Tau Codex Review: Fast Attack: Drones

Your friendly robotic pal who’s fun to be with, the Drone Squadron!



Drones are most typically seen in Tau armies either as part of another unit (e.g. Crisis suits) or included in the price of another squad (e.g. Piranha skimmers.) In fact, it can come as a surprise to many that Drones are available for purchase as a unit on their own, but the option is right there in the codex. Though a somewhat niche unit, it has gained some significant strength from new formation options and when paired up with the right units it can provide excellent support for an army.

Drone squadrons have exactly the same profile as drones taken anywhere else in the codex- Toughness 4 and 4+ armor provide them with reasonable survivability, although with only Leadership 7 they are fairly likely to run at the first sign of trouble. A surprisingly-high Initiative of 4 means they can do a lot better in combat than you might expect, but Strength 3 means they won’t fare well against MEQs or other tough opponents. Ballistic Skill 2 is a big limiter on their damage output, but many other factors can help to obviate it so it’s not nearly as bad as it seems at first glance. When taken on their own, drones are actually slightly more expensive than their counterparts in a battlesuit squad, being 14pts rather than 12pts for some reason; however, with a squad size of 4-12 you can potentially fit quite a few of them into a single slot when needed.



Special Rules, Wargear, and Options

Drones come in three basic varieties- Gun, Shield, and Marker. (Many other drone types exist in the codex, but they are not available to be taken in the squadron.) All drones share the same special rules- Supporting Fire and Jet Pack Infantry status- and are the same price, with the ability to freely mix the different types in a single squad however you please. Gun Drones come with a twin-linked Pulse Carbine (18″ S5 AP5 assault 2 pinning); while it typically is an inferior gun to the other Pulse weapons, it still has a pretty good statline and the natural mobility of the unit makes its limited range somewhat less of an issue. Pinning, which is an exceedingly rare trait in weapons nowadays, is actually one of the big upsides- even a single wound getting through on a unit will force that Leadership check and potentially shut them down for a turn.

Shield Drones trade their weapon for a Shield Generator, giving them a 4++ save. Since their armor save is no better than that of other drones, they don’t actually end up being much harder to kill for the most part- and since they have no direct way to contribute to a battle (being without guns and very poor in close combat) there is very little reason to make much use of them. The combination of wound allocation rules (you can’t choose who takes the hit), lack of combat ability, and identical price condemns Shield Drones to be largely useless; I have never actually seen a player field them in a squad in the many years I’ve played the game.

Marker Drones come with a single Markerlight, as one might expect; without any enhancements they are a rather inefficient proposition, since BS2 means they will only score a small handful of hits even at the best of times, but as previously noted there are plenty of ways around this factor. Probably the most important thing about them is the fact that, unlike most other Markerlight sources, they are quite easy to conceal- the relatively small size of the drone models combined with the ability to fire their guns on the move (thanks to Relentless) and the Thrust movement from being a Jet Pack means that it isn’t hard to hop out, light up an enemy unit, and then jump back to safety before the enemy turn. Where many Markerlight units are easy prey for incoming return fire from the other side of the table, Marker Drones can often expect to stay protected for a significant time.


So Drone squadrons are not, for the most part, a particularly-exciting unit at the start. With a mediocre statline and points cost they don’t seem like they would see much use, but the truth is they actually see play in a number of high-tier Tau armies due to some niche advantages.

A big part of this is because of the existence of the Drone Controller wargear. Available to any battlesuit, it lets all drones in the squad use that model’s Ballistic Skill- and for a Commander, with BS5, this is a tremendous jump in accuracy. A squadron of Drones is cheap at 56pts and is the easiest way to bring a bunch of accurate Markerlights in an army, especially since the Commander has four wounds to shelter the Drones when necessary. Although many players expand on this and instead take a Crisis team (purchasing the Marker Drones as a part of that squad) so as to gain more firepower at the same time and in the same unit, this is a much more points-intensive option and for lists that are already stretching themselves thin (such as a Stormsurge/Riptide army) it simply may not be viable.

Of course, Marker Drones aren’t the only ones who benefit from a Drone Controller. Gun Drones do also, and a full-sized squad of them accompanied by a Commander is throwing quite an impressive number of hits onto most units. While this option is probably not fit for any kind of tournament army, it can be an amusing thing to try and when arriving from Deep Strike is a nasty surprise for a lot of players.

Of course, the most common way players will encounter Drone squadrons is ones that have disembarked from a Tau vehicle. Since these units do not count towards mission objectives either in a positive fashion (such as by holding/contesting an objective) or a negative one (such as awarding VP for being slain by the enemy), they will almost always be treated in a wholly disposable manner. These Drone units will be either two models strong (when coming from a Devilfish, Hammerhead, or Skyray) or 2-10 models (when coming off of Piranhas) and will commonly use their Jet Pack moves not to move into safe positions but to scoot forward into the enemy’s face, blocking off movement/charge lanes and otherwise getting in the way and demanding attention. As they are essentially worthless to the Tau player and valueless to kill for the enemy, they can make a significant nuisance of themselves before the opponent finally resigns themselves to the need to kill the unit regardless and spends some firepower on it.

There are two easy mistakes to use with drones; forgetting about the Pinning rule on their guns is the first. While units that are immune to Pinning (MCs, bikes, etc) are quite common in the game, they are not omnipresent and most basic units in most armies are vulnerable to it. Some, such as Orks and enemy Tau, are exceptionally so, but even oh-so-fearless Space Marines can be tied down for a turn on a failed check. As a result, it’s important to make the enemy roll the dice every time- Pinning triggers on any unsaved wound (even if it doesn’t kill a model) and is rolled immediately rather than at the end of the phase like a morale check. Moreover, you can force multiple Pinning checks on a unit in one turn if you have several drone squads.

The other easy thing to do wrong with Drone squads is to be too careful with them. Drones aren’t quite a glass cannon, but they shoot well above their ability to take damage so it pays to be proactive with them- and this includes sometimes declaring charges. While they may be fairly shoddy with only S3 and WS2, a larger unit (6+) on the charge can easily bonk the enemy into submission- the so-called “Frisbees of Death” strategy. Your ideal target is something with T3 that you can wound fairly easily, but if there’s only one or two Marines left in a squad it can pay to go for the charge, since if you don’t they likely will.

One other option we haven’t discussed yet is formations, of which there are two reasonably-noteworthy entries. The Hunter Cadre is one, where Drones can fill the required “FA” slot in the formation; though they don’t have any standout abilities within it, they can be a good contributor to a Combined Fire attack. The VX-1-0 Drone Network, on the other hand, is a big boost to the unit, giving them all a plethora of special rules as well as +1BS.

Final Thoughts

Drones are pretty omnipresent across the Tau codex, but actually seeing them in a unit by themselves is somewhat unusual. Still, the unit is fairly passable even in the worst of circumstances and with some well-chosen options it can do quite a lot for you.


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8 Responses to “Tau Codex Review: Fast Attack: Drones”

  1. jared November 8, 2016 8:09 am

    I especially love the Drone-net formation from the mont’ka supplement. It provides them with added efficiency, survivability, and utility. When taking squads of gun drones in the formation, there is absolutely no reason to take pathfinders in a CAD. The drones will do everything the pathfinders can do, but better.

  2. Happy_Inquisitor November 8, 2016 11:51 am

    The Drone Net VX1-0 gets a very brief mention in this review which is a shame because in many ways it is the best of the formations that the Tau got in their 7th edition releases. It is not the most powerful (clearly that title goes to Riptide Wing) but in its flexibility and in bringing an otherwise marginal unit up to competitive levels it is an excellent piece of formation design.

    The price of the formation is taking a minimum of 4 units of drones. The units are small so this is a manageable cost.

    The list of special rules they gain is long:
    Precision Shots
    Split fire

    Finally all drones on the table – not just from this formation – gain +1 BS while there are 2 or more units from the formation on the table. This rule alone fixes the single worst thing about drones; their poor BS which results in disappointing output with either weapon option. Dismounted gun drones from vehicles are a lot more effective with BS3 twin-linked – which combines rather effectively with the Piranha Firestream that can replace Drone losses.

    In competitive lists the marker drones are the most obvious choice to take. With Interceptor they build on one of the signature Tau strengths and make it reliable by boosting the big guns to high BS and with Ignores Cover in the opposing movement phase. Unlike marker drones taken in other ways, those in a Drone Net VX1-0 are tolerably efficient at their job without a Commander or Crisis Suit baby-sitting them.

    Gun drones are more of a niche choice but the set of special rules makes them a multi-role unit that at least somewhat justifies their cost. Acting as pseudo-snipers with split fire and pinning makes them effective in some roles and the ability to deep strike or outflank to get at hard-to-see targets is valuable. Kroot snipers are cheaper but the drones match them point-for-point in volume of shots, outdo them in numbers of precision hits generated and are relentless. They also have interceptor which any Tau commander knows you cannot have too much of when facing the increasingly common assault-out-of-reserves threats in the game.

  3. Bryan November 8, 2016 2:57 pm

    Only thing I don’t like about the drone net, is that drones alone can’t score. Seems like a bit of an outdated rule, but whatever. I run a few, durable and expensive units, so scoring objectives can be a bit of an issue.

    • Marandamir November 10, 2016 4:17 pm

      I totally agree with this. Drones are priced somewhat heavy for their function and the lack of scoring and denial is a serious detriment to that function. Dropping that restriction makes drones normal units and synergizes with their mobility. I wish they would have errata’d that in the campaign supplement 🙁

  4. Grizzyzz November 14, 2016 12:58 pm

    It would be fantastic if a unit made up of entirely drones was “fearless” I also really like the xv9 ruling that a squad can “leave their drones behind” in CC to automatically pass a hit and run attempt. I think that is a fantastic ability that would be cool to have across the board for any unit!

    • Shas'Itsa Mari'o November 18, 2016 6:36 am

      I might be wrong, but I think that was first edition of IA3. Believe they changed it in the 2nd Ed. to normal Hit and Run.

      But definitely agree that something should have been updated with regards to drones and morale checks. A Riptide shouldn’t be taking morale checks because his little drone got blown up. Call me crazy haha