Crowns do NOT make this game pay to win, I spent a lot of crowns because as a modern E-sports loving gamer I wanted instantious results with my fortress so I could just amass armies and PVP. If you dont have levels you will get smashed wether you are using a dragon or not.
if you dont use your skill points right, you will get smashed.
if you are lazy with unit positioning you will get smashed.
if you dont have a good solid mix of units you will get smashed.
fortunately I do alright being a huge Total war fan.
However I can ASSURE you crowns do nothing but speed up progress. But by speeding up your progress you will run into to people who have done it the hard way and therefore have far more military, game and economic experience than you do.