Greetings follow commanders!
After playing on several different servers, I wanted to give my TOP 5 tips as a free to play player. That includes not spending the $1 for the first month of patron (though I would highly recommend it).
1) If you are playing casual then you can join any server, but if you want to be competitive, you will need to join a server within 30 minutes of it being up. Going up against people spending money, you need every advantage and time is the biggest. If you are playing casual and join an older server, click the 3 head icon and join a guild as soon as possible. That way, you can ask to borrow troops and finish those quest a lot easier (don't let those troops die!).
2) Regardless of race you plan on choosing, you want to build all the structures that are part of the initial quest to get the free resources once you complete them. As you level up, you need to plan which buildings will be most important and focus on leveling those first. If you don't know which buildings are more important to you, I would recommend focusing on troops you use most often, followed by academy, army space and then wall. You can do resources in the beginning but as you progress, most of your resources will come from raiding other players.
3) Fill your wall! I can't stress enough how important it is to have a full garrison. People will be less likely to target you because they want to fight people with the fewest troops. Also, if you can, join a guild as close to your capital as possible. Players require higher levels to reach that far into your territory, keeping your resources safe.
4) Try to always have something building and researching. This keeps you stronger and prevent players from stealing your stockpiled resources. I would also focus on trying level your castle as soon as possible. This gives you more options for buildings and makes it harder for others to attack you since there is a minimum power requirement that increases as your castle level increases.
5) Don't stress about world bosses. Just because you found them, doesn't mean you have to fight them immediately. To play efficiently may require you to skip the bosses for now and come back to them 2-3 castles later with stronger troops. If half your army dies, it's probably not worth the win because the resources you get for winning won't cover the losses after losing your army. When you battle for resources, the outcome should be a net gain.
Hope this helps future AoC players!