Tau have been one of the most divisive factions in the game over the years, with many people either loving or hating them. Can we find a root cause for why, and why GW has struggled to balance them? Click to read on, or check out the Tactics Corner for more reviews and strategies.
My fellow author Rhys Jenkins recently published a good article about Tau diving into what he saw as some of the issues with the faction. I, obviously, had thoughts of my own on the subject but the more I considered it, the more I realized that they probably needed an article of their own to spell everything out, so that’s what I’m doing here. If you want a look at a more solution-oriented and game-oriented look at the faction (or you just want to know what the inception of the discussion is), I suggest you read Rhys’s article; mine is going to be approaching it from a somewhat broader perspective.
Begin At the Very Beginning
From the start, Tau have been a faction that has caused a lot of waves in the player base. I don’t think you can say they are the most disliked faction, because that has varied greatly over the years, but they certainly are one that is often complained about. I think that issue stems from the very conception of the faction as a whole, and some of the problems that they suffer from are inherent to that conception- and thus, in order to fix them Games Workshop needs to approach them from a slightly different angle.
(Note: I am not talking here about the whole “they are space anime communists” bit that gets repeated a lot. For one, 40K has always had a strong influence from anime and Japanese culture because of its creation in the late 80s when such things were incredibly prevalent. And for two, they aren’t even communist in the least, they’re collectivists, but given that most people have no idea what communism is it’s not surprising to see that mistake repeated.)
The core idea for Tau, if we break them down, is that they are a mobile, shooting-exclusive army that uses a variety of specialist units to support its troops. This is the faction’s identity at its most fundamental level, and it’s supported by the fluff for the Tau race. None of these features are an insurmountable problem- indeed, we can see each of them present individually in other factions to varying degrees. However, the designers made some unfortunate choices that box in many of their options and cause problems, so I think it’s worth it to pick apart these choices and limitations one by one- as well as some of the escapes we have from them- and look at what they mean.
The first and most obvious feature of Tau is their focus on shooting. This is part of the most core identity that the faction has; whereas the other armies are mostly supposed to have various amounts of retro-tech flair to them, the Tau are explicitly futuristic and explicitly progressive, which stands in opposition to the Medievalist appearance and themes of many of the others. They are very specifically a shooting-only army- not simply shooting-primary like Imperial Guard, but completely lacking in any melee capability by design.
This is the first point where I think Games Workshop’s choices make a wrong turn. Melee is, by design, a major part of the game. In choosing not to give Tau access to it, you limit your design space a lot- which is not, in itself, an impossible problem but it runs into issues with many of the other choices they make. It becomes even more problematic when you factor in the Tau’s lack of psykers, denying them access to an entire other facet of the game. That means, right out of the gate, Tau simply do not play in 50% of the phases and may as well skip right over them.
This is the most fundamental problem for the army, I feel, and the source of their balance issues. When a faction’s entire identity is invested into basically one phase (we’ll talk about the movement phase in a second), it becomes a very precarious situation because you are attempting to balance on a knife’s edge with regard to that single attribute; just a hair too far in one direction and they will utterly dominate, blasting all opponents to pieces before they have a chance to close the distance. Too far in the other direction and they are useless, as they don’t have the firepower to eliminate the enemy before being destroyed. All armies have to play this balancing act, of course, but it is especially treacherous for Tau because it is their only real point of balance- with other factions you can adjust the combination of shooting, melee, and other abilities to try and achieve a stable point, but in many ways Tau really have only a single slider to adjust.
Gettin’ Around Town
The second major feature of the Tau faction, at least in the fluff, is their mobility. Tau are supposed to be masters of mobile warfare, and while the Aeldari factions presumably are even better at this the Tau are intended to come in a close second thanks to their preponderance of flying units as well as fast-moving tanks and battlesuits. They are even said to specifically eschew any kind of static defenses, preferring instead to give ground in exchange for causing casualties on the enemy side.
The actual implementation of this, however, has varied a lot- and in 8th edition in particular took a big hit when they removed the “jump-shoot-jump” ability of battlesuits. (For those not familiar, this allowed Tau suits to make an assault movement even when not assaulting, effectively splitting their movement into two “halves” rather than having the single, longer movement distance that other jump units got.) This was an understandable choice, as having the Tau player move a bunch of units twice in a turn ended up wasting a lot of time, but it also took away a major strategic tool.
The issue here stems from the previous one- since Tau have no melee capacity, they never want to be within charge range. With the limited size of the board, this means they need to be fast enough to escape, but not so fast that they can always escape. This is especially problematic in the context of 9th Edition, where most armies want to be moving to the center of the board, but I feel it is a less insurmountable problem than some of the others- stratagems and unit special abilities provide a lot of room for giving the Tau tricksy tricks that make it viable to move into dangerous places.
Another Crack In the Wall
When you combine these two issues you can start to see why Tau are often disliked- you have an army that dominates one phase of the game and refuses to play in the others, and especially with 40K’s “I-go-U-go” system this can create some extremely noninteractive situations.
By design Tau have to be better at shooting than other armies- it’s built right into their DNA as a faction. They have no access to melee, and so their shooting is stronger as compensation- so when you are facing off with an enemy shooting army where neither of you can usefully leverage melee as a tool, the Tau are just advantaged. This is exacerbated by the existence of Savior Protocols, an incredibly broken tool that replaced the other presence of Drones in squads an essentially consumed the entirety of the Tau codex, relegating all units to either “can be Savior’d and thus useful” and “cannot be Savior’d and thus useless,” in much the same way that the existence of Ynnari completely upset the internal balancing of the Craftworlds book.
Now add in their ability to either avoid (in earlier editions) or escape from (in the last edition) melee combat and you are adding yet another layer of noninteraction with the opponent; by hiding, moving out of range, or otherwise avoiding the enemy Tau can simply choose not to play the game with them, which can be even more frustrating when they refuse to play “fair.” This was at its absolute worst back in 4th edition, where games were decided almost entirely based on the points value of models slain and terrain was abstracted much like in the current edition, so it wasn’t uncommon for a Tau army to kill one or two squads and then simply avoid the enemy for the rest of the game, essentially winning on a technicality. However, the problem still exists even now and is still a negative play experience, albeit a somewhat less pressing one.
Can We Fix It?
So, what needs to be done about all of this? I think the best and easiest route forward is actually for Games Workshop to rethink their conception of Tau somewhat in ways that open up more design space for them to balance the faction. To whit, there are three major points.
First, let Tau play in every phase of the game. Note that this doesn’t mean they have to be good in every phase, but let them be a part of every phase. Give them some allied units that can function as middling countercharge units or psychic defenses. Give them stratagems, wargear, or relics that allow them to interact with those phases- for example, an electrostatic field that deals mortal wounds to enemies in melee combat (much like the Flechette Dispensers of old) or a Sisters of Battle-style limited denial roll for their units. Being bad in a phase of the game is flavorful- it shows that each faction has weaknesses as well as strengths and can help teach players that one-for-one comparisons across codices are not always insightful. But lacking any participation in a phase is boring- it simply removes an option from the toolbox and limits what you can do as designers. Let Tau keep their shitty weapon skill values, but give them battlesuit-sized beam sabers to defend themselves with- it emphasizes the things people like about the faction without detracting from their weaknesses.
Second, make the battlesuit units more distinct from each other. Since they mostly all share the same guns (with the Riptide and Stormsurge being basically the only exceptions), the special rules of each unit need to define their rolls in an army- and some of the battlesuits basically have no special rules. (I’m looking at you, Crisis suits.) Make sure each of the battlesuits can do something the others can’t. And heck, while we’re at it, do that for the other units as well. Kroot and Hammerheads in particular are stuck in a very weird place as legacy units, with stats and wargear profiles that do not in any way reflect what they are supposed to be able to do. Kroot are supposed to be the first line of screening and defenses for a Tau army but they have an absolutely miserable profile that makes an Imperial Guardsman look spectacular, especially for their cost, and they are completely worthless at their stated job of providing melee pressure.
Third, expand the list of allied races. I know this is a bit of an investment for Games Workshop because plastic kits are expensive, but the Tau are supposed to be a coalition force, making use of allies to shore up their weaknesses. This is a fantastic modeling and conversion idea, and while they have moved away from D.I.Y. unit inclusions, it wouldn’t be that unreasonable to expect a box with five each of four different alien races to make some units out of. And if they aren’t interested in doing this and want to focus on the Tau themselves for the faction- do that instead. Get rid of the whole allies thing and make it all Tau all the time, but give them units that can still fill those roles (much in the way Necrons get “psychic nullifiers” and similar technological solutions.)
I love the Tau as a faction, I truly do; their clean lines, futuristic technology, and optimistic mindset I think have a lot going for them in the setting of Warhammer 40K and make them very distinct amongst the races. However, as they stand they are a very problematic inclusion of the game and often tip wildly in power from one end of the scale to the other, and that’s not good for anyone, Tau player or not.
Conceptually, I think they need some tweaks or outright overhauls of many of the concepts behind them, because the game has come a long ways since 3rd edition and many things have changed. In the face of a dynamic and active game, the designers also have to be dynamic and active, always considering their past assumptions and what they mean for the player base, and I think Tau are perhaps the most in need of such a reconsideration at this point. There are a lot of people who love the faction, but also a lot that strongly dislike playing against it- and I think in some ways that’s not unwarranted because of their design. As much as possible we want to avoid negative play experiences and make sure that all armies are able to be functional in the game, and I think right now Tau are really struggling with that in a way that needs some serious attention.
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