Primer: LA Ulm
I'm writing a "Primer" series of guides - each covering a specific nation - with the intent of giving new players an overview of the key strengths and capabilities of a nation.
Ulm, at first glance, is a weak nation. It only has a "standard" human army, with no real powerhouse units. It has very weak (but diverse) magic from its recruitable units - all you get is a maximum of 1 path in Nature, Blood, Death, Air, and Fire. Astral and Earth are a little better, giving you a max 2 for both. Even LA Ulm's unique summon - the Vampire Count - doesn't seem to help matters much being "only D2B2", but there's one quality of Ulm that people seem to keep missing:
Its "Illuminati" mages are recruit-anywhere.
Now, you may wonder, "So what?! That just means I don't need a fort to recruit some S1 mages that cost 75 gold! How can that be good?"
First, consider that forts now take a longer time to build, often taking five turns at least for LA. What this means is that while everyone else is still building a fort for their second mage recruitment center, you are ALREADY recruiting a mage once you've taken your second province and built a lab in it. That gives you at least four more turns of recruitment compared to the guy still building forts, so you get at least four more mages than the other guy.
But that's only because we're assuming that your infrastructure cost outlay is the same. In reality, the fort-based nations are spending around 1,500 gold (500 for the lab, 1000 for the fort). You're just spending 500 gold for the lab. This means for the same price, you can have three recruitment centers up and running for the same price as somebody else's sole recruitment center!
What this means is that LA Ulm can mass mages like no one else. If you set your sights on it, you can be producing four or even five mages per turn by the end of year one, when most other nations will be lucky to produce 3. In fact, Ulm is probably the only nation that will be constrained by gold when producing mages - so make sure you don't overheat the Ulmish economy by building too many labs when you don't have the money for it.
With this enormous pile of mages, you can start cranking research up to utterly obscene levels, especially with Magic scales. I've been able to break 300 research per turn by the end of year one with Magic 2 scales using this nation. And note: That is research PER TURN. In one turn you can research level 1 of six different paths, and quickly climb up to level 4/5/6 earlier than others will think is possible.
But it gets even sillier when you realize these mages are actually pretty usable in combat too. Your basic recruit is going to be the 75 gold S1 dude - not too cheap, but reasonably priced and highly versatile, which can fulfill a number of key roles:
a) They can serve as communion slaves, particularly to your Fortune Tellers and eventually the Vampire Counts. LA Ulm can get communions up faster than anyone else bar none, because they can actually mass-produce mages that can serve as communion slaves. You can have them out and running even before the communion counters come out!
To be more specific, Fortune Tellers always come with S1 and either Astral, Nature, Death, or Blood Magic. S2s and S1B1s can be used as combat mages which will be covered in the next section. S1D1s can spam Terror and, once spammed to really high levels, undead blockers. S1N1s have Panic and various Nature buffs.
b) They can serve as combat mages, by either taking advantage of a communion or some boosters like Light of the Northern Star. Astral sucks for combat you might say? Well, sure, it doesn't have the killing power of Fireball, but consider: You are pumping out enough research to easily hit Evoc 5 by early Year 2. And with change to spare to get Thaum 1 for Communions, Blood 1 for Reinvigoration, and maybe even Conjuration 3 for power of the spheres.
Create a Communion. Get a mix of slaves and master S1s (around 1-2 masters per slave depending on your risk comfort level). Those S1s now become S3 and start throwing down Stellar Cascades enmasse. Every four casters basically takes out an Area 5 worth of units per round. And you're producing four more of these guys every turn. That's an utterly scary level of evocation magic, enough to leave an entire battlefield full of twitching, unconscious enemies.
Worried about fatiguing your slaves for big fights? No worries - just add a B1S1 Fortune Teller and reinvig away all the slave's fatigue!
c) They serve as pretty damn good spies, which also gives them a role later on when communions lose their power. And unlike most spies, they're immune to Mind Hunt!
d) They do a fair job of defending the provinces they're researching in, particularly against raiders and thugs. Once you have four S1 dudes in a lab and Thaum 2, just script 2 to be slaves and 2 to be masters, and the masters can Mind Burn the thug to death (Beware high MR thugs though!). Just garnish with some PD to distract the thug for a while (and to help patrol for unrest for Phase 2 of Ulm's master plan - more on this later).
Later on, when you start spreading Vampire Counts everywhere, they can support the Vamp Count too! Make the Vamp Count your Sabbath Master, and let him spam high-level death spells.
Put together, the implications of recruit-anywhere S1 mages are simply quite astonishing, making Ulm one of the most unique (and possibly strongest) factions in the game. With the exception of EA Ermor, nobody else gets a recruit anywhere that is so cheap, relatively research-efficient, and versatile. You actually want to be able to mass these guys, as opposed to Ur's expensive recruit-anywheres or MA Man's research-hindred dudes. Even EA Ermor's recruit-anywheres are not as efficient (requiring a temple and a lab) nor as versatile (F1 mages are more limited in what they can do - just mass fire spam and that's it)
But massive communions aren't the only thing Ulm can do. They also get a unique summon - the Vampire Count.
The Vamp Count a fairly good caster (with Death 2 and Blood 2) that can be summoned at a relatively cheap cost. Now, this may not seem like a huge upgrade from the recruitable Death 1 and Blood 1s, especially when you consider none of your units can actually summon them so your Pretender is all but required to have at least D3 and B3, but the Vamp Count is much more than just his magic abilities.
The first and most important thing to realize about the Vampire Count aside from magic is that he doesn't cost maintenance once he comes out. This means, unlike other Blood Hunters, he can just keep on Bloodhunting forever and give you "free" slaves. True, unrest increases when you blood-hunt, but the Vampire Count also provides steady stream of free units (peasants) who you can use to patrol the unrest away. Your end goal is to eventually have a Vamp Count (equipped with an SDR) in each province bloodhunting (with a second commander patrolling, using the Count's peasants), earning you an enormous blood income. And if you have Growth scales, you'll barely feel the population loss and have no real loss in income.
Secondly, with just a few items (+1 Death item and a +1 Blood item), a Vamp Count is able to summon another Vamp Count on its own. This frees your Pretender from Vamp-Count summoning duties, allowing him to do other things.
Finally, the Vamp Count is no slouch in combat. He's Invulnerable and is Immortal in friendly dominion. If you have Vamp counts everywhere bloodhunting (but scripted to cast spells to support the PD) it becomes relatively difficult for thugs to raid your provinces.
Thus, LA Ulm's Vamp Counts can potentially turn the nation into a very secure land that produces an enormous blood slave income, without the usual income problems of "traditional" blood hunting nations. You pay less maintenance because your Vamp Counts don't cost upkeep, and you patrol away the unrest caused by blood hunting using the Vampire Count's free chaff.
The only real problem is that you don't start with good bloodhunters, don't start with a mage that can summon Vampire Counts, and have no real way of consuming an enormous blood income and turning it into game-winning tools (e.g. summoning demons). All this must be fixed by your Pretender.
As a suggestion, here are some things you may want on your Pretender to synergize with your Vamp Counts:
1) You definitely want D3B3 to summon Vampire Counts, but it doesn't mean you can't add some more ranks to it. You can make Blood boosters at Blood 4, 5, and 5. Blood 5 lets you cast a good spell that brings out five demons per casting (Ritual of Five Gates). I personally think having B5 is the minimum, though you could always empower if needed (it takes time though)
2) Adding a point of fire lets you forge Flaming Skulls, which improve your Fire by +1. With Fire 2 and enough blood, you can get Devils and Archdevils. This opens up Fire to your nation.
3) Adding two points of cold lets you summon the Ice Devils
4) Growth is VERY good paired with Vamp counts. With enough growth you might not even still gain population even with bloodhunting and patrols
In short, while your S1 mages research and defend your nation, your Pretender, Vampire Counts, and massive Blood income push you over the top in the late game. That said, you really do need to fight for those unique blood summons - you don't have outstanding national mages for the late game as a fall back.
Now, LA Ulm is already looking pretty ridiculous (I did say how it may be the most powerful nation in LA), but we're also forgetting one aspect that is a classic part of Ulm: Forging.
See, aside from the Illuminati (and Fortune tellers) Ulm also gets Black Priests. They get E1+AFES, which lets them forge quite a number of cheap items that become even cheaper due to forge bonuses. But beyond this, Black Priests also make pretty damn good combat mages once you get Iron Blizzard. This spell fires off 30 shots per casting - it's basically like a whole platoon of crossbowmen on its own!
That, coupled with the fact that your E1S1s can also join communions for massed earth spells, gives Ulm some extra toys to play with for wrecking massed armies.
Finally, here's some quick notes about the Ulmish army. Ulm gets a pretty standard army of humans with armor, which should do well in expansion.
Your starting commander is actually decent, commanding 3 squads at +1 morale. The Ranger Captain has no morale bonus but critically he can ferry 40 guys. You can actually make your commander the prophet, while the Ranger shuttles reinforcements to him.
Your main ranged troop (and main troop in general) is the Ranger - armed with a precision 12 crossbow for long-ranged shooting (with essential armor-piercing in armor-heavy LA) and an axe for close encounters. They are possibly, gold for gold, the best crossbowman of LA. Villains also exist with shortbows, for times when you really need to just put more arrows in the air against unarmored foes.
You have one infantry with a tower shield, which moves only at 1 but is good enough for most purposes. I generally recruit these as my main line-blockers against enemies with crossbows and archery (which is almost everyone in LA).
If they don't have archers, you can use Pikeneers or Halbrediers instead. The former almost always gets a repel attempt, the latter does more damage for kneecapping giants.
Hence, the standard Ulmish army should look something like this: A line of Rangers being defended by a block of infantry or pikemen set to hold/attack. Most indies can be beaten by this army relatively easily so long as you have slightly superior numbers.
Zweihanders are a specialty item, when you need a high-damage unit that can also shrug off longbow fire (crossbows still hurt them though). For my money, more infantry or pikes is better.
Guardians you should consider recruiting from time to time, when facing enemies who use a lot of sacreds. They're good line blockers and their weapon does extra irresistable stun damage against sacreds. They're not holy so you can recruit as many as your resources allow, but do remember they need a commander with undead leadership (and banishent can hurt them)
Black Knights are a situational unit. Having a few serve as flankers may help in bigger combats.
That said, Ulm's second fort tends to go up a bit later than others, because you're actually spending money on labs and mages (unlike everyone else, who tends to enter the middle of Year 1 with a huge glut of money because their recruitment centers can't eat it fast enough). Being a little late is okay, but you should still make it a priority because otherwise your troops will be outnumbered. Besides, you need a fort so that you can recruit Black Priests - who are also pretty damn good mages who otherwise compete with Fortune Teller production.