The first of the three Tidewall pieces, the Droneport is… a pretty weird thing, when you really think about it. Click to get into it, or check out the Tactics Corner for more reviews and strategies.
Although the Tau Empire traditionally does not field fortifications, it… apparently does I guess? I’m gonna be honest with you on this one: I’m not really sure how to rationalize it into the fluff, because although the books have repeatedly stated in the past that the Tau are loathe to utilize any kind of static defense, the Tidewalls are exactly that, defense emplacements that seem anathema to the entire Tau way of war. Sure, they can scoot around somewhat, but they are much, much slower than other options and don’t really seem to fit with any kind of rapid-response style of fighting. So yeah, let’s just skip over this part and move straight to the rules.
The Droneport is something of an unusual fortification, for a number of reasons. For one, it is a fort that has a faction (whereas most of them are unaligned), something of a rarity in itself- though it is certainly not the only one like this. More unusually, it has a movement value (6″), allowing it to wander about the field when desired, though with certain caveats that we’ll discuss later. Apart from that, however, its statline is fairly bland- its only other characteristics are purely defensive in the form of toughness seven, 4+ armor, and ten wounds. A Droneport, like most fortifications, can transport one infantry unit and any number of infantry characters, up to a maximum of ten models. At 70pts (before adding any Drones to the unit), the Droneport isn’t an awful choice, but neither is it particularly exciting.
Special Rules and Wargear
Although the Droneport doesn’t have any weapons or other wargear, it has a whole host of special rules, so buckle in and get ready. It cannot move unless a unit is embarked (and cannot advance or charge at all) and is essentially ignored when determining whether an enemy unit is considered to be in combat; enemies also automatically hit with any melee attacks they make against it. It also has Open-Topped, so units embarked on it are still allowed to shoot out, treating any part of the model as the origin point for their shooting attacks. It also has the Explodes rule, doing d3 mortal wounds to any units within 6″ when it does so.
The most unique feature of the unit, however, are the Drone Control Systems. When the Droneport is set up, you can also set up a single unit of up to four Tactical Drones “attached” to it in a similar fashion to those attached to a vehicle, although unlike vehicle-mounted ones they fire on automatic mode and thus must always target the nearest enemy unit. However, if there is a Tau infantry unit embarked on the Droneport you can have the drones disembark and act under the control of that unit- the drones use its ballistic skill instead of their own, although they otherwise follow the normal rules for shooting. Also note that unlike other vehicles, if the Droneport is destroyed, any embarked drones are destroyed with it.
So a Droneport essentially offers you two main features: it is a safe spot to hide one or more of your units and it is a high-BS way to bring some Marker Drones. Both features come with a number of caveats, but at least on the surface level they are quite useful things to have around; however, many of the other limitations on the unit end up being pretty harsh in terms of getting it to work out the way you want it, so I don’t think that it has much place in a competitive list.
Let’s look at that first point to start with: protecting your units. Like a Devilfish or any of the generic fortifications, a Droneport offers you a way to protect an infantry unit and potentially lower your drop count by hiding it and a number of characters inside of itself; the Open-Topped rule also means that you will be able to act to essentially full effect (albeit without benefit of any auras) while embarked, which is very nice. Tau armies often have very high drop counts, so a way to lower that while also protecting a critical unit is a very attractive option to have- Pathfinders are an exceptionally popular choice here, as they are high-value and innately quite fragile, so they benefit doubly from the protection the Droneport offers. Although they don’t take very good advantage of its mobility (due to their weapons being Heavy, and thus generally wanting to stand still), that is probably the least of the features that it brings to the table, so we can consider it little of a loss.
It’s also worth noting that the protection offered by the Droneport makes a lot of the gun upgrades on Pathfinders look more attractive- while normally the Ion Rifle and Rail Rifle feel a bit expensive on a unit that is already generally targeted by the enemy extremely early on in the game, when combined with a Droneport to shield them they end up being more useful.
The other half of things is the ability to field a squad of high-BS drones, almost inevitably Marker Drones. By having a Cadre Fireblade or Firesight Marksman embarked, the squad of drones bought with the Droneport will be BS3+ or even 2+, which is accuracy that is all but unheard of in a Tau army. Combined with the squad(s) inside, this can result in a substantial amount of Markerlight saturation, something that most every Tau army needs to at least some degree.
However, these upsides are in many ways counterbalanced by some very significant downsides to the unit, the most inescapable of which is the need to dedicate one of your three (or fewer) detachments to being able to bring it. While this would be a relevant limitation to almost any army, it is particularly relevant to a Tau army because of the limit of one Commander per detachment, so by bringing any detachment without the option for an HQ in it you’re giving up one third of your potential Commanders. With as good as Commanders are, I think this is a pretty significant hit, although it is slightly made up for by the fact that you are able to bring some very accurate units as part of the Droneport itself- still, losing access to a Coldstar or such is a big hit and one that we should be concerned with having to take. Even outside of that loss, the loss of the detachment itself can be quite limiting as well, since it cuts down on the number of command points we can have and makes allying different factions together more difficult.
However, the issues don’t stop there, unfortunately. The core strategy to the Droneport has some significant holes in it as well that an intelligent opponent can take advantage of pretty easily, something that should concern us greatly if we’re planning on using it. The basic idea (embark character, detach drones, shoot with improved BS) can fall apart in a number of ways, all of which are going to be very common occurrences; the drones themselves can be shot off the table quite easily, which negates many of the advantages of the whole setup. The Droneport can be killed, which will turn off its special rules and expose the units inside. Worse yet, if the Droneport is killed in the opening salvo of the game, before its drones have disembarked, they are slain automatically and just give the enemy a free kill, which is both a fairly likely thing to happen and a nontrivial loss for the Tau player.
All of these things really echo back to the same point: the Droneport is pretty fragile at the end of the day, and especially so if you are trying to set up a multi-part combo based around it. Although some of its stats are pretty reasonable, it has poor armor for a vehicle and will die very quickly to any kind of anti-tank weaponry that even glances at it. It is cheap enough that you could certainly take a number of them, but with a 1-3 limit from the detachment it’s not as though you could flood the table and the sheer size of the unit means that doing so probably wouldn’t be practical, anyways. Pairing it up with other Tau vehicle-class targets also isn’t ideal, as the various other Tau vehicles such as Devilfish and Hammerheads don’t really mesh terribly well with the basic strategy of the Droneport.
A Tidewall Droneport is not, in and of itself, particularly dangerous; the only danger are the unit it is protecting and the others it is supporting. Since the unit inside it will typically be a Markerlight source (and thus also not much of a threat on its own), this means that the whole array of units- Droneport, drones, and embarked unit- are all together something like two hundred points of non-contributors to your opponents firepower. Now, they shouldn’t be completely ignored, as they are still enhancing the firepower of other units, but by themselves they are not actually bringing any real guns to the table. So take a look at your opponent’s army: is it going to be easier to get rid of their other firepower, thus essentially rendering their Droneport et al useless? Or do they have enough other guns that the Droneport is a good first target? If the opponent has over-committed to Markerlights (e.g multiple squads of Pathfinders and/or Marker Drones in addition to the Droneport, or multiple Droneports) it may be simpler to just get rid of their real guns and leave the Marker sources to cry on their own- and then promptly kill those as well, of course.
Of course, if this isn’t the case then you may need to get rid of the Droneport or its constituents first, because if a Tau army is consistently getting off five Markerlights on multiple units per turn, then they are going to vaporize your forces pretty fast. If you have some heavy anti-tank guns, killing the Droneport is an easy first way to disable things- it sets up the units inside to be dealt with on future turns and turns off the improved ballistic skill for the squad of drones that detached from it. If you can’t dedicate the firepower to doing this (due to needing to kill other big Tau units, for example), then at least killing the drone squad is important- a unit of BS2+ Markerlights simply can’t be allowed to remain on the table, not when it takes such a trivial amount of shooting to get rid of them. Point all of those random Storm Bolters and such you have at them and the drones will go away pretty quickly, and the unit inside the Droneport can be dealt with more at your leisure- five to ten Pathfinders aren’t really that big of a deal, all things considered.
One other factor your might want to remember: the passengers of a Droneport can’t shoot if it is locked in combat with an enemy unit, nor can they shoot if the Droneport falls back (though they are allowed to disembark and shoot.) This can be a simple to way force them out into the open where they are easy prey for your guns, as even a single model tagging the fort will force them to choose between giving up their shooting and giving up their safety (not to mention taking the penalty for moving and firing a heavy weapon.)
The Droneport is a weird piece because it is neither mechanically very powerful nor particularly thematic for the army that it is a part of. While I certainly appreciate Games Workshop making some more terrain for factions besides them Imperium, the Tidewall series seem like a very odd set of choices to pick for the one Tau series to choose to produce. Also, they don’t have Fly despite nominally being able to hover above the battlefield, which seems like another odd choice. As much as I like the visuals of the Tidewall, it’s a hard sell to any Tau player for so many reasons that I think most of them forget they even exist.
As always, remember you can get your wargaming supplies at great discounts every day from the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking to start a new army or expand an existing one.