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Return of the Tau by Ken Lacy
Eventually 40K entered its fourth edition, and the Tau saw an update for that edition in 2006, one that was in part inspired by the yeoman efforts of their affiliated Forgeworld line, which had released a hefty tome full of Tau vehicles and equipment in 2005 (the Taros Campaign). Over time, however, as 40K saw more codices release, and a 5th and then 6th edition come out, the viable options in the 2006 Tau codex became more and more limited, reaching its apex with an army list that included just a very few really useful options: a minimum of Fire Warriors, a “bubble-wrap” of Kroot, some suicide Piranha, and every available Crisis or Broadside Suit slot filled – with occasionally some vehicles for screening purposes. Although effective, it was somewhat flavorless.
The new (2013) codex release of the Tau Empire promises to update many of the units available to the Tau, and provide new and improved options, including an extremely striking super-sized centerpiece Monstrous Creature: the Riptide. Clearly GW thinks that Privateer Press is on to a “Colossally” good idea here, if you’ll excuse the pun.
What follows is an initial take on the units in the new Tau Empire codex, after having had several months to digest and play with the new rules. I’ve given each unit a traditional American-style letter grade suggesting what I think of its utility, cost-effectiveness, and general worthiness overall. If you’re not familiar with the American-style system, think of the “A-B-C-D-F” series as equivalent to “Excellent-Good- Fair-Poor-Failure” in other grading systems. In general, a grade of a “C/Fair” is considered sub-optimal by most students, despite being in the middle of the sequence; ideally, one should have “A/Excellent” and “B/Good” grades only.
The Ethereal (B) sees a significant improvement from the useless mess in the 2006 codex. He effectively acts as a 12" buff, with two constant effects: a Leadership buff, and a choice (round by round) of one of four other buffs. He also remains dirt cheap – your cheapest HQ by a mile. The reason he doesn’t rate higher is that a 12" buff isn’t a lot of space, so to get the most benefit from his ability, you’ll have to pack in units relatively tightly – making your Tau more vulnerable to assaults (their singular bane). Furthermore, taking the Ethereal largely commits you to going heavy with relatively static infantry (Fire Warriors, Kroot, Sniper Drones), as his key buffs only help them, and he doesn’t have a Jetpack, so would just slow down units with the Jetpack if he joined them (and he really, really wants to join a unit so that he isn’t an instant target on the battlefield).
Ethereals can now upgrade to use power maracas as weapons
The Cadre Fireblade (D) is another cheap HQ option. Sadly, this is his only redeeming feature, as he’s otherwise rather expensive for what he does – a ranged model with a bog-standard infantry rifle and no weapons upgrade options that adds to the effectiveness of one (and only one) Tau infantry unit. His ability does seem to stack with an Ethereal, so one could theoretically take both for a substantial increase in the firepower of (one, singular, solitary) infantry unit. Yawn.
The Commander (A) is the priciest of the HQ options, but unlike the Cadre Fireblade, he actually can take meaningful weapons upgrades to make use of his high Ballistic Skill. He is highly customizable, and can taken as a single, mobile firepower unit, can join other units for safety’s sake, and/or can join (and buff) other units by taking unique Signature Systems from the armory. The PEN-chip in particular will see a lot of use, as it allows the carrier to effectively grant a variety of Universal Special Rules (you pick, each turn) to the attached unit. Combine with the Commander’s Independent Character ability, and this is a very flexible combination.
The Crisis Bodyguard Team (D) is a much more expensive version of the Crisis Suit Team. Basically you’re paying 10 pts for the privilege of automatically sucking down hits that might otherwise go to a character. Awesome. I really only see this unit being useful in larger games where you may have maxed out your Elites choices already and want to field more Crisis Suits, or if fielding special character Commander Farsight (see below), and you wish to make maximal use of multiple unique Signature Systems in a single large unit of Crisis Suits.
On to the named Special Characters; here we see four old favorites, and a two new special characters introduced in this codex.
Commander Farsight (B) apparently has gotten his industrial base going on his breakaway colonies, as he now has access to the entire range of units in the full codex (in the 2006 codex, he was limited in the units he could field). He’s basically identical to standard Commander, but with a specific weapons load-out and Warlord Trait, and pays 40 pts for the privilege of hating Orks, actually being pretty nasty in close combat, and being able to field a super-sized unit of (expensive) Crisis Bodyguard Suits. An interesting choice, but unless you plan to use him with melee-capable allies of some sort, he’s going to be all on his own in close combat. Ironically, he would probably work quite well with Ork allies.
Commander Shadowsun (D) is a pretty model with pretty rules, but basically is a lot of points for a toughness 3 Warlord with a 3+ save (and no Eternal Warrior ability) that has to get to within point-blank range to fire her guns. You can pay through the nose to try to keep her safe, but then you’re paying a lot for her super-sexy Shield drones and/or more Stealth suits (see below). Joy. She’s not completely useless, but highly, highly situational in her uses.
Aun’va (B) is a mega-Ethereal with silly good defensive abilities, and very cheap for what he can do. Unfortunately, he isn’t an independent character, thus he can’t hide safely inside an infantry unit and “jump ship” to another unit in subsequent turns – he comes with his own mini unit of ablative-wound guards. If he can be screened out of LOS, he’s not bad; once he’s visible, he’ll eventually drop to massed firepower because his unit is so small.
Aun’shi (F) is an Ethereal with an Invulnerable Save. For this, you pay a 60 point premium. Note that you could pay for a 24-point upgrade on a standard Ethereal and get that save (plus an extra wound) with 2 shield drones. In theory, the extra points pay for his close-combat abilities, but Aun’shi has no power weapon, no Eternal Warrior ability, and is a mere Toughness 3 with only a 4++ (Invulnerable) Save. Plus, why on earth are you getting him into close combat? Aun’shi was a bit of an oddball in the previous codex, and his current incarnation is much less effective.
Darkstrider (F) is an odd duck – a Pathfinder special character. Although he can join Fire Warrior units, his abilities seem designed for Pathfinder units that have taken special weapons upgrades. Which is fine, but then you’re paying a lot for a unit that isn’t using its main ability (the built-in Markerlights), and instead trying to be the Tau version of a Devastator squad. In other words, he’s a very expensive way to make a very expensive variant of a very fragile unit, slightly more effective. Nice try at creating a new character, GW, but pass.
There’s technically another special character option, here, Longstrike (D). He’s effectively a vehicle upgrade that can only be taken on one type of vehicle, the Hammerhead. For the “bargain” price of 45 points, he makes your Hammerhead slightly more accurate, particularly against Imperial Guard vehicles. Or, he can make your Overwatch supporting fire marginally nastier, if placed well. If you know you’re going to be facing a ton of IG tanks, or a lot of assault units, then he might marginally be worth the cost. But in general, he’s extremely pricey for what he does, and highly situational besides.
Both Fire Warriors (C) and Kroot (D) suffer from the same basic problem: although the new codex reduced their points values, they are still mere Toughness 3 models with no staying power. They are thus abysmal at doing what you need Troops to do in 6th edition: hold objectives. Every other unit in the game can ROFLstomp on Fire Warriors in melee (yes, even an equivalent points value of Grots), and Kroot have no real save – and their “Stealth” only operates in one very specific type of terrain, for what I’m sure are amazingly important fluff-text reasons, if you’ll excuse my sarcasm. The Fire Warriors at least can put out a convincing blast of ranged firepower, but with the availability of allies, there’s really not much reason to take Kroot anymore, unless you’re really a dedicated single-codex purist and need them to act as a cheap ‘bubble-wrap’ screen around your other units.
Even the Battle Droids from Episode I would be a step up from these guys: maybe the Tau should make some of those.
The Tau Devilfish transport (D) got slightly cheaper, but in exchange the Tau vehicle defensive upgrades got more expensive and less effective in this codex. As a result, the Devilfish is a slightly up-armored skimmer version of a Chimera, only with less firepower, much more restricted transport capacity, no fire ports, and a higher cost. So basically, a really sad-sack version of a Chimera. It still has some utility for the Tau, by virtue of being the only transport vehicle in the list, and because of its amazing bulk (which can still be used to block LOS to Crisis Suits), but even then, only just.
At least it still looks cool, so there's that going for it. Which is nice.
The Crisis Teams (A) are still the bread-and-butter of the Tau army, and in exchange for a slight reduction in points overall, they can put out a significant amount of customizable firepower. They now come with inherent Multi-trackers (able to fire two weapons per Shooting phase), which is nice, and many more weapons upgrade combinations than before. Many players will undoubtedly (still) be tempted by the thought of deep-striking meltas and flamers, but longer-ranged firepower that keeps these units out of melee is probably a safer choice. There are even interesting shenanigans involving Marker drones, Drone controllers, and Target Locks that gives your army an extremely mobile (albeit somewhat pricey) Markerlight option that still can put out non-redundant firepower.
Just take these now and be done with it, ok? You're know you're going to wind up using them over anything else.
This codex really did try hard to make Stealth Suits (D) a more effective unit than they were in the previous codex, but they are still a unit that either pays through the nose for limited melta upgrades, or a unit with a lot of anti-infantry firepower that the rest of the army already has a lot of. In specialized missions or in games where you can customized your army list in advance to match up against an opponent, Stealth Suits may see some use. They can also be a (very) expensive way to field more Markerlights in your army list, but certainly not a very cost-effective method of doing so.
Finally, the Riptide (C) is a colossal disappointment. Although it looks (and is scaled) like an elaborate Japanese mecha model, and has some fearsome weapons options, its primary systems are subject to a ridiculous one in three chance of catastrophically failing if they try to operate at full power. Furthermore, the Riptide is a very expensive unit that dies about as quickly as any other Tyranid Monstrous Creature does, only without any of the protective Psychic powers that any decent Tyranid player will have fielded, and it comes with an Invulnerable Save that is inexplicably WORSE than any other invulnerable save in the codex…unless you want to risk operating at full power. Do you dare…DO YOU DARE?!? Its key saving grace is that it can pretend to be an effective anti-aircraft threat, being able to take both Interceptor and Skyfire upgrades. Unfortunately, it’s not a terribly good shot.
Words fail me at the sight of this, but I think it has a cameo in Pacific Rim.
Pathfinders (B) are your cheapest and quickest way to field the ever-important Markerlights. Their contributions make the rest of your army exponentially more effective. The problem is that they are moderately pricey for a Toughness 3 unit that doesn’t hide in cover terribly well. That means that they tend to die in bunches when your opponent targets them; so you ideally want to take some decent-sized units rather than smaller ones. The new codex also allows Pathfinders to upgrade some members to fire long-ranged high-strength special weapons (originally, this was an option introduced in an old White Dwarf magazine). At Ballistic Skill 3. While still paying for the markerlights you’re not using, and while still being just as easily shot dead as your average Imperial Guardsman. If you try to field Pathfinders as mini-Devastator squads anyway, then consider their grade an (F).
Again, just go with this and spare yourself some time and hassle
Vespid Swarms (F) needed one –ideally more – of the following changes from the previous codex in order to actually be usable. Either they had to be significantly, significantly less expensive. Or, they had to be an actual close-combat threat, as their sole weapon requires them to be very close to opponents. Or, they had to be significantly more durable. Or, their primary weapon had to have significantly greater range. GW in their infinite wisdom made them MORE expensive, gave them a slight boost to Initiative and Armor, and added a paltry 6" to the range of their weapon. If Vespid cost half as much as they currently did (that is, if they were the same points cost as a Fire Warrior), they’d still be a highly situational unit. As it stands, they’re interesting models that you should paint up if you really, really like, and then leave in the display case.
Drone Squadrons (D) are too pricey and too low in Leadership to be throwaway screens, but actually benefit enormously from the buffs of an Ethereal, and are another way to field Markerlights in your army list. In exchange for being pricier and 33% less accurate than Pathfinders, they are marginally more durable and notably more mobile. They make an interesting Markerlight option, particularly if you can drop in an Independent Character with a drone controller to boost their Ballistic Skill, but otherwise of highly dubious value.
Piranhas (D) used to be extremely important for the Tau in 5th edition, operating as a fast and cheap method of blocking up enemy vehicles and movement, and further delaying your opponent’s advance. With the new vehicle rules, they die far too easily to be useful in this role anymore, although at least they saw a major points-cost discount. They’re still marginally useful as fast, cut-rate Tau Land Speeders (and can even take melta weapons, albeit with much shorter ranges than the Space Marine versions), but Tau already have plenty of mobile firepower that is significantly more durable.
Like many a high-end sports car, the Piranha looks awesome but is just not worth it
Both Tau aircraft are a tremendous disappointment. The Sun Shark Bomber (F) is a super-pricey Flyer with middling armor. Its detachable specialized drones have the Interceptor and Skyfire rules, but rather piddly firepower (only a Strength 6 gun). And the bomber’s main weapon has a completely random number of uses. Similarly, the Razorshark (F) is supposedly the Tau ‘interceptor’ aircraft, but despite an impressive number of ranged Strength 7 shots, has a meager Ballistic Skill 3 shooting the weapons. If you’re looking for aircraft, take allies of one sort or another. In fact, unless you really like the Tau airplane model, don’t even bother buying the thing.
Again, words fail me. Just what is going on with this thing's tail?
First, the Broadside Teams (A) are Tau all-stars, and will see plenty of use as allies in other non-Tau armies. Although their main guns took a two-point hit to Strength as compared to the previous codex (from S10 before, to S8 currently), that Strength 8 will still hurt almost everything in the game, and Broadsides are one of the precious few units in 40K that can choose to not only take the Skyfire special rule, but can also choose to toggle that ability on or off, thus keeping them effective against targets both on the ground and in the air.
Ohhhhh, yeah: NOW you're talkin'. That's a bit more like it.....
They have a limited selection of other options as well, including an interesting one that allows you to trade the distinctive rail gun for missiles, missiles, and more missiles (8 twin-linked shots at S7 and S5, plus pairs of BS2 missile drones). Although the missile boat is very Japanese-anime in concept, the classic Railgun configuration protected by Shield Drones is probably more useful, as it’s the most threatening to the most dangerous flyers (which by coincidence are also the AV12 ones) as well as the one best able to weather return fire.
If you miss the old Strength 10 Railgun, the Hammerhead (C) grav-tank still sports one. It got a (very, very) slight reduction in points-cost, and the Ion-Cannon variant got significantly more killy. There will certainly be people who prefer Hammerhead variants to Broadside suits, and the Hammerheads can certainly be very versatile against both elite and horde opponents; but in my opinion the Skyfire upgrade option on the Broadsides ultimately makes them more flexible than the Hammerheads, who have no special ability or upgrade option to target Flyers.
The Sky Ray (B) grav-tank is probably the most durable and inherently accurate combination of Markerlight available to the Tau army list, although you’re paying a hefty premium for the durability. On the plus side, the Sky Ray does come with a not-inconsequential load of long-range Strength 8 missiles and has the ability to toggle on-and-off a Skyfire ability like Broadsides can – and it is a very tough AV13, mobile skimmer. Although not the most cost-effective method of fielding Markerlights, the Sky Ray can also serve as (limited) anti-air and fire support, and as mobile terrain for your Suits and other Tau units when necessary.
Finally, the Sniper Drone Team (C) is a very strange unit, one which isn’t terribly effective at its nominal use – as a sniper unit, it’s not that special. However, it is one additional option for highly accurate, relatively durable Markerlights. The Marksmen have a whopping Ballistic Skill of 5 and Stealth (plus a minimum of 3 “ablative” Sniper drones), and you can take up to three such Markerlights in a single team. In exchange, you take up a precious Heavy Support slot and pay nearly double the cost (per Markerlight) as a Pathfinder, but do have several Wounds to give. Not an amazing option, but an option nevertheless.
On the other hand, one can also quite reasonably look at many of the disappointing and sub-par choices in the Tau Codex (most of which are units that were similarly disappointing in the previous edition or two of the codex) and see this book as a series of missed opportunities. The Ethereal HQ was made interesting and somewhat viable again, but many unit options remain quite weak, of limited utility in only restricted situations. What’s more, every new character and unit (I count either six or seven, depending on how you treat the new Pathfinder weapons upgrades) in the codex has been across-the-board disappointing. Regardless of how people greet (or avoid) the new models that accompany these new units and characters, this does not speak well to GW’s present-day ability to design and play-test new ideas.
All in all, I’m glad that the Tau have a new, updated codex, and I’m glad that the tried-and-true core of existing Tau armies (made up of as many Crisis Suits as possible) have new toys and options available to them. I’m also glad that Markerlights became more ubiquitous, as I’ve always been a fan of them. However, as they were in previous versions of the codex, most of the “options” in this codex are illusory. I suspect that it will be with allies that a Tau army in this edition will see the most variation and true ‘choice’ of options, which strikes me as a bit of a shame.
Perhaps GW should take a page from its own 2006 self, and artfully “borrow” ideas from Forgeworld, or alternatively make more effective use of their Forgeworld affiliate/ subsidiary/ whatever-they-are-this-year as a means to trying new concepts and playtesting variant and experimental rules. Certainly the Forgeworld Barracuda and Remora are superior flyers to the Sun Shark and Razorshark (at nearly twice the retail price!!), and the plethora of variant Crisis Suits they make takes an already strong unit (the Crisis Suit) and finds interesting variants on an old theme. What’s more, there’s no hurry -- given its history of releases, this is a strategy that GW can ponder over the next five to eight years, until it eventually releases what would be the fourth iteration of the Tau codex.
Posted June 2013. All images are copyright 2013 by Games Workshop and used for review purposes.
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