Tau have a problem that no other faction in the game does. What should Games Workshop going to do about it? I have some thoughts.
Piggybacking once again off of Rhys’s article on the subject, I want to talk in particular about one of the issues brought up there, because I think it hits to the core of why Tau are struggling right now. I don’t want to trivialize the issues with Markerlights or Drones that he brought up, but both of those I feel are problems that can be solved by adjusting price, wording of the rules, and other factors; they aren’t fundamentally broken. Tau scoring, however, is fundamentally broken.
What I mean by that is that Tau as a faction, both conceptually and rules-wise, are terrible at scoring objectives. The army’s entire style is based largely around a “tidal” model- for the first two turns you pull backwards, giving ground to the enemy in exchange for buying yourself time to apply your firepower and devastate their forces. By the third turn, you have hopefully turned the tide and your forces instead begin advancing, retaking objectives from the weakened foe and (hopefully) regaining the lead on points by the end of the game. This is also how Tau function in the narrative of the game as well; they explicitly are uninterested in holding ground, preferring to give way to the enemy in order to maneuver around them and conserve their strength.
Ebb and Flow-ers
The problem is, in 9th Edition this model does not work for a variety of reasons. The first is simply numerical- if the Tau are falling back on turns one and two and then pushing forward on turn three, that means they will not be on objectives on turns two and three (since scoring happens at the start of the turn.) That means they give up fully 50% of the scoring opportunities in the game even when things are going right– and that’s to say nothing of when the opponent can stymie your plan or the dice go sideways. That’s too big a risk to be taking if you want to max your score on the primary, and it means that you are probably letting the enemy get max there as well- a huge gamble to be taking as part of your core plan.
The second is, well, linear. With charge ranges massively extended for many units in 9E (with Sisters, White Scars, etc, all able to charge 20″+ without too much difficulty) and the board size shrunk, it is harder than ever to escape enemy threats. That means withdrawing in the face of the enemy holds an even greater risk- you either keep to the edges of the enemy’s charge range and have the potential to get assaulted by something you can’t deal with, or you stay outside of the enormous bubble they can threaten and you place yourself in a position that you cannot plausibly get onto objectives in time- Tau are fast, but they aren’t “move twenty-five inches per turn” fast.
So the old Tau plan is simply a non-starter- it doesn’t work with the way the game plays now. Tau, like other armies, need to adopt their strategy to be more aggressive in the face of the enemy. That’s doable and viable, but it does mean that GW is going to need to really think about what the Tau offensive and defensive profiles are going to look like.
A big part of Tau’s strength has always been their Pulse weapons, which have an excellent statline for a basic gun. It was arguable whether it was the best statline on a gun (since it had to compete with Eldar Shuriken weapons and Necron Gauss and Tesla weaponry), but for their cost and considering the faction as a whole, it was inarguably in the top tier. However, I don’t really think that is true anymore- Primaris Marines now get vastly better guns on a chassis that honestly isn’t that much more expensive and their improved statline and changes to cover benefits mean that your basic Strike Squad is unlikely to do so much as even a single wound when shooting and a squad of Intercessors, to say nothing of heavier units.
This issue is echoed across many of their other weapons as well, such as Plasma (which has a weaker profile than the human variety and lacks the ability to overcharge), Melta (still stuck using the old rules), etc, etc. Some of their guns still are reasonably efficient, such as Missile Pods and their variants, but not to a degree that in any way impresses.
We compound this by the huge increases in durability tools that have been added to the game, like the various “wound limit” units such as C’tan, rules that prevent rerolls or improved wounding, and a general scaling-up of statlines as well as saving throws (with T5/2+/4++ being practically the default these days) as well as a total lack of access to mortal wounds and the faction is in some dire trouble in terms of actually killing anything.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t any ways around this… but I am somewhat hesitant about expecting Games Workshop to take those routes. I’m not really expecting them to universally give Pulse weapons an extra point of AP or damage, and those are the level of changes that would be needed to make Tau actually be able to play aggressively. Similarly, going to BS3+ would do a world of good for the faction (much as it did for Eldar back in 5E), but Games Workshop seems too attached to their being a BS4+ faction to ever go for that plan. Making their troops cheap enough to bring in large numbers and overwhelm objectives would be another option… but yet again, I don’t think it is one they are interested in pursuing, as Breacher Squads being 6pts per model seems like little more than a pipe dream.
Solutions (in) Space
Now, I don’t want this to seem completely doom and gloom- Games Workshop has, so far, been pretty good about making factions viable (though so far that just means “give Space Marines better stats,” which is maybe somewhat less impressive.) There certainly are other ways to make the faction work that I haven’t talked about here, and almost certainly ways to fix the faction that I haven’t thought of at all.
But the key points are the ones that Rhys and others have talked about, most notably Tau’s issue with scoring and shooting. 9E is much less friendly to shooting than other editions have been, and with literally no other tools in their toolbox, this puts Tau in a bad place, especially as they have historically had very weak scoring as well. I hope that Games Workshop will do something about this sooner rather than later, because Tau are almost completely out of the running right now and have zero compensatory options (like allies) to lean on- even the very best of Tau players are fully-aware of how unplayable they are right now. While there may not be a lot of events happening right now in large chunks of the world, if and when that eventually changes people are going to be very unhappy that their faction is so totally outclassed by the top tier of codices and that could easily provoke a 7E-like backlash that sets the game back a lot.
In the meanwhile, I feel like it would be in Games Workshop’s best interest to at least try and put some patches on the game by throwing the impoverished factions a bone- some price cuts on units, or errata to bring them slightly more in line with the big codices would go a long ways towards making the slow release schedule more palatable. The unfortunate reality is that some armies are going to be waiting a long time for a book- which is to say, it is pretty probable that there will be books still missing in 2023, which is not a thought to relish. They have already shown they are willing to do errata fixes on weapon profiles for the other Imperial armies (e.g. Sisters, Guard, etc) so there is little reason that they couldn’t also update some of the weapon profiles for xenos guns as well or even do a larger conversion of things overall. Certainly these sorts of efforts would take some time and energy on the company’s part and theoretically detract from the other books being written right now, but for players who are waiting on tenterhooks for anything resembling a new release for their faction, it would be a welcome release.
As always, remember that 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.