative" would possibly be to go back to everyone starting with one, or incentivizing not having one. I prefer the later and this is why. If everyone starts with a yard, then a player just ends up "having" to rush the colony ship, so nothing is actually fixed. How I would recommend incentivizing not having a shipyard would be to allow a player to generate Ideology Events without one (or start all players with a yard, and allow them to 'build' an ideology event (similar to missions) rather than ships) This could be done by either 'building' an event in lieu of buildings, or by having ideology events spawn only if the player/ai does not have a shipyard. Probably to a maximum of like 10, or maybe something that scales on galaxy size.
On starbase rushing in general. There has been some effort with citizens to allow players to choose paths to build 'tall' or 'wide'. This is absolutely awesome, and exactly the type of strategic choice direction that GC3 definitely needs to embrace. The problem with the current state of the game, is that there are pre-crusade game structures that still incentivize going wide over going tall. One of these is starbase mining. The flat mining bonuses almost universally promote going wide - and thus necessitate the constructor rush, which is why the pragmatic builder 1 is always the best. I would propose incorporating structures into the tech tree that support building tall. Either "choice techs" or default techs. What I mean by this is you would choose a mining tech that either gives "+0.2 mining" or "+0.8 first, +0.4 second, 0.2 third, and +0 all remaining" starbase mines, or simply make the default tech "0.8/0.4/0.2/0.1 for all remaining" which would mute the advantage to having 20 durantium deposits (but 20 deposits would still be better than 3 say, but acquiring 20 deposits would have required a lot more resources than 3, but 3 is still absolutely viable).
On planet rushing. Face it - you must have at least a handful of planets to win, But hopefully the above ideology changes will balance out the rushing. In addition to the 3%/30% citizen support for building tall, it would be interesting to see a few events/techs/whatever that would proportionally benefit tall empires more. For example: 5 random planets get an extra tile. This event is huge if you only have 5 planets, 100% of your planets get an extra tile. If you have 50 planets, only 10% of your planets benefit. It would be interesting if terraforming would just happen galaxy-wide as the turns roll onward with a new tile for X planets is available to all players (possibly when the UP meets or something?), where X is the number of planets that the smallest empire has - and the tiles are randomly assigned planets (so also, for large empires, the parrieto normal distribution would dictate that 80% of these bonus tiles would fall on crap planets, whereas for small empires over time all of their planets would not crap)..
I'm starting to get tired and need to cook some food, but I'll leave this open for my further thoughts. I did have one other thought on an ideology modification that I'd like to see. I really like the idea behind the "pragmatic negotiator" tiers. (the most common one is the tier 1 where no one can declare war x50 turns). It would be really neat to see a Tier 1-5 of: 1 Sue for Peace (all wars against you are called off); 2 Neutral x25 turns; 3 Sue for Peace; 4 Neutral x25 turns; 5 Sue for peace & neutral x25 turns. But in addition be unable to research research victory pathway stuff during any of the "neutral" durations..
Thoughts? I'm really interested in other people's take on my observations/opinions. As always - it's quite possible I'm just an idiot and am wrong, feel free to point this out - I'm always happy to learn better/new strats.
Great game with Crusade tho team - this is the GC3 I've been waiting for