In this specific case, I thought the storymode option was a satisfying solution that indeed resolved the issue for me - as well as for other people who I know were interested in the story, so I’m surprised to hear it didn’t go well with some people. Is it because you cannot achieve optimal results in that mode?
And I’m not surprised it does well on Steam but not iOS, since the PC crowd is known to be more hardcore than the casual mobile gamers (and I say that as a proud casual). That said, CoG reviews on mobile platforms are often rather misdirected or overly vitriolic, so do take them with a grain of salt.
There will, of course, be exceptions to all blanket statements. And there will always be people who enjoy certain elements that are widely derided or unsuitable to the game (not referring to Rebels, necessarily). You could claim that adding a shooting element to your 4X game is simply prioritizing the action love fans among the strategy fans, over the main audience. And it might be a valid approach - perhaps this unusual combination allows people bored with strategy gameplay to be invested in it, because they look forward to the shooting part. But strategy fans would be understandably upset with having a barrier to the gameplay they were interested in, presented in a form they are neither interested in playing nor comfortable with, and might entirely stop their progress artificially.
But in my mind, even if it worked out well, it doesn’t mean it was the right choice and the way to go. Basically, I dislike the tendency because it’s high risk, and I’m a risk averse person by nature. So even when this method works, and works well (and I myself very much enjoy several games who use it), I am still reluctant to support it or even consider it really beneficial, because it comes from selfish or short-sighted motivation even if it worked out for the best.
I hope you don’t take this as a dismissive of your hard work! I consider the winter mechanism to be incredibly impressive, engaging and even rewarding for players who enjoy a challenge, and very pleased it draws in a wider audience than traditional CoG games. But I believe it succeeded not because it is a good approach, but because your skills managed to take it past the hurdles that would have made it fail. In other words, it could have very easily undermined the story and become actively harmful (and I believe the many, many, many changes done during the beta showed how easily it could have harmed players’ experiences). Possibly you, personally, would not have implemented it in that state - but you had every right to insist that this punishing difficulty is your vision for the game and how you want us to experience it, and in doing so prioritizing your vision for the game over the audience’s enjoyment. Perfectly valid for the creator to do, but you can see why I am unhappy to consider such a possibility, I’m sure (and it happened in other games, so it’s not me being pessimistic for the sake of it).
So yes, it’s a high risk course which I do not want to see become commonplace, because I am too cynical to believe most can pull it off. I may be too stubborn, but I’m afraid it will take more than one or two exceptionally well-done instances before this concern of mine would be entirely settled.