Oh man first post and I get a reply from j todd coleman. I must be doing something right.
Reading this explanation felt strange to me because it completely clashes with my experience of playing strategy games.
Normally in a strategy game, the early game is all about 1) consolidating your base and 2) exploring/understanding the map for mid-game. The obvious example is most RTS games - the early game involves sending out a scout to clear fog of war while you build up a basic base. But even in a strategy board game like Chess, Settlers of Catan or Diplomacy I still feel like this same dynamic is in play. I'll go through each as an example so you see where I'm coming from.
In Chess, I have absolutely no clue how I'm going to checkmate my opponent on turn 1. This is because I don't actually know what the board is going to look like past the opening moves. Once both players have done their openings we can then get an idea of what the mid-game looks like, and can start planning for checkmate. But before that? Who knows. In a metaphorical sense the early-game involves two players having the fog-of war of the mid-game revealed to them as they develop their pieces.
In Diplomacy, the first two turns are 90% me and the other players talking to each other trying to appraise one another. Forget the physical board - what are the other players planning? Who's going for Belgium? Do I need to fight Turkey for the Black Sea? What are the early game alliances? It's only after the first few turns when the early-game alliances have settled do we then actually look at the board and start making long-term plans regarding how we win the game. Before that though it's gathering intel on what the other players plan on doing. The exploration comes in finding out who's a jerk and who's trustworthy.
Then there's Settlers of Catan. The early game is me and my friends looking at the board and trying to appraise it. What resources are going to be in high demand? Which ports are in a good strategic position? Where will there be space to expand? I also try to meta-game who's going to place what where, and they're doing the same to me. It's only once everyone has placed their first settlements and begun expanding do we have something that resembles a mid-game.
Basically, my experience of strategy games is that the early game is all about discovering the map, and coming up with long-term strategies as I do so. You seem to find these two elements (planning and discovering) as diametrically opposed when normally the two are embedded into the same activity. Mid-game is then when all of the nitty-gritty action takes place.
If I were to use Crowfall's current pre-alpha design philosophy for Settlers of Catan, then the beginning of the game would be the players putting not just two starting settlements, but putting down enough starting settlements to completely fill up the board. At that stage the game is already finished and the winner is more or less already decided. Everything happens all at once at the beginning. That may be why campaigns so quickly tilt in favour of one faction early on. Forts and keeps can be captured almost immediately, so it's a mad dash in the beginning. Everyone is rushing to capture things so there's no chance to slowly discover, plan, discuss and strategise.
So I have a tentative suggestion:
Spring: Players can explore areas adjacent to their temple. These areas have a fog of war and forts/keeps can't be captured by anyone. Runegates connecting these places to further areas are locked.
Summer: Players can capture forts/keeps in the areas adjacent to their beach-head and the fog of war is lifted in these areas. Runegates to the next-adjacent areas are open for exploration, but not capture.
Fall: Same as before - by this point almost everything can be captured.
Winter: Everything can be captured, no fog of war.
My thinking is that this gives players time to breath, explore, plan and meta-game in the early seasons of a campaign without it being a mad dash. It also makes things not look so hopeless for those who've fallen behind in the early seasons, as they still have a chance to catch-up in later seasons. The slow reveal can be both engaging for everyone while giving cartographers a long-term role to play.