Since I'm trying to determine what I want my post-Space Marine army to be, I played with a borrowed Tau army rather than with my beloved Ultramarines. Since Bryce has recently equipped his basement with two playing tables, he had planned for us to play two separate 1000 point games. At one table we would pit the Tau against Carl's Grey Knights (also borrowed from Bryce) while at the other table Bryce's Imperial Guard would fight Jon's Orks. However, Jon recommended that we play in teams instead. Since he and Carl had been teamed up before, he further recommended that the Orks and the Imperial Guard ally against the Tau and the Grey Knights. Thanks to the roll of the die, the Ork/Guard alliance got the first turn.
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Before the first shot was fired, Bryce and I knew how the game was going to turn out. Jon's Orks alone outnumbered both the Tau and Grey Knight forces. Once combined with Bryce's substantial number of Guardsmen, there would be too many targets for Carl and I to shoot at. Our best weapon against huge clusters of troops was the sole template weapon provided by the Tau Hammerhead (i.e., one of the largest targets on the board). In addition to their overwhelming numbers, Bryce brought along a Leman Russ with a Demolisher canon, a Manticore, a Basilisk, and two Sentinels with lascannons. The combination was devastating; not only would Carl and I have to face an enormous horde, we would also have to worry about tanks firing multiple high strength large blast templates at us from across the table. In other words, our opponents consisted of elements from the best long-range army in the game combined with one of the best close combat armies in the game. Our force, on the other hand, was a fraction of the size and consisted of more specialized and elite units.
The first shooting phase saw the destruction of my Hammerhead, Carl's Land Raider, and one of three Broadside Battlesuits. One of my two Fire Warrior squads was near the Land Raider when it exploded. The Dice God (who I'm pretty sure is Tzeentch) was definitely not on my side that night; in what proved to be my highest series of rolls that evening, all six rolls to wound yielded fours, fives, or sixes. I lost half the squad when the armor save rolls included the ones, twos, and threes that didn't turn up previously. One failed leadership roll later and the squad's survivors ran off the table (once again I found myself missing my Marines). When Carl and I finally got our turn, the Broadsides showed that they got their name from the fact that they couldn't hit the broadside of a barn, the "elite" Fire Warriors found themselves ineffective at shooting the quickly approaching green mass, and the Grey Knights' storm bolters proved to be too few in number.
Carl and I kept up the fight, although it was a lost cause. Jon had brought his new 15 man squad of Lootas armed with strength 7 AP 4 deffguns. On a lucky streak, he frequently rolled a five or six when determining how many shots the Lootas would get (a deffgun fires D3 shots per turn). By the second turn, a quick count showed that the Lootas' 45 shots outnumbered all the shots that the combined forces of Tau and Grey Knights could muster. There weren't enough Grey Knights to handle all of the Orks and Guardsmen. The Broadsides were therefore forced to join the Fire Warriors in targeting the nearest Greenskins rather than the Guard's tanks to prevent themselves from being overrun. Carl's Dreadknight, my two Crisis Battlesuits, and our lone remaining vehicle (a Devilfish Troop Carrier) did as much damage as they could, but it simply wasn't enough. The Demolisher shells, Earthshaker shells, and Manticore rockets from Bryce's tanks gradually pulverized those units that weren't in danger of an assault by Ork Boyz while Imperial Guard squads with demolition charges joined in with a squad of Burna Boyz to whittle down the number of Grey Knights.
The outcome was inevitable. Bryce had once shared with me his opinion that Tau could not beat the Imperial Guard in a long range fight. As for the close combat-oriented Grey Knight contingent, my own experience has been that a Space Marine army at or below 1000 points will struggle due to a lack of firepower and wounds. (Admittedly this may be due to my inexperience.) I very nearly called the game when the Orks and Imperial Guard got the first turn and, thanks to a very lucky series of rolls, destroyed much of our heavy support. Those initial losses represented about 25% of our total points and much of our tank-killing ability. Once the Orks started to fall on our units, it became apparent that we had set up a very broken game by combining Imperial Guard and Orks.
As we all know, Games Workshop has designed each army with built-in strengths and weaknesses. Shooty armies like the Tau and the Imperial Guard tend to be weaker in close combat. The difference between the two is primarily that the Tau are more mobile and their troops, while smaller in number, are better armed. Orks and Tyranids, on the other hand, are designed for close combat and have fewer effective long range weapons. This is similar to one of the most popular forms of ancient Roman gladiatorial combat in which a heavily armored fighter equipped with a short stabbing sword was pitted against a lightly armored gladiator armed with a long lance and a net that could be used to snare his opponent's weapon.
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By forming armies composed of a Tau/Grey Knights alliance and an Ork/Imperial Guard alliance, we eliminated several weaknesses from each army. Unfortunately, the Tau and the Grey Knights did not form as good a combination as the Orks and the Imperial Guard. The Grey Knights could partially compensate for the their ally's poor close combat ability, but there were very few of the elite Marines. The Tau brought some heavy weapons to the army, but railguns are not built for horde-killing and aren't as good at tank-busting as ordnance weapons. The Tau/Grey Knights army had the major disadvantage of relatively small numbers and a lack of blast templates. Unfortunately for Carl and me, the Ork/Guard army had few weaknesses.
The Orks and the Imperial Guard both contributed a huge number of troops. The Guard's tanks easily compensated for the Orks' lack of tank/squad-killing weapons and the Orks compensated for the Guard's limited close combat ability. The Guard's ordnance weapons proved to be superior to the Tau's railguns. When railguns miss, they miss entirely, whereas ordnance weapons can drift and yet still do some damage. Additionally, the ordnance weapon rule in which armor penetration is determined by rolling two D6s and picking the highest result gave a huge advantage to the Guard tanks. Since the ordnance weapons were able to dispatch our most threatening units early on, they were able to assist the Orks in eliminating the rest of our forces. By sheer force of numbers, the Orks and Guardsmen were able to overwhelm the Grey Knights. By more effectively eliminating the built-in weaknesses of their respective armies, Jon and Bryce hit us with a nearly unbeatable force.
The end result was not as bad as the infamous Tyranid vs. Imperial Guard battle, but it was pretty close. That being said, I was not as disappointed in the Tau as I was in the Tyranids. While the big bugs were wiped from the table in a relatively fair fight, the Tau were defeated under less than ideal circumstances (i.e., the deck was stacked against them). I'll probably be giving the Tau another chance this coming weekend.