On the note of the whole formations thing,
I want to second that one as being quite a bit of a problem. Particularly when you're new to the game... as I am... it's very, very easy to just abruptly have a unit obliterated on the very first turn of combat simply because the game decides to plop it down 2 spaces in front of your guy, and then it gets the first turn and eats him. Noticed this with the cave bears, for example. The fight starts, I wonder "wait, why is that moron already standing RIGHT in front of the bear?", and then the bear gets it's turn instantly, and just wrecks the guy. There's no strategy or tactics here when this happens, because what in the world could I even do about that? I've no way of knowing that positioning will be that bloody stupid BEFORE the fight, and even if I did, I'm not given a chance to do anything. Not to mention that, logically, it doesnt make a lick of sense; why would anyone just casually waddle all the way up to being right in front of something like that BEFORE pulling weapons out and starting to, you know, DO things? Ideally, I would want to maybe smack it with a spell or use some helpful item before the distance is completely closed, but the fight STARTS with it already closed.
Pretty darn annoying, really. I end up saving alot before fights like that just in case it decides to be a snot in that way.
Now as I said, I'm still pretty new to this, but I figured I'd chime in nonetheless, for feedback and all.
yeah, this bugs me too - not knowing how/why the battle layout is going to start. I've had starts like you mentioned - my guys standing directly in harms way, and lose several units before I can even act once - and then the opposite, for some reason - a fight with an enemy faction with several ranged units that, for some reason, started at the other end of a looooong chasm map, about 20 or 25 tiles away. no range limit on bows, and no mounted troops for me (hey, it was early in the game!) meant a LONG walk while it was raining arrows. (To make matters worse, the enemy spellcaster had the ability to guard her troops, so my archers had a 8% chance to hit back... *sigh*
Don't get me wrong - varied tactical maps and battlefields (and even starting positions) are not necessarily a bad thing; but I should kinda know what to expect a little (maybe based on the terrain I'm fighting in) and have some control over it - or, if not control, then at least know what it'll be so I can decide not to fight if the terrain is going to be a problem. Or, if no control and no warning, at least make it seem less random!
(edit: for the record, after looking at some reviews, I went and grabbed AoW:SM off of steam for $10. figured it looked like the kind of game I'd like, and I bet I can get $10 worth of fun out of it!)