I've played a lot of Civilization, and I've played a fair amount of Endless Legend (for a relatively recent game). And I'm ready to make the call. I just like the latter better.
Part of this comes down to the latest Civ, Beyond Earth, being a bit of a disappointment for me. One could argue that's purely down to personal preference, as I hate attrition systems, and Beyond Earth's attrition is pervasive throughout. But I don't think I'm alone. The purely anecdotal vibe I get from others is that attrition just isn't that exciting.
How does Endless Legend do better? Let me count the ways.
Great Early Access Period
It kind of sucks that this isn't the norm, but let's be honest, it doesn't happen as often as it should. I bought Endless Legend in the Early Access period, and it would have been passable as a release even then. It worked, and they only added to it from then on. By release, it was fully functional and fleshed out with features.
I'm a bit surprised it didn't get more coverage, because it was easy to see from the Early Access period that it was a fun game worth peoples' time. But maybe something about the time investment required by these games is hard to convince people to commit to for an indie, in this golden age of way too much to play.
The gulf between different factions is huge. There's more than a different art style, a unique unit, and a few technologies. In some cases, races might eat food in a completely different way, handle diplomacy differently, or make war with a vastly different style. The units available to each faction are all completely unique, which does force you to adhere to a certain style. The wood elf faction, for example are very fragile but have archers with the longest range in the game.
You can plug the holes in your army design by assimilating minor factions spread around the map. Either complete a quest for them, pay them, or bump them on the head with your pain-stick hard enough, and they'll integrate enough to fight for you on the battlefield, as well as give you certain societal benefits. Those ogres, for example can really help out with construction.
Possibly the biggest example of this is the undead insect race, which basically has no use for diplomacy and makes war constantly. This plays into how they eat — preferring corpses to normal culinary fare. These differences mean that in addition to the different methods of victory (technology, military, diplomatic, quest), each faction has its own hardcoded path to whatever victory they choose. You know that the race of mages will be prioritising science, just as others may need to prioritise gold, and that knowledge plays a part in your strategy.
Games Actually End
When was the last time you played a game of Civ that ended? I can't actually remember a time. It's fine, because the beginnings of Civ games are so addictive, but it becomes a bit "damned if you do, damned if you don't". It can feel like a chore to finish, but if you don't, you feel like you're giving up on something.
Games of Endless Legend only last 300 turns. At that point, victory is resolved across multiple factors. You get warnings when others are close to a victory, quest or otherwise, so steps can be taken to prevent that. It's right at the sweet spot. There's enough time to see your grand strategy come to fruition, and it's limited enough to make sure it doesn't go beyond a few nights.
One City Per Region
This one might polarise some. For each region of the map - clearly marked when you zoom out - you can place one city. You can then assimilate the smaller factions to provide vision and other benefits, but you can't settle more cities within the same zone, which means you have to really think about which natural resources in that region you want to exploit.
Similar to Civ, each hex has its own resources values, and a city can only exploit those surrounding it. But you can grow your cities according to your own style — either in a solid blob to build more vertically, or spreading out in a line towards some resource you really want.
When multiple regions are considered, you have to choose between the resources you desire most, and building close together for defence. Across four regions, for example, you might build four cities all very close to each other. This means taking on one city is effectively taking on all four, and you'll get a defensive bonus while fighting on those tiles.
The Fantasy Is Actually Good
This isn't your typical Tolkein template of orcs & elves. Some are inspired by those, sure. But there are quite a few original ideas, and they're actually quite good. All together, they make a world that's fairly interesting and enjoyable to spend time in. It's an immersive world in which all of the technologies and resources ooze fantasy, and even the mechanics of fantasy are throughout. Mages throw fireballs, healers keep warriors alive from the back line, enchanted suits of armour seek more and more gold, and fields of singing crystals await exploitation.
A Better Diplomacy System
You can make it very hard for people to do what they want to do, thanks to a more robust diplomacy system. It works on a series of influence points, which you can either put to use Getting Stuff Done in your own empire, or swaying other empires. Perhaps you'll forgo the exploration bonus to pen a treaty with your neighbour, or sway the population to the point when it's very costly to declare war on you.
The race of dragon people is the best example of this. With diplomacy as one of its main strengths, it can literally force a peace with one neighbour for a certain amount of time (repeating the most becomes more costly in influence each time), freeing it up to make war with whoever is on the other side.
More Control Over Combat
Combat in Endless Legend basically turns the metamap into a combat zone. Armies line up on either side, and you can specify who you'd prefer to attack, as well as what stance you'd rather have. There could be even more control over this side of the game, for my liking, though I can see how micromanaging each specific unit would take way too long in multiplayer games.
You'll still want to manually fight, obviously, as the auto-resolver is as trustworthy as any other 4x game (read: treacherously incompetent). My favourite part about this sytem is that a chokepoint on the metamap is a chokepoint in a battle. There's nothing saying "You have a chokepoint! You get a 20% defensive bonus!" Instead, it's "You have a chokepoint! Manage your units cleverly around this advantage and you'll reap the benefit!" You still have to play around it properly, and these positional advantages (as opposed to numerical advantages requiring imagination) are more fun.
They're Still Adding To It
In a full-on, proper way. It just received another expansion which introduced a new faction, as well as a whole new system of spies and subterfuge. I havent delved into the expansion yet, because I'm in the midst of a crippling HOTS addiction, but the Steam reviews are positive.
So how about a 4X game with friends that actually ends, while not sacrificing on any of the strategy? Hopefully that convinces you to give it a shot.