Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Damocles: Kauyon Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 War Zone Review, 7th Edition)

Of all the books released of late, few have been shilled to the same degree as Kauyon. Presented as the next big thing, there have been multiple e-mails, countless advertisements and promotions at every turn. Games Workshop have been hyping this release to high heaven, to the point of even outright stating that those looking to grab Codex: Tau Empire might want to look into this one instead. It's a bold move to be sure and, after the mixed successes of prior works, one some have been approaching with some considerable caution. However, what opened up some to this latest release is a very even focus spread between the lore and the rules. The larger of the two books in this combo package is dedicated to the story segment of the campaign, outlining how the major conflict evolved. This something Games Workshop is obviously proud of and, in all honesty, after reading this it's not hard to see why. 

The story follows the latest ongoing conflict between the Tau Empire and Imperium of Man. Gathering her forces, Commander Shadowsun has made a push for the ancient Fortress World of Perfectia, seeing it as a linchpin which could fuel further invasions into human space. She seeks to use the world's vast resources and geo-electric pits to feed her expedition, and it falls to the forces of the White Scars and Raven Guard to stop her. 

It's a fairly straight forwards tale of course, but in fairness the same could be said of the Imperial Armour books. The strength there came from the detail involved, how the conflict evolved and the skill at covering the ongoing campaign; and those same traits have been carried over to here. Unlike the codex, lore has not been pushed aside in favour of filler, and the authors went the extra mile to craft an engaging, ongoing narrative.

Kauyon's very introduction offers far more substance and continuity than found in almost any other book recently published by Games Workshop. Rather than simply trying to re-write an entire event or take elements from a Black Library novel, it instead ties into the events from the Damocles anthology. Recounting the events of the main Second Damocles Gulf Crusade, and to a lesser degree the longer wars between both sides, it builds the image of a major ongoing conflict. What we have here is just a small part of that, a key battlefield but by no means the beginning nor the end of this war, just the latest development. 
This is important for two reasons: 

Firstly, this means the book is providing context and shows the writers were taking their time. There was no rush to get to get everything out of the way, or limiting the story to just a few mentions of past books. It goes into full detail so everyone is up to speed, establishing that the characters involved are old foes with grudges, making this a more personal war than many would expect. 

Secondly, by focusing upon one new battlefield it means the book isn't overburdened by some massive story arc. it doesn't try to cram in a universe staggering event into too few pages, and as such the campaign is allowed to naturally develop without it feeling forced. More importantly, unlike Warzone: Damnos, it isn't wasting time repeating things everyone knows either. It just takes advantage of the publications on hand, gives a relatively detailed synopsis of the prior wars, then leaves the option open for anyone interested to read up further. It's a rare case of continuity and building into Black Library's stories done right.

Speaking of the disastrously bad Damnos, rather than shilling one side Kauyon provides one of the few examples of genuinely balanced warfare in recent years. There's no favourtism on hand, and despite it featuring two popular chapters, the space marines themselves are not coddled. They make mistakes, take casualties and fight a truly savage uphill battle. Oh, don't get this wrong, they still fight hard and make the Empire bleed in every battle they fight; at the same time they're never glorified to the point of being totally unstoppable or pimp-slapping their way through the Fire Caste.

The war's opening strikes make it clear that the Empire are not going to go down easily. Rapidly taking down the Fortress World itself, the book actually takes time to show how their tactics and technology are rapidly evolving. This is done by cutting back to Shadowsun herself as often as each major battle, detailing how she has learned from past mistakes and experiences, and how to turn an enemy's strengths against them. In the book we see the Fire Caste taking advantage of human static defences and their shortcomings, but then replicating and perfecting such an approach to their way of war. This leads to a truly brutal defeat on the White Scars part in the opening hours of the battle; upon seeing tau Tidewall entrenchments they attempt to employ their standard siege tactics, only for it to backfire on them spectacularly.

Truth be told, most of the "new developments" are present to help push new models, less Breacher squads than the bigger, nastier stuff which will cost a lot more cash. Most times they are deployed, they're shown striking the Imperial force a dire blow or wrecking havoc among their troops, but the odd thing is that this actually works well. All too often we'll see some new unit or another being presented as utterly unstoppable, capable of single-handledly routing an entire enemy force. This isn't the case here, and quite often they're utilised only in very direct strikes, against the foes you'd expect them to counter. Against other troops or a smarter commander, they tend to falter or fail. So, for example, the Tidewall defenses deployed against the White Scars work for a time, but the Khan eventually overcomes them and breaks free of the trap.

The fact that the newer, shiner toys aren't presented as utterly invulnerable in is a point worthy of praise, but it's the why they're handled which is worthy of note. It's never any newer model taking them down on the Imperial side, with them going down to everything from Tactical marines to Knights. As such, it helps keep that nagging feeling the book is trying to just sell you on models at bay, even when it's trying to promote them as hard as it can. This is further assisted by the fact that several major pushes by the Tau Empire are accomplished by other units, older ones as well. It would have been an easy thing to just have the Ghostkeel win every single engagement, but instead you have Razorsharks, Crisis suits, Broadsides all blasting the living hell out of everything in slight. The book offers them victories, but they're treated in the best way possible: A new addition to an already great army, not the instant win nuclear option.

The way the war is told covers multiple fronts, another major bonus. While largely limited to a major complex on the surface, the Tau Empire is fighting a war on multiple fronts, and the story cuts back and forth between running battles. The nature of each faction on hand makes this quite a unique war, with none of those present favouring direct ways of war or being limited to a single location. As such, it bounces back and forth between major characters and events, treating them as much like sub-plots as ongoing battles within the war to retake the world. Being carefully handled, this allows the authors to treat this as a kind of semi-novel, with drama surrounding the heroes evolving as naturally as the moves in this war. 

You see, while long-time readers might have see the Supplement reviews railing about those books focusing upon telling a story, that was only due to two things. Firstly, they were often done badly. Secondly, they were supposed to be building up and informing the player of an army, not trying to turn themselves into mini-novels. Here however, much like the Imperial Armour books, there's more leeway to tell that story as it's set around a single event. You have an ongoing narrative, a short span of time, a beginning and an end, but also several ways to work character moments or background elements into the tale. So, for example, when the chapters and cadres are introduced, their mentions and structures feel natural as a secondary element. However, as it is an ongoing battlefield, it also means that there's more of an excuse to focus upon single central characters. It's the tactics, planning and direction of the commanders which are directing the narrative after all, and the book goes great lengths to brilliantly handle the enmity between each side.

On the subject of the commanders, props definitely need to be given to the presentation of Shadowsun. Normally this wouldn't need to be singled out, but this is in all honesty the first truly good depiction the character has had since her conception. Rather than the weakened moron found in The Last of Kiru's Line or the undisciplined near-xenocital maniac in Guy Haley's books, Shadowsun here is in her element. She's presented as harsh, patient, logical and a careful master of her way of war. While occasionally spurred into action or rash judgement, this is often down to a personal character flaw, effectively her pride in following the Empire. It never pushes her to some of the lengths seen in other books, but it means that she is willing to directly put herself in harm's way for a propaganda boosting victory and is reluctant to use weapons which question their superiority. It's extremely well done, and worthy of mention as - if the writers had stuck to Black Library's depictions - she would have been eclipsed by Khan and Shrike.

Both the White Scars and Raven Guard commanders get their own moments of development here, either on a personal or more prominent level. Shrike in particular undergoes a rather unexpected portion, one which is sure to be controversial among the fandom, but the book gets their dynamic right for a change. There's a degree of rivalry between the chapters, even more than a few harsh disagreements, but they're hardly at one another's throats or utterly unable to co-operate. Better yet, rather than just telling the reader this, it's shown. There are brief story segments, treated like extracts from a novel, where we see the characters on a personal level. They're used sparingly, but remain just present enough to add some emotion to this piece.

There are also a few better elements atop of this which seem to have finally dealt with some long-term criticisms when it comes to the tau or recent rulebooks. For starters, while some artwork is reused from past editions, it's augmented with a vast gallery of new art for each army. In this you can find image after image of the tau, astartes and others fighting across the cities, each a delight to behold. It's a definite improvement over some past works, and shows there has been some serious effort to avoid old mistakes like Codex: Iyanden's painfully photoshopped artworks. Another notable factor is that the writers seem to have reversed their stance upon the tau having quite literally no understanding of the Warp. Here we instead have them being aware of "mind science" but unable to fully come to terms with it just yet. It's not a massive improvement but it's a step in the right direction, and Kauyon is filled with these small but important fixes to ongoing problems.

So, this has been going on for a while now, and it's all positive. As you might have guessed though, this is a work which is far from perfect in many areas.

The most prominent problem is, to be blunt, the victory of the Tau Empire. Oh, not that the Empire wins, that's entirely fine, but it seems to take far too many tips from the Taros Campaign when it comes to the main story. In effect, the story skips any early details and starts with the Fire Caste quickly taking the world with almost no fight. The astartes respond, but the Empire is ready for them. What follows is a bloody fight, with good showings from both sides, but the outcome is never in question. The book is visibly slanted towards the Empire and there's no point where they seem to be losing. Every major section of the book where the Empire starts to fail immediately has things turn around at the last second, only for it to conclude with them winning again. After a point it ceases to be impressive and just leaves the reader going "oh come the hell on, really!?" as the Tau Empire pulls another victory out of its bright blue sphincter.

Matters are only made worse when, to again bring up Taros, the Imperials seem to have their hands tied behind their back. Even following on from a major victory against Shadowsun, one only won thanks to uniting as a single force, the Imperium effectively attacks them in a piecemeal assault. The groups are so broken up, so divided, that it seems all too easy for the Tau Empire to start winning, and it doesn't help that the Imperial Guard Astra Militarum Imperial Guard are treated as a non-entity. Oh they are mentioned a few times, but they're treated as being no threat to the Fire Caste in any way, or even registered as existing for most of the campaign. They're not the only ones either. The Imperial fleet performs no supporting action for almost the entire war and despite the book noting there are forces from at least ten chapters involved, they seem to be passes over with the writers forgetting about them after a while. The book tries to justify this limited focus with the Raven Guard's secretive nature, but even that only works if you have them ignoring all the lessons they learned in the past few engagements of this storyline.

Because of these problems, it can be infuriating for Imperial fans because they're losing, but it can seem as if they're being denied a fair fight. Even then that might have been reasonable, this world was created to effectively be a trap after all. However, the reader is expected to believe that Shadowsun has gained the knowledge to combat a dozen very different chapters at once, just from a couple of battles. Combine this with Imperial losses being wildly exaggerated (to the point of hundreds of space marines dying in the opening hours, and two prominent named characters meeting their ends without the same ever being inflicted upon the Fire Caste) and the battle can seem woefully one sided.

Kauyon also seems to be mimicking many of the selling points of the Imperial Armour books. It replicates elements of their overall style, narrative structure and how the story unfolds. Despite this however, it never failed to feel like a true adaptation, simply a lighter alternative to those tomes. For starters, while the story is well handled, it never takes the time to seriously detail the finer points which made those books so fascinating. There's never much time spent upon Prefectia's history, nature or role within the Imperium, nor the sort of general statistics which can make the world so immersive. To be blunt, despite an interesting concept, it never manages to make the world truly mean anything beyond just another battlefield. The same goes, to a degree, to the armies, which are covered in brief. This would have been a prime time to truly flesh out the histories or traditions of the hunter cadres involved. Instead we're unfortunately treated to a version which skims over this stuff in favour of what units they have brought to the battle.

As a final point, and a serious problem in some cases. Kauyon can be extremely inconsistent and prone to some very odd moments of stupidity. For example, read this particular passage about why the Tau Empire targeted this world:

"Around the star Dovaris orbited the Gilded Worlds, a system impossibly rich in previous metal. Yet mountains of platinum and gold are as meaningless to the Greater Good as notions of individual wealth. The only resources precious to the tau are those that can be turned to their empire's expansion - such as energy resources that can drive the ever-evolving technology of their fleets."

Even if you accept that they don't want platinum, gold is such an insanely useful resource in so many electronic components that it's baffling the tau would ignore it. Sure, there's suspension of disbelief, but unlike the necrons, eldar or hrud, their technology is not so far removed that it would be of no use to them.

Other similar issues arise when it comes to the battles themselves. We've already mentioned how the book seems to think that astartes would die in their hundreds, sometimes treating them merely as power armoured guardsmen. However, compounding this problem you then have some incredibly contradictory moments like the tau Admiral, Skychild, being noted to value his the life of every pilot under his command. So, when he notes the Raven Guard are successfully shooting patrols out of the sky, what's his response? Mourn the deaths of those lost, and then promptly bum rush their position with every fighter he has, in the hopes they can't take them all down. Sorry, but these moments have to be seen to be believed sometimes.

Well, despite the multitude of problems within its pages, it might surprise you to know that Kauyon is still a great book. It honestly holds up exceptionally well for the most part, and the main point which can be truly held against it is the unfortunate biases of the writing. Oh it's painful at times, but it's never so insanely bad that it erases all enjoyment from the work. A big part of why the Imperial defeat here didn't seem truly insulting is thanks to the book making it very clear this isn't the end. Unlike Taros, they're not just abandoning the world, instead the Imperium is already moving to strike against a major tau planet with more reinforcements than the Fire Caste could ever predict existed. This isn't some endgame or final conflict, it's the Imperium's Battle of the Somme; bloody, ferocious and costly, but ultimately another engagement in an unending war.

If you're a fan of the Tau Empire or Warhammer 40,000 as a whole, Kauyon's lore is strongly recommended. Be mindful of its problems, but if you can appreciate a good story and giving the Tau Empire a moment to truly shine, this is well worth your time. If you're a fan of the Imperium though, you might want to be hesitant before picking this one up.

So, that's the storytelling covered for this volume. Click here if you want a few thoughts on the rules.


  1. Well I'll definitely be picking this one up, but I know that I'll definitely be bothered by the writer bias you mention. Who knows, maybe the writers based how Marines are in the lore off of their current gameplay given how easy it seems to be to cut through Ceramite nowadays (and at least with the Tau you can always claim they've found ways of overcoming it).

    I'm also having a bit of a hard time reading why they attacked the world, maybe it's clearer beyond that paragraph, but they attacked a world rich in metals, because they only cared about energy resources? I don't quite follow that logic.

    I guess too the Imperial Guard always seemed like far more fitting opponents for the Tau rather than the Marines, and something I've noticed is that of late the Tau are always depicted as being just as effective against the Marines as they are the Imperial Guard, though I guess I'll just chalk that up to the writing needing them to be, otherwise we'd be back in 3rd/4th edition where the Empire really was a small fraction that could be relatively easily wiped out by pretty much everyone except the Orks if you compared them to the other factions.

    Maybe you can answer this for me because I've never understood why the Imperium hasn't declared Exterminatus on Tau homeworlds. I can certainly understand why they want to retake what they've lost but not why they'd choose not to destroy a world that was never theirs and has only had Xenos on it, especially when you compare it to the other factions: They cannot attack Dark Eldar directly, the Eldar do not have planets, they cannot usually go after Chaos Space Marines directly and when they go after Necron Tomb Worlds that have only had Necrons on them they do declare Exterminatus because it's pointless to engage in ground warfare and the planet has nothing to offer them (or anything they'd be interested in).

    Unlike quite a few Necron Tombworlds (which can do things like hide themselves or move around) they also know where the Tau are, and given that the Tau have no way of stopping them from arriving it seems to me it would be relatively easy to destroy a large portion of the Empire without that much effort if anybody was able to get around to it.

    1. They are using them as meatshields against the tyranids. While the Tau are a threat they are still nothing more than a shield against nids. In addition the large majority of the Tau threat is negligible they dont have warp travel so they arent really a large concern

    2. A theory which might work were it not for the multiple flaws in that concept. The first being that the Imperium first response to this was to launch another crusade to try and wipe out the Tau Empire, meaning they obviously don't consider them to be a meat shield. The second being that the main tyranid force is either attacking from below the galactic plain or almost any direction save for where the Tau Empire is situated, meaning they are in entirely the wrong location. Finally, because every other source material save for the last codex and this book firmly established they do in fact have Warp travel, making this another rather stupid retcon when it comes to the faction.

  2. Slight tangent here but I just noticed something when I got the book, how exactly is Shadowsun attacking that Raven Guard? The sparks are coming from the middle, both her legs are off to the side, and so are her hands and guns. From how it looks, it looks like she's landed on him and knocked him over using her crotch plate, kinda like that infamous Rob Liefeld panel.