Despite being released in the early 2000s, the Warhammer 40k T’au Empire faction still feels like the new kid on the block – and, in many ways, it is. With a style and ethos unlike any other army yet added to Games Workshop’s biggest tabletop wargame, the high tech, anime inspired T’au bring something fresh to the 40k setting. In this guide, we’ll explore the Warhammer Tau Empire, explaining who they are, how they play, and how to start your very own army.
While they’re most associated with gundam-style mech suits and advanced artillery, the T’au Warhammer 40k faction has access to a surprisingly diverse set of models, supported by greatly improved rules in its latest Warhammer 40k codex rulebook – making it one of the most formidable forces on the 40k battlefield. With the faction enjoying something of a resurgence of late, new fanslearning how to play Warhammer 40k are sure to encounter the Tau, so knowledge is power.
What’s more, while their clean aesthetic and apparently progressive ‘Greater Good’ philosophy can sometimes seem like something beamed in from a different universe, lore hounds can still find a healthy dose of grimdark lurking beneath the T’au’s shiny, armoured shells.
Who are the T’au?
With much of the Warhammer 40k universe locked in perpetual, blood-soaked stalemate, and most of the galaxy’s mightiest empires on the wane, the T’au are the outlier. A young civilization very much on the rise, the T’au have come a long way in a comparatively short period of time.
This blue-skinned Xenos race evolved on an unassuming planet, with some T’au living on the plains, while others evolved to be better suited to the high places of the world, their biology adapting to their environments. Like many species they grew to embrace conflict as wars erupted across their planet, coming to threaten the T’au’s very existence. Salvation came from an unlikely direction: the species’ mysterious Ethereal caste.
During a particularly terrible siege at the city of Fio’taun, the Ethereals revealed themselves. Two T’au figures were seen walking through the besieging armies and into the fortress, their authority undeniable to warriors on either side. These Ethereals spoke of a Greater Good, of all T’au being united, and of unity. Within a few short hours the siege had been lifted, the fortress gates were open, and a new age of T’au ascendancy had begun.
For the Greater Good
With the Ethereals firmly in charge, the T’au became truly united and their technological progress leapt forward, propelling them into the heavens. Protected by their army – known as the Fire Caste – settlers began to take over systems and assimilate other species under the banner of the Empire, in successive ‘spheres of expansion’.
Most notable amongst this first wave of recruits were the Kroot: mercenaries and expert hunters specialising in diversifying their genetic makeup. Before long, the Kroot’s foot soldiers joined the T’au to fight across the Empire.
During an early sphere of expansion, the T’au encountered the forces of the Imperium of Man. Six thousand years earlier, the Imperium had surveyed the T’au homeworld but disregarded them as little more than stone-banging primitives.
By this point, however, the T’au Empire was burgeoning and beginning to expand across the galaxy, representing a sudden and potentially fearsome new threat. The Imperium put down this expansion wave with brutal and terrifying efficiency – though, unbeknownst to the T’au, this only represented a tiny fraction of humanity’s military might.
The T’au ascendant
Given the species’ vigour and strength of will, being thrashed by servants of the Emperor of Mankind didn’t leave the T’au particularly disheartened. Instead, the Ethereals set their Empire on an accelerated course for technological advancement, rapid expansion, and massive rearmament.
Now, in the 41st millennium, the T’au are continuing their expansion drives, using their superior technology to force-multiply their relatively small armies in skirmishes with the Imperium, Orks, and Tyranids. Their Empire has become diverse, welcoming many humans and other species into the fold, accepting any who willingly pledge themselves to the Greater Good.
There is one flaw in the T’au’s armour, however: they have no psykers among their ranks. This means they’re not only unable to manipulate the Warp on the battlefield, but also have no astropaths – severely limiting their ability to move using faster than light travel.
Skipping across the surface of the Warp like pebbles across a lake – and so unable to use it for interstellar travel – the T’au are so far confined to a small part of the galaxy, with no true idea of the vastness of the forces of their foes, nor the dangers that lurk in the Immaterium.
T’au tactics in Warhammer 40k 9th Edition
Warhammer 40k 9th edition seems in many ways to be an attempt to marry each faction’s tabletop game rules more fully with its fantasy background. The latest T’au Codex – released in February 2022 – follows this trend, focusing on colossal mechs pounding distant foes with giant guns, smooth synergies between units that can dominate your opponent, and allied forces that fill in any gaps.
When you look at a T’au model, you’ll no doubt note their sleek ranged weaponry, so you’ll probably not be surprised to learn that T’au armies in 9th Edition still excel during the Shooting phase. However, that’s no longer where the T’au army begins and ends. Unlike in 8th Edition, T’au are now much more flexible on the tabletop and, though they still perform best when shooting, they have many more ways to adapt and overcome obstacles.
For example, their supreme mobility allows them to take objectives rapidly and harry the enemy. Smart commanders can combine this with rules that bolster shooting on the move, such as the Mont’ka Tactical Philosophy, to give you a gunline that never stays still, while still enjoying bonuses you’d normally get for remaining stationary. Deadly and fast – a dangerous combo.
T’au Markerlights in 9th edition
T’au armies work best when working as a cohesive whole. Models such as the Darkstrider can mark priority targets, giving nearby units a buff when shooting at an enemy. Another example of T’au synergy is their crucial Markerlight mechanic, a buff that allows any unit with the Markerlight keyword to pop tokens on an enemy at the start of the Movement Phase.
These tokens give bonuses to hit when you shoot at the marked unit, allowing a canny T’au commander to easily unload overwhelming firepower into an important target. Vehicles, Drones, and Pathfinders are especially good in this role, as they’re able to move before applying Markerlights, extending your range and thus reinforcing the Tau’s tactical mobility. You can double down on this by playing as the Farsight Enclaves subfaction, as they automatically treat enemies as having a Markerlight when within 12 inches.
No T’au psykers?
Of course, no army is without downsides and the T’au are no exception. While they have been buffed somewhat in melee they still can struggle, relying on auxiliaries like Kroot or Vespids to fill in the gaps. These can both be excellent close range combatants but, as they are not truly T’au, they do miss out on some of the keyword-reliant buffs the rest of your force benefits from.
The main drawback of a T’au army, however, is the lack of psykers. As they have none they do not participate in the Psychic Phase – leading to complications when facing a psyker-heavy army like a Tzeentch worshipping Thousand Sons cabal, Grey Knights strike force, or an Aeldari warhost. Often, your best options for handling an enemy psyker are to stay out of range – or kill them before they start warp-blasting.
T’au armies are flexible, fast, and have a focus on heavy mechs and laying down devastating fire power. In the hands of a commander able to build synergies between units and take advantage of the unique defensive measures available (especially their unique Drone units), T’au can easily be one of the most powerful armies on the tabletop. Just give those psykers a wide berth until you’re ready to take them on, OK?
Start collecting T’au Empire
The first steps into a T’au army are simple, though not necessarily cheap. With the removal of the old T’au Start Collecting box, your first port of call will be the T’au Empire Combat Patrol box.
This will give you a meaty core to your army containing:
- Ethereal x 1
- Cadre Fireblade x 1
- XV95 Ghostkeel Battlesuit (with 2 Drones)
- XV25 Stealth Battlesuits x 3 (with 1 Drone one and 1 Homing Beacon)
- Fire Warriors x 10 (with 2 Drones and 1 Support Turret)
The Ghostkeel in particular is a unit you’ll want to keep with you throughout your T’au journey; with an ability that stops it being targeted from a distance and some truly powerful guns, it’s sure to be utterly infuriating to any opponent.
If pounding your opponent with long range fire is your goal, nab yourself a XV104 Riptide Battlesuit or a XV88 Broadside Battlesuit, both of which will be more than happy to sit in the back row of your army, bringing the pain down on faraway enemies.
And, if there’s one T’au Empire unit you shouldn’t leave home without, it’s a couple of squads of Crisis Battlesuits. These ultra-versatile mech-suited elites can be kitted out with a wide variety of wargear for more or less any battlefield role, from twin plasma rifles to melt tanks from afar, to horde-wiping burst cannons and flamers.
To expand from the gunline archetype and explore the T’au’s newfound melee flexibility, we definitely recommend grabbing Kroot Carnivores who can soak up a little fire and get into melee to cause some trouble. More Fire Warriors are always welcome, allowing you to arm one Fire Warrior unit as a longer-range Strike Team and the other as a more aggressive Breacher squad. T’au Pathfinders are your best bet for scouts, able to slip up to enemy lines and place Markerlights with ease.
While Ethereals make a cheap choice for an HQ, the T’au Commander model is the supreme choice, especially when magnetised to allow you to switch between Coldstar and Enforcer roles. Enforcers can take damage all day and still keep on fighting, while Coldstars can give movement buffs and their own mobility allows them to pop up where they’re least expected.
For players looking to build a Farsight Enclaves army, the Commander Farsight named character is a no-brainer – especially given Farsight armies can’t take Ethereals, but, unlike the other Tau ‘Septs’, can pack two Commander HQs.
Finally, and for that extra layer of spice for your force, the massive KV128 Stormsurge will make the perfect centrepiece for your army. Heavily armoured and bristling with a truly disgusting amount of weaponry, this shouldn’t be your first purchase for a budding army – but, if there’s ever an argument to be had on a battlefield, the T’au Stormsurge will end it.