Yeah, that's really true about Crystalis. I'd forgotten about the invincible monsters above a certain level, I haven't played that game for a few years. That was really annoying!
In terms of Zelda, I guess that game goes a bit the opposite route. There, combat is everpresent and yet kind of meaningless. Don't get me wrong, I love
Zelda, but I don't want to imitate its formula. In that game you run into thousands of enemies that it really matters nothing if you kill them or not, unless you need hearts or rupees or just need to get past them. Late in the game, that means that if I'm trekking back and forth across hyrule, I'm just running past all the enemies rather than fighting any of them -- I've already fought them, and there's no reward, so why bother?
That's where monsters granting experience points is nice, because then at least you get something tangible and permanent from every enemy you kill, even if it's not much. If I just feel like fighting a bunch of weak monsters today for the fun of it, I ought to be able to do that and feel like I accomplished at least something small (experience gain). But that's really different from making
me fight a bunch of monsters.
AI War is a game about combat, by contrast. As much variance and extra things you can do in that game, it all boils down to fighting and figuring out better ways to fight and getting advantages when you fight. Or getting a minor faction to fight for you, sometimes, I guess. That's a really focused view of the game, and something I was intentionally cultivating because that's the core of the RTS experience for me.
Civilization IV was another game I loved, though, and it's about so much more than combat. I'd say that combat is maybe 30% of the purpose in that game, too. I certainly spend 70% or more of my time doing other things such as managing my expansion and economy, managing my cities, etc. In fact I'd usually go out of my way to avoid fights except when I really needed to take something over, because I was able to progress my interests without having to fight constantly. My uncle, on the other hand, I think spent a good 70% of his time fighting in Civ IV. Honestly that strategy didn't work out overly good for him, but we were playing middling AIs and he had fun. And my dad and I covered for him.
I think that AVWW is more like Civ IV than AI War in terms of its focus. It's not like you'll be spending a bunch of time micromanaging your settlements or something -- most of that is automated as this isn't a city-builder -- but you will be spending most of your time adventuring around, searching for stuff to craft with, and doing things for NPCs. Sometimes that will include unavoidable combat, and most of the time it will include some low-level combat that is easy and that doesn't suck up your attention much (aka, like most of the Zelda combat). If you want, it can also include some very challenging combat, but that's a matter of what sort of activities you try to undertake, and where you undertake them.
If you want to just largely ignore combat that will be very difficult, the same as in Civ IV, as enemies will engage you and there's just no way around it, but if you're pumping yourself up "economically" to a huge degree, and staying close to home, then the combat can be made trivial at least. If you want to largely focus on combat that is also possible, as you can just push way out into the wild and fight the tougher monsters without being super prepared for them, but that's probably also not the best idea because you're a lot likelier to die and lose it all.
As with Civ IV, the best strategy is probably one of balance, making sure that you pay attention to your crafting and settlement building, and that you improve the world in ways that benefit you. But as with Civ IV or AI War, it's not our job to tell you how to play -- we build the world, and you decide what strikes your fancy best out of the options you have. How much combat or exploration is in a given play session might vary from session to session, too, depending on your mood that day. There are minecraft days where I just build the whole time, and other days when I go exploring into caves most of the time. Choice is good.