Twenty years ago today something happened that changed the face of Games Workshop, and Warhammer 40,000 in particular, forever.
OK, so it wasn't exactly today. It was actually staggered out over 3 months in 2001, beginning in October and continuing through to December, but this year does mark the 20 year anniversary of the greatest game-changer of GW history (fight me Oldhammer and 1d4channers), and certainly the greatest game-changer in the history of Warhammer 40,000 (again, Die Mad Oldhammer and 1d4channers). If nothing else, it is certainly the most underrated game-changer in the history of Warhammer 40,000, which is objectively provable by way that I have observed virtually no-one on the Internet seems to have even mentioned it this whole month.
(Now granted, as previously established last time I do live under a rock on a cold dark planetoid orbiting a Black Hole approximately 42 billion light years away from the Earth, so if this isn't the case and there has indeed been a lot of discourse about this on Reddit or Tweet-Tok or whatever the devil it is that young people use to talk about tabletop games on the Internet these days then please do correct me on this in the comments. But my initial Google Search for 'Tau in 40k 20 Year Anniversary' produced precisely two (2) results that were relevant to the topic, so I'm going to assume it's just not being talked about as much as it should)
I am, of course, talking about the introduction of the single most underrated game faction in Warhammer 40,000.
|The Image that got me into tabletop games.|
The Tau, in case you aren't aware, are one of the major game factions in the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game. The short gist of them is that in the game universe they are a high-tech alien civilisation that controls a quickly growing empire in the eastern edge of the galaxy, which includes both Tau planets and numerous other alien civilisations that have joined the Tau peacefully and now coexist with them. In the grand scheme of things, where the various Warhammer 40,000 game factions represent different science fiction tropes, the Tau are your classic Space Opera faction.
Originally the Tau were planned to be introduced to the game and its players at the end of 2001, but as the release date drew near an executive decision was made to bump them up ahead a month, so they were released on the faithful month of October instead of November. So the legend in the White Dwarf first covering them goes at any rate.
Clearly someone at Games Workshop knew exactly how brilliant their new creation was.
Thus it was that this time 20 years ago the world was introduced to the first Tau models ever released by GW - the Fire Warrior infantry troops, the Kroot Carnivore auxiliary troops, and the Gun Drones, along with a Battleforce box set that included all of the above and a group of Crisis battlesuits. Plus the Tau codex itself, of course.
The following month, November 2001 saw the release of the Broadside battlesuit, the Devilfish and Hammerhead hover tanks, the Pathfinder reconnaissance scouts, the Kroot Hounds and Kroot shaper leaders, the Ethereal leader, and the special named characters of the codex, Aun'Shi and O'Shovah or Commander Farsight as he's more commonly known.
Finally, December 2001 featured the last Tau releases, the XV15 stealth troops, the Krootox and Crisis Battlesuits as an individual item, leaving every unit in the codex with model representation. It should be noted that as well as the Crisis suits, the Broadside suits, Devilfish, Pathfinders and Krootox were all released right from the start in October as part of an army box set deal, because as BOLS points out some things never change. This army box set also included a special edition Ethereal model that was just about never released as a standalone model, which was a thing that all of the army box sets at the time did because GW in 2001 was just that awesome.
|FUCK. YEAH. (Image taken from Worthpoint)|
The written material for the Tau was similarly staggered, with an Index Xenos lore piece and basic rules for Fire Warriors included in White Dwarf #261(US) for October 2001, and the bulk of the release content a month later in White Dwarf #262. It is here that the Designer's Notes for the Tau were first published. They are still available on the original GW website, accessible through the Wayback Machine internet archive, and are strongly recommended reading.
It is in these Designer's Notes, penned by the God Emperor of 40k Andy Chambers himself, that the origins of the Tau are revealed. In the tail end of the 1990s and the dawn of the 2000s (presumably, given the average 2-year production cycle of these things), the decision was made in Games Workshop to add in a brand new game faction for the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, something fresh and unique to shake up the status quo of fantasy civilisations in space that had largely crystallised in 40k by around half-way through 2nd edition, more or less. The only trouble was, the Games Workshop designers had no idea what it should be. They had an enormous list of possible concepts to develop, and even after extensive narrowing down they became deadlocked on two options: either expanding on the Kroot, a minor alien civilisation briefly referenced in the 3rd edition 40k Rulebook, or developing a total clean sheet alien concept called the Tau.
It was at this point that 40k developer Rick Priestly stepped in, and made like the girl in the Old El Paso ads.
|Rick Priestly, circa 1999-2000, probably|
And so the two factions were developed simultaneously, with the Kroot evolving into one of the most important alien allies of the Tau, and foil for them conceptually and aesthetically - one is a bright altruistic unified force of high-tech aliens, one is a scattered species of semi-nomadic tribes and warbands of brutal but technologically limited aliens, TOGETHER! They save the universe!
I'd certainly watch that show.
At the heart of the Tau concept was a determination to have a clean break from the rest of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. The Tau were envisaged from Day 1 to be a direct foil to the other 40k factions, an island of good honest positivity in a sea of Grim-Dark despair and horror. In the words of Andy Chambers:
"In contrast to the other races, we wanted the Tau to be altruistic and idealistic, believing heartily in unification as the way forward."
And if it were up to me, that quote would be laser-etched into the cover of every Tau-related product Games Workshop ever released. It would also be burned into the front door of whatever department or writer was tasked with working on them, and perhaps tattooed onto said writer's forehead as well for good measure.
For the purposes of growing the franchise and keeping it relevant, this concept was a stroke of genius, and also perfectly filled a notable thematic hole in the setting to boot. You see, up until 2001 40k had always been missing a Space Opera faction in its lineup. Not a Skulls and Candles gothiced up Space Opera faction like the Imperium, no I'm talking a real Space Opera faction - no skulls, no candles, no hoods or ominous latin, no religious dogma, just good old fashioned Enlightenment ideals and good honest science and technology and innovation, populated by good honest explorers and scientists and artists and intellectuals all striving to solve problems with their heads (and the occasional death ray or nuclear missile or 10) rather than a chainsaw.
For the first decade or so of 40k's existence there wasn't anything like that - the Imperium and Space Marines in particular kind of skirted around the periphery of it in Rogue Trader but dropped any pretense of trying to appeal to it VERY quickly and the last vestiges of that were largely gone by the middle of 2nd Edition. And this is particularly painfully conspicuous because until 2001 40k had just about damn near every other flavour of science fiction civilisation in existence featured in some shape or form. Space Bugs? Check. Mad Max scavenger punks? Check. Crystal-powered science fantasy? Check. Cyberpunk? OK that one sort of slipped through a little as well but the Imperium still retained a lot of that long past Rogue Trader. Check.
Everything except an honest normal good ol' fashioned 20th Century Space Opera civilisation. The Tau filled that niche wonderfully, completing the full spectrum of Science Fiction Trope Deathmatch that is Warhammer 40,000.
"Now you see here, you no-good bleeding heart snot-nosed little Simp Cuck fake fanboi," I hear from the festering pit of hate that is the comment sections of the internet, "40k got on just fine without any of this honest wholesome Space Opera stuff for 20 odd years, and it can get on just fine without it now!"
Well Mr (or Ms, but with language like the above who are we kidding here) 2nd edition worshipping Dankhammer Keyboard Warrior, that brings me to the second aspect of the genius behind the design and inclusion of the Tau.
See, 40k fans like to talk about themselves as the centre of the pop culture universe, or at least the science fiction pop culture universe, but the bitter truth is even within that very specific niche of a niche we're a minority (a vocal minority at times, but a minority nonetheless). There are a lot more Star Trek and Star Wars fans than there are 40k ones, for example, and I'd wager there are probably more Starcraft fans than 40k ones as well. And that, in no small part, is because the bitter truth is that 40k is pretty niche even by science fiction standards. Let's be honest here, it takes a very specific mindset to fully get into the groove of a lot of 40k, to fully appreciate the concept of fantasy Orcs with guns and spaceships or gothic lovecraftian chainsaw insanity, and a lot of people just don't get it. I know this because I've learnt it the hard way in my ill-fated attempts to get people interested in the tabletop games I enjoy, where I have had a precisely 0% success rate and a precisely 100% incidence of confused but well-meaning smiles and nods and "Oh yes that's... very interesting."
The bitter truth is, in the grand scheme of things most people, even most sci-fi enthusiasts, just aren't that interested in playing games as skull-encrusted medieval lunatics with chainsaws in space cathedrals. And that gets even more apparent when you step into the vast endless abyss of people who aren't major consumers of science fiction.
Enter then, the Tau. A 40k faction for the normal sci-fi fan, a 40k faction for the normal tabletop gamer, nay, a 40k faction for the normal pop-culture consumer given the leaps and bounds science fiction has made in breaking through to the mainstream. By existing in the 40k setting as this nice good-natured progressive Space Opera faction, the Tau provide a gateway into the 40k franchise for a whole range of people who could be interested in science fiction tabletop games, but are put off by the other 40k game factions. And this is a very good thing for two reasons:
1) It means more customers, thus growing the business and getting the game company (GW here) more money.
2) It means more people playing Warhammer 40,000, thus growing the player-base and making it easier to find gaming opponents and connect with people over this tabletop thing.
The technical scientific term for this situation, used by leading experts and Industry Veterans alike, is a Win-Win.
And there's concrete evidence for this working. You're reading it right now. The truth is, if the Tau hadn't been created there is no question that I would have given 40k a hard pass, never gotten into it, and by extension probably never have gotten into Tabletop gaming at all. Somewhere out there is a Millitant in a parallel dimension where the Tau were never created, writing comfortably about the sad state of computer gaming from his tricked out custom PC rig created from parts purchased with all the money he never spent on tabletop games. Either that or he plays electric guitar and writes about that. Or he works on cars or motorcycles or something I guess. Point is, in that parallel dimension where the Tau were never created for Warhammer 40,000, the Millitant that inhabits it does NOT have anything to do with tabletop games.
I am exactly one of those people who the Tau were aimed at, and it worked like a charm. And where there's one case of that, it's almost certain there's more.
But it's not just about real world Doylist considerations. The Tau as a bright happy genuinely noble and altruistic good guy force enriches the wider Warhammer 40,000 setting enormously as well. Right off the bat they act as a moral counterweight to the rest of the setting, a kind of safety valve for avoiding burnout from Darkness-induced apathy, because even if you are into it Grimdark gets exhausting after a certain point. It is a horrible irony that all to often I see comments online about people clamouring for something lighter in 40k for a break in the grim darkness, despite the Tau being RIGHT THERE.
It goes deeper than that though, because the presence of the Tau as genuine legit good guys also enhances the grim darkness of everything else. Part of this is the juxtaposition between the Tau and everyone else - after all you can't really have darkness without light to contrast it against. But it's more than that, because the very existence of the Tau as these good guys also has extremely grimdark implications for everyone else's actions. Because their presence proves that classic good guys can thrive in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, it takes everyone else's horrible actions from being born out of simple necessity to deliberate, purposeful choices driven by character flaws - in other words, classic tragedy.
Think about it. how much more grimdark is it that, after uncounted thousands of years of unrelenting horror and bloodshed, when the powers of the galaxy are, at long last, finally presented with a genuine legitimate bona fide way out of this nightmare, their reaction is to ignore it and continue on with their unending bloodbath, possibly going so far as to try and stamp out this way out if the opportunity arises - all because they're too cowardly to take it, or too greedy, or too prideful, or too stubborn, or because it would mean they can no longer reap the benefits of the utterly broken systems that are the status quo, or even just because they're simply too institutionalised to the suffering; that after 40,000 years and countless generations of unending slaughter they're just no longer capable of adjusting to or even comprehending a reality that isn't drowning in horror and death. After all:
"It is not the Horror of War that troubles me, but the Unseen Horrors of Peace."
So much more Grimdark and interesting than "herp derp they have sterilisation camps after all" (We'll be back for you later).
But themes and concepts alone don't comprise a tabletop faction. Being a tabletop miniatures game made by a tabletop model company, the Tau needed a strong coherent visual style to produce a range of fantastic looking models so that lots of people would buy them. The GW studio designers more than delivered, creating a range of beautiful models with a completely unique aesthetic design. Even so, all art is a process of evolution, with all artistic creations inheriting from the influences that first inspired them. The Tau are no exception, and there is one source of inspiration behind the Tau style that shines through more than any other, a source material whose fingerprints are unmistakable and clear for all to see on the design style of the models and even the thematic tone of Tau lore.
There can be only one classic pillar of science fiction to which I am referring to, a unique and easily recognisable visual art form from an Island Nation, a visual art form that is beloved across the world and renowned for its bold striking style and dynamic futurism. I am, of course, referring to...
|The genesis of the Tau. 1960s, Colourised|
|The anti-gravity zeppelin my childhood was built on|
|The Tau aircraft diorama my Warhammer 40,000 is built on.|
"[The Tau Battlesuits] had obvious Manga influence, but we tried to steer away from any one inspirational source, gleaning our ideas from a wider range."
"The Fire Warrior armour was suggested by Japanese Ashigaru foot soldiers, but we only wanted a subtle influence to come through."
"It had been agreed that the Tau were to be a high tech race, and, with this in mind, I tapped into a wide variety of science fiction elements to come up with my first concept sketch. This was the basic premise behind what was eventually to become the Battlesuit."
"Although the initial sketches bear some resemblance to the final product, the Tau were born from an amalgamation of ideas that worked off each other to produce the final range."
"One of the best aspects of designing the Tau force was that we were all working on pieces at the same time. This resulted in a wide range of individual's ideas which all pulled together."