Sunday, 13 May 2012

Running a Tau Gunline

As I mentioned in an earlier post I’ve been reviewing my Tau posts and I’ve noticed that it’s very much focused on list building. I’ve talked about tactics in passing but there is no one post that gatherers together my thoughts on how I play my army in general.  So I thought I would do that.

First off I think Tau have a very steep learning curve, and one that goes on (and on). I’m still crawling up that curve. So read this post with that in mind. I’m no expert – think of this as how I play my Tau, not as the way to play Tau!

Tau are a shooting army (no shit…!). They have no assault units (Kroot don’t count). The way of the Fire Warrior is to shoot stuff till it’s dead. If anything gets into assault you’re toast. I once had most of my army killed by 6 Dark Eldar Witches! Tactical Marines kick my butt in assault (as an aside it’s always amusing when an opponent tells me how awesome their death star is in assault – I really don’t care, anything beyond basic troops is simply a waste of points when facing Tau down in assault!). Tau are however very good at shooting – Railguns, Plasma Rifles and Missile Pods can put out a truly horrible volume of high strength low AP shots. And, with Drones and Disruption Pods the killer units are pretty resilient to shooting. Very few armies can compete with Tau in a long range fire fight (missile and razor spam Space Wolves, and some guard armies can). So most armies need to close with you and take you out in assault.

So the key to success is keeping the enemy at range and blasting them off the table.

There are broadly 4 elements to doing this well – deploying so it’s hard for stuff to get to you, killing stuff before it gets to you (always the best option if you can do it), blocking stuff from getting to you, and moving out the way (referred to be a friend as “strategic running away”).


I have lost (many) games by screwing up deployment. Deployment is a key part of the game for Tau, as it is for many armies, but more so for Tau than any other army I’ve played. There are 2 basic principles – you want to deploy as far away from your opponent as possible, but have as many clear lanes of fire as you can.

Getting as far away from your opponent as possible is hard if you’re going first (and as a Tau player you mostly want to go first). You’re opponent can always deploy right across from you. However, if you’re going second, and your opponent doesn’t think it through, you can sometimes put your main fire base in a corner out of range of many of his guns. With the Railgun’s range you can often kill stuff before it gets anywhere near shooting range.  Also when deploying, always have your Broadsides in cover. Remember they are not walkers, they’re infantry. So even if a couple of mm of their base is in area terrain they count as being in cover. Also remember that Drones are part of the unit when determining whether the unit is in cover. You can sometimes get cover in the most unlikely places by hiding your drones away.

Fire lanes are crucial. I have screwed this up so many times it’s embarrassing. The key is to get down to “ground” level. Knell down and get your eye level to the Broadside’s eye level. What can it really see. So many times I have assumed it will be able to see something, but when I come round to checking line of sight it can’t. There is nothing more irritating than losing a round of shooting with your Broadsides ‘cause you have to move them to get LOS. 

If you’re going first, try and anticipate where you’re opponent will deploy key units. Try and get LOS to that place (while staying in cover). If your going second remember they will have a move, before you get to shoot – so try and anticipate where they’re going to be at the end of their turn.

One key decision in deployment is -  one fire base or 2? If you’re opponent has a few deep striking units (e.g. Drops Pods or Demons), then you may be forced to build a “castle” and have one bubble wrapped fire base, but other than that you have a choice.
In the past I used to deploy in one bubble wrapped fire base 90% of the time, usually refusing a flank. Now it’s more 50/50. The problem with having one fire base is that it’s easier for your opponent to box you into a corner and deploy his whole army against you. Also, you tend to fall over yourself, with units getting in the way of each other, especially if you build Hammerheads into your fire base.  Another huge danger of a single fire base is that it is very easy for your opponent to multi assault your units. I once had a unit of wraiths multi assault 3 squads of suits, wiping out almost all my fire power in one turn! So you need to know when to “breakout” of the fire base, and make sure you have an escape route to do so. Not always easy (more on this later).

More and more I’m deploying into 2 fire bases – one a static fire base with Broadsides bubble wrapped with Kroot, and the other a mobile fire base deployed some distance away, made up largely of XV8s. It presents your opponent with a dilemma – attack the Broadsides, attack the XV8s, or attack both. None of these decisions is really the right decision. If they attack the Broadsides you need to get through the Piranhas, and the Kroot shields before they can assault you, all the time being pounded by the Broadsides and the   XV8s. Once they do get to them (and they probably will, eventually) they still need to deal with the XV8s that are still pounding them from 30” away. If they attack the XV8s, they get pounded by the Broadsides, and the XV8s will just run away (while still pounding them). If they split their army, and send one force after the Broadsides, and another after the XV8s, then you have the range to focus fire on one assault force, before then dealing with the other one.

Another time when you might want to deploy in a split fire base is when you are facing an army where side armour shots are important (Ork Battle wagons, Guard). Here you might want to but one Broadside unit in one corner and the other unit in the other corner. This will make it more difficult for your opponent to protect weaker side armour.  

Well that’s the theory at least…. !

The other thing to be cautious of in deployment are outflankers, particularly wolf scouts or Snikrot and friends (coming in on your board edge!). Normal outflankers (i.e. coming in from the short board edge are easier to deal with. You need to decide either to deploy centrally, or in a corner. If you deploy centrally then you are relying on killing the outflankers before they get to you. If it’s a unit of foot slogging SM Scouts that’s not so big a deal. However, if it’s a big unit of Genestealers it might not be so easy. In that case you might want to deploy in a corner and line the nearest board edge with Kroot. If you can line the whole board edge then anything coming in on that side (if it’s not in a vehicle) is dead. If you can’t line the board edge then lining part of the board edge, pushes the Genestealers as far away from you as possible, giving you more time to deal with them.

The only think you can do about units coming in on your board edge is to line the board edge as far as you can, pushing the outflanking unit’s entry point as far away from your gunline as possible.

Killing Stuff Before it gets to you.

As I said, this is always the best option. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Remember the key is to avoid stuff assaulting your Broadsides and XV8s. Accordingly; priority targets are fast assault units. In a rough order of priority – jump infantry, stuff in open topped vehicles (especially if they’re fast skimmers – i.e. Dark Eldar, SM Scouts in Land Speeder Storms), and then assault vehicles (Land Raiders, Stormravens). After that you want to kill all transports, only then should you start worrying about incoming ranged shooting.

You also need to think about what to shoot at these threats and what you shoot first. My Broadsides usually go into the highest threat vehicles – Land Raiders and Storm Ravens are good examples, but BA Rhinos full of assault marines speeding towards you, Vendettas full of Veterans and even Dark Eldar Raiders full of witches can be key threats you just need to stop. I shoot the Broadsides first because it leaves the Deathrains to deal with either (a) lower threat, low AV armour (eg. Razorbacks shooting from the backfield, Venoms that aren’t threatening to unload troops into the assault), (b) infantry the Broadsides  blow out of their transports, or (c) trying to kill the high priority armour the Broadsides missed (good luck it they missed a Land Raider!).

However, in some cases it might be better to use the Deathrains first on the high threat vehicles – for example, it might be better to fire a squad of Deathrains at a Raider full of witches which has just turbo boosted straight at you. It’s more likely the flat out cover save will stop one Railgun slug than 2 or 3 missile pod hits. In that example you might save your Broadsides for the Ravager in the backfield and knock out some dark lances.

Having said all that, it’s difficult to discuss target priority in isolation without also considering blocking.


You don’t need to kill stuff to stop it assaulting you – you can also block it.

So we’re clear, I’m talking about getting a more or less expendable unit between the enemy assault unit and your suits. This slows down the assaulting unit, forcing them to deal with the blocking unit before they can assault your suits, giving your suits more time to kill them, or run away.

There are 2 premier blocking units in the Tau codex – Piranhas and Kroot, although any unit can do it to a certain extent. When thinking about blocking and how to do it it’s helpful to split threats into 3 categories – (i) Skimmers, jet bikes and Jump infantry, (ii) normal vehicles, and (iii) normal (i.e. foot slogging) infantry.

For normal infantry the best blocking unit is Kroot. In an ideal world it works like this – terminators come into range to assault your suits next turn. Suits jump forward into rapid fire range. Kroot move in behind the suits, to avoid giving the terminators a cover save. The Suits unload on the terminators killing some with rapid firing plasma rifles. The Kroot run forward, through the Suits (which they can do if you leave enough space between models). They stop 1 inch away from the terminators. In their assault move the suits jump back 6 inches. In their movement phase the terminators can’t move round the Kroot to assault the suits (because you spread them out…didn’t you?). So either they move round the Kroot to try and get into assault range next turn, or they assault the Kroot – either way, your suits get another round of shooting at the terminators with their plasma rifles. One thing you need to be careful of is that the Kroot don’t win combat! If they do then they’ll be locked in combat during your next shooting phase which means that your suits won’t be able to shoot them next turn.  I used to run Kroot hounds in my Kroot squads, but that actually made them too good in assault, and I found myself winning assaults – Kroot need to die in one turn of assault.

The other thing you need to be careful about is spacing, both between the Kroot models and between the Kroot squad and the suits. Remember the rule that you must keep 1” away from enemy models does not apply in the assault phase. So, if you leave more than an inch between the Kroot models, the assaulting units can pass through the Kroot squad and multi assault the models behind them. To stop this you need to close up the gaps between models (not always possible) or make sure the suits are sufficiently far behind the Kroot squad that the assaulting units can’t reach them through the gaps (about 5 inches should be enough).

Blocking Vehicles is trickier. Vehicles can tank shock through Kroot screens, and with leadership 7, the Kroot will very often run. To block vehicles you need other vehicles, and the best ones to do that are Piranhas. Move the Piranhas flat out 1 inch in front the vehicle you want to block. The vehicle either has to go round the blocking Piranha (easier said than done, particularly if you have 2 of them in a squadron), or ram it. If you are one inch away a ram isn’t particularly worrying - even a Land Raider needs a 6 to glance, and the Piranha can dodge the ram on a 3+. Even better, if your opponent doesn’t down the Piranha that turn (and it’s not that easy with AV11 and a flat out cover save), then the Piranha can use their Fusion Guns next turn, or simple “reblock” in the movement phase.

This is where there’s a link with target priority. Let’s say you’re faced with 2 Rhino’s and a Land Raider charging your lines. You could shoot your Railguns at the Land Raider and your missile pods at the Rhinos. However, doing this you risk missing the Land Raider or failing to immobilise it – even with Railguns Land Raiders are pretty tough, especially if it popped smoke. So rather than shooting at the Land Raider, you block it with your Piranhas. That stops it for at least a turn. You can then Railgun the Rhinos, using the missile pods as back up or to target the troops that bail out the Rhinos after the Railguns blow them up.  Next Turn you can focus on the Land Raider, this time without smoke!

The other time when blocking combines with target priority is when you have multiple threats closing on your gunline. I reckon I can usually take down a 10 man squad of marines or a 5 man terminator squad in a turn of shooting – but what do you do if there are 2 units threatening to charge your gun line next turn? Well – you kill one and block the other. Normally I would run a squad of Kroot in front of one of the units to block it, while focusing all my shooting at the other one. The tricky decision is often which one to kill, and which one to block. Sometimes the decision is easy – if one’s foot slogging and the other is jump infantry, kill the jump infantry and block the foot sloggers. Another easier decision is where one unit is a walker or monstrous creature, and the other is a unit of infantry. Block the MC or the Walker, and kill the infantry. The infantry might be able to multi assault 2 units, but the MC/Wlaker can only assault one.

Other than that, it’s best to block the one you might not be able to kill, and kill the one your are certain you can kill. That gives you more time to think about how you’re going to deal with the biggest scariest threat (e.g. bring more guns to bear) – and who knows – the Kroot might just take a few with them!

Blocking Skimmers and jump infantry is trickier. What you have to do there is get your Kroot or Piranhas where the Skimmer or Jump infantry need to land – not impossible, but more difficult.

Strategic Running Away

This is pretty simple – you just shoot while moving away, helped by the jet pack move in the assault phase. You need to be careful not to get yourself blocked in. The worst example of this is getting trapped in a corner. XV8s in particular should never be deployed in a corner, or if they are ( eg. because you want to castle up to combat drop pods, or Demons ) they should be moved out in the first turn or 2 when you have the space to do so. You should always make sure you have room to move latterly. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to “swing” your gun line. So if you are in a corner your Hammerheads (if you use them) move away from the corner up one side of the board while your XV8s move away from the corner along the other, leaving your Broadsides in the corner. Hopefully your opponent goes after the Broadsides allowing the 2 “wings” of your army to target the enemy’s flanks.

Strategic running away is trickier with plasma guns, particularly when you want to get into rapid fire range. You need to be able to judge 12” very carefully, and you often need a combination of blocking and running away (as described above). Missile pods make strategic running away much easier because of their range.

OK, that’s the basics. Thoughts anybody?



  1. Will be adding this to this weeks UK Bloggers weekly update ;)

  2. I often find wasting firepower to be my issue, with the current proliferation of covers saves in the current edition of 40k, at most you'll reduce a MEQ models save by 1 and a TEQ by 2. I find now i'll hit a space marine squad with all 9 Fireknives (including the shas'el) and i barely kill 6 of them, which is depressing. The whole reason for using a FireKnife XV8 is to deny MEQ its armour save (in my opinion its greatest asset). And i have on ocassion hit a squad with 9 railgun slugs in 1 turn only to kill 4 of them. If the the models were out in the open (which does happen occasionally) a 10 man sqaud of MEQ is easily destroyed in a single turn, or at least made combat ineffective.

    Thanks for the blog though, its definitely food for thought.

  3. I tend to agree about fireknifes. They are expensive and unreliable (BS3 and cover really screws them IMHO). Reliability can be improved of course using marker lights, but pathfinders have their own issues. More and more I think the way to go is putting your plasma on Broadsides with multitrackers. The plasma rifle on a Broadside is half the price and if you get your blocking right (easier said than done!) you can let the enemy units in close, before unleashing plasma and railgun least that's the theory!


  4. I tend to use targetting arrays on my broadsides, simply because ocassionally you find yourself in the unhappy position of having to rely on a vehicle kill (or at least disablement) with no alternate strategy, if you only have BS3 XV88's the chances are they'll miss when you desperately need them not to, BS 4 helps to mitigate the risk somewhat.

    I have a love-hate relationship with my pathfinders, they are expensive and they are hyperbolic. They have saved my army almost as many times as they failed to gain me any appreciable benefits. Everyone i play knows what they are, and expends a lot of firepower on them, which does in fairness take the heat off my suits for a turn, however pathfinders are not resiliant at all, and they die like firewarriors. I rarely include them in lists now, which is a shame, with stealth and BS4 (even at a slightly higher points cost) they would be an utterly amazing "must have" unit.

    I have changed 1 unit of XV8's to Deathrain configuration (this gave me some more plasma rifles for my broadsides too) the jury is still out on the effectiveness over fireknives, but i can give them all targetting arrays and with TL missile pods they barely miss. They are utterly devastating against lightly armoured open topped skimmers, and any GEQ (its glorious to be able to hose down farseer retinues and know every un saved wound is an instant kill). but mostly the range comes in handy, it means you really can find a bit of cover and jump shoot jump, without having to worry about is my plasma rifle in 12", ironically i dont use sun forge suits because they have to be within 12" to be effective, 6" even if its a vehicle, but i have no problem getting close with fireknives?! (a fact that has gotten me into no end of trouble).

    Fireknife suits have been a staple of my Hunter Cadre for longer than i can remember, but i am open to new methods. I agree most tau player need to be weened off they're reliance on a suit configuration that is probably not as effective as they think it is... (by the way, catching a squad of 10 sternguard out in the open in a <12" cross fire from 6 fire kinves is the best experience i have ever had in 40K)

    I suspect spamming (such an ugly phrase) deathrains with will net you more kills than fireknives for less cost, and give you the tactical flexibility to keep you opponent at range. I just need to satisfy myself (with extensive testing) before i go an change my models.

  5. Must say I agree with pretty much all of the above and can't really add much more. My only comment would be that Tetras are a fantastic alternative to pathfinders.


  6. So, i bought 4 Tetra's from Forge world. I have tried them out in 4 games so far and have drawn to the following conclusions;

    1. they are cheaper than pathfinders.
    2. 4x BS4 (after obligatory Targetting array upgrade) markerlights from each vehicle... after its moved 12", this on its own... i am speechless.
    3. free disruption pods for everyone, well not actually eveyone, Just the tetra's, and boy do they need them.
    4. even more Marker Beacons (i generally include a Pos'el) in my army so this fantastic.
    5. they get ignored for a couple of turns until your opponent actually realises they are the reason he now has no armour.
    6. AV 10, ouch... but with 36" range why would you have them closer to the enemy?
    7. 24" fast skimmer move, excellent for sneaky objective contesting

    Due to these awesome machines i have also changed a fair bit of my core strategy.

    1. in 1750 pts include 2 squads of 3 broadsides with ASS instead if targetting arrays, the marker lights mitigate the BS loss and its far better to have them mobile. Used to castle my pathfinders behind my broadsides, and seeing as how both of them needed to stay in place to fire i had a static firebase.
    2. points i saved go on more Deathrains :)

    by the way, what does the "foward observer" rule do, i found no reference to it in the Taros campaign book.

  7. Outstanding Article!
    I've found there is another way to run Tau Gunline.
    As I don't like using expensive blockers.

    Maximum Firewarriors. Before you call me a nutter, Field 9 railguns and max firewarriors as that volume of fire will take out anything.

    What about the terrible bs you might say? Pathfinders (Or Tetras if legal). Place the Pathfinder behind the Firewarriors as the Markerlights don't have coversaves. Boost the BS to 5 and by sheer volume the targets pop.

    Also, the mandatory transport makes a great wall or blockade.
    -Gundam John