So, you might have noticed the distinct lack of tabletop content on here of late. Much of this has admittedly been down to limited time and a much needed break, but it's wrong to deprive an audience of content for too long. As such, we have what will hopefully be the first of several tacticas examining Battlefleet Gothic's factions. Why Gothic? Two reasons: The first being that reviewing the old core rules reignited a personal passion for the game, and any excuse to talk about it is a great one. The second is, let's face it, the review rushed through things, giving the bare basics of each one. While it might have showed how broad a series of races were on offer, it wasn't a fair presentation of just how wildly unique each one was from their foes.
So, given how often we brought up the eldar as a key example in that review, the Eldar Corsairs seemed to be the natural starting point for such a series. Some of you might be thinking "Wait, Corsairs?" and, yes, Battlefleet Gothic did indeed have three seperate eldar factions. The Dark Eldar were introduced at a later date and their Craftworld cousins with all their brilliant dragonships were expanded upon with Yriel's inclusion, but the first of their kind on the scene were the pirate mobs. Admittedly, the likes of the Void Stalker, Eclipse Cruiser and even the venerable Hellebore Frigate have all shown up in service to craftworlds, but that's a subject for another time. For the moment, just accept that they are pirate elves. Psychic ninja pirate elves.
Much like their current tabletop incarnation, the eldar were a force which reigned supreme across the battlefield unless they were facing the cheesiest of fleets (Necrons, specifically). Unlike them however, they balanced this out by being the very definition of "hard to play, hard to master" as they lacked many of the crutches other factions could fall back upon. The versatility of the Imperials, durability and boarding actions of the orks, or even the sheer range and corruption of the traitor fleets are all absent here. You have your own benefits to be sure but it should be made absolutely clear - While you can certainly dish out all the damage you want, you cannot take it in return.
You see, rather than true physical shields or meters of armour, eldar vessels rely upon their sheer innate speed and holo-fields. This makes them hard to solidly target and means your ships will laugh at lance weapons and the like, but
The trick here really is to keep moving, to veer about and avoid conflict. Either you need to keep your ships at arm's length the entire time - a problem to be sure given their forwards mounted guns, but it can be done - or to effectively joust with ships. With the bigger cruisers, rushing in, hitting hard and then falling back will be your go-to option, forcing fleets to break up, separate and redirect their efforts rather than remaining in a coherent formation.
Working in unison with a multitude of ships a-la wolfpack tactics really is the only way to emerge victorious here, as just about anything else will get your fleet annihilated. Picking out certain ships at a time and disabling them as you fly rings about your foes is the best way to go. While this might sound obvious, the fact that eldar cruisers are woefully under-gunned compared to their contemporaries only serves to reinforce this fact. This is admittedly helped by the fact that you can get off all their shots compared with the limited number on other vessels, but it doesn't have as much of an impact as you might expect.
A big headache which will keep occurring at your end will be keeping your ships angled towards the nearest sun. Yes, you have to perform tacking. Tacking in space. While we'll go into greater detail in a minute, it can serve to seriously hamper your speed and maneuverability, as turning at the wrong angle at the wrong time can leave you bereft of power. Like so much here, once that happens, those ships caught dead in the water are pretty much as good as dead.
So, given how often this article keeps mentioning how easy it is for these ships to die, what do the eldar really have working in their favour? In short - Massive alpha damage.
For starters, eldar ships are infamous for soloing enemy cruisers in a single turn if the dice are with them. While most lance weapons are dangrous, they can only hit once and that's it. By comparison those on eldar vessels can track up multiple hits with a single shot, meaning they can royally rip a vessel a new one in a quick ambush. What's more, these guys have escorts (Hemlock Destroyers) outfitted with these things, and it's not unheard of for a trio in the right place to cripple enemy battleships.
Pulsar Lances aside, the eldar have the single best torpedoes in the entire game. Really, while they lack the tricks the Tau Empire would later pull, most foes only have the option of flying around them rather than tanking their hits. How so? Well, for starters, they're only shot down on sixes by defensive turrets, and the eldar player can re-roll to hit with these things. So, they're damn near unstoppable if fly into them and they tend to hit with the power of an Imperial Vortex Torpedo. Also, once again, escorts can fire off these things, meaning you can trap close-knit formations in a web of small scale torpedo spreads.
Just to further augment their long range damage, the eldar are also backed by some of the single best fighters in the entire game. Really, not only do they also re-roll their attacks, but you have the added bonus of some very maneuverable bombers, all of which can dance about enemy turrets with 4+ saves. Just to emphasise how meaningful this is - The Tau Empire's flying Titans, the Manta Missile Destroyers, are the only other squadron units in the game granted that same save.
Ultimately, as you can see, using an eldar fleet is akin to wielding a rapier. You need to keep making swipes, slight deflections and feints before pushing in only with as much strength as you require, then withdrawing. Try to wield it like a broadsword and it will just snap in half.
Sailing the Stars - Eldar Engines
Above all else, the mechanics behind the eldar solar sails are what makes them such a difficult fleet to use. While certainly necessary to prevent them utterly steamrolling just about any damn fleet they run into, most players will likely end up being reamed time and time again until they really get to grips with the limitations of their engines.
As mentioned in the preceding section, the entire fleet needs to angle itself towards the nearest sun and maneuver about its rays. To quote the rulebook's exact explanation:
"Before an Eldar ship moves, it may turn to face any direction. It always turns before it moves and then remains facing in that direction until the start of its next move.
Work out the speed an Eldar ship can come at after it has turned. Its speed depends on its facing towards the sunward table edge. All Eldar ships have three speeds (for example 10/20/30). The first is used it the sunward table edge is in the Eldars ship's front fire arc; the second is used it the sunward table edge is in the rear fire arc; and the third is used it the sunward table edge is in its left or right fire arc. If the sunward table edge lies on the line between two fire arcs, the Eldar player may choose which he uses"
On the one hand, this does mean that an eldar vessel can pull a full 180 turn on the spot, but on the other it leaves them entirely at the mercy of a set direction and mechanic. Just as a smart eldar play will work to corner enemy vessels and split them off from the main force, an intelligent opposing player can use this mechanic to do the same. By forcing an eldar ship to move in an undesirable direction or against the sun, they can isolate them and hit them with enough batteries to overcome the holo-fields, nailing them. It's certainly not all bad of course, the fact that the eldar can instantly switch their flight path front turn to turn and even reach speeds usually reserved for fighters at full speed certainly has its benefits. It's just that you need to learn how to use those aspects to your benefit without falling into a trap.
The Capital Ships
This is going to be a very brief look into the core capital ships. Why just the capital ships? Simple: The frigates and destroyers are mostly one trick ponies or varied enough that they can be fitted into a variety of roles. They're solid in their own right, fragile to be sure, and hard hitting, with some variation such as having torpedo launchers despite a lower number of batteries or being armed with nothing but a lance. What's more, the escorts always need a solid backbone in the form of a few good capital ships to work off of. Even if you want to take nothing but wave upon wave of Nightshade Destroyers, you're going to need one good cruiser to make the killing blow.
Void Stalker Battleship
Welcome to the single best battleship in the entire game. No, really, short of the unique hero vessels and arguably the Battle Barge, this thing murders everything in sight. For starters, while it's certainly fragile for a battleship it can still take a few solid hits (ten to be exact) and keep dishing them out. While it's certainly not all that fast (with a speed of 10/20/25) it has more than enough firepower to make up for that, and the innate eldar maneuverability to swing about on a dime.
So, what about the armaments? Alongside a fairly powerful keel weapons battery, its twin lance weapons can punch through most smaller vessels in a lucky salvo, with each capable of covering its left and right flanks as well as the prow respectively. This makes it a dangerous vessel to take head on, and that's only further enhanced thanks to the fact it's not a battleship, but a battle carrier. Yeah, those infamous attack craft we mentioned? The Void Stalker can launch four full squadrons of fighters or bombers, which is a payload that exceeds nearly all vessels of its size. Oh and even if you're somehow opposed to that, you can roll in with keel mounted Strength 4 torpedoes.
Between these elements, you're left with a relatively fast, durable and extremely heavily armed flagship capable of launching long range attacks; then moving in at speeds usually reserved for ships half its size, and nailing their target with its heavy guns. This makes it an excellent platform and something of a useful bullet magnet among other roles, and the fact you can split-fire its best weapons allows you to rip the heart out of a fleet.
Perhaps most importantly though, the Void Stalker can effectively disengage from its target as needed. Most eldar vessels are ones you'll see fighting until they die thanks to the aforementioned fragility and critical table. Disengagement isn't really an option with them, and those that try will usually either be blown apart trying to flee or torn to bits at long range. In the Void Stalker's case, you can legitimately fly in, do a few good hits and then disengage once it takes too much punishment. At that point it will likely be left hiding at the far end of a board, launching torpedo or bomber attacks at long range, but the massive expense of fielding such a ship will be preserved.
Eclipse Class Cruiser
Despite the misleading name, this one is a carrier through and through, and at first glance it does seem to be woefully overpriced. Lacking much of the innate firepower most players would hope for in such a ship, its only guns are limited to a pair of lance weapons, However, it more than makes up for this thanks to four launch bays, capable of sending out swarms of bombers at a moment's notice. Naturally, given that these craft are often a linchpin in any eldar assault, just about any fleet worth its salt will field at least one of these ships.
Unlike most carriers, the Eclipse is neither slow, flimsy nor overly fragile when paired up with its contemporaries. This allows you to get in far closer to the fight than you would expect, but you'll still want to keep these back until the final moments of the battle, churning out wave upon wave of craft. Given the fact they're your only source of fighters, they're hardly the sort of ships you'll want to throw right into the thick of things, but if they are dragged into the fight you can usually fly or force your way out.
One of the most useful tricks you can pull with the Eclipse is their ability to deploy their forces at close range without drawing too much attention. You see, ordinance (torpedoes and bombers) are deployed during the shooting phase but you don't need to move them. During the ordinance phase itself you can move those attack craft, but also the Eclipse itself. This allows them to fly in, drop their full payload of bombers, and then fall back at a moment's notice, almost Crisis battlesuit style.
The only time you'll want these things firing their guns and moving into close range is while mopping up damaged enemy vessels. Sure, it might be under-gunned, but lances are excellent for delivering that final killing blow, and even initiate boarding actions/teleport assaults.
Shadow Class Cruiser
With the Eclipse being the carrier, the Shadow is the gunboat. and probably the most straight forwards ship of the entire fleet. It's basically a huge gun platform, the sort of thing you'd use as a spearhead to break open enemy formations; or to cause no end of problems for some of the flimsier craft you'd run into, or break open the bigger ones for lance weapons.
Its armaments are remarkably extensive, as it's outfitted with twelve batteries, all of which fire as you're closing in on a target. While they lack the same spread as other vessels, this is the sort of number you'd only ever expect to find on a battleship, making it perfect for culling chaff or just raining blows down on a vessel. This is further augmented by a set of torpedo launchers, which are excellent for scoring an early critical hit against a threatening capital ship or two.
You'll usually see Shadow class cruisers present in games where an eldar player is looking to be aggressive rather than dragging things out. There's little in the way of real subtlety or variety on offer here, and what you do get ultimately stems from the ships you team it up with to help bring down your foes rather than anything exclusively on offer here. It's useful for flank charges and forwards assaults, but you'll want to think carefully about when and how you throw this into a list.
Solaris Light Cruiser
This is the cheapest of the cruisers, and its designed to serve as a lighter, less expensive alternative to the Shadow without crossing over into frigate territory. Outfitted with eight forwards mounted batteries and moving at a somewhat faster speed than the Shadow, it's still useful for launching flank attacks and harassing foes, but you can't risk the more direct assaults. Each can only take four hits before they go down, and as such they tend to be best employed in pairs if not small groups. While a lone vessel won't be much of a threat, a pair working in unison can quickly wipe the floor with most other light cruisers or escort squadrons.
The fact the Solaris can outrun most enemy torpedo spreads and similar sized ships while retaining such heavy firepower means they're useful for distractions. Either they can serve as a source of constant discontent, drawing away forces and splitting up an enemy fleet, opening the way for a stronger strike on another front or launch one themselves. Speaking from personal experience, it's not uncommon for someone to misjudge these vessels and sent perhaps only a single cruiser to deal with them. You can probably guess how such battles end.
Finally, thanks to that same speed and firepower, they're a solid choice for catching and annihilating fleeing vessels. They're a solid option for causing all kinds of hell during an escort scenario, while playing an attacker obviously, and making last second responses when all else fails.
Aurora Light Cruiser
This is the other side of the same coin as the Solaris. Whereas that served as a lighter alternative to the heavier Shadow, this serves as a larger and far more powerful alternative to the Hellbore. Much like that frigate, the design of this vessel is intended to cover as many bases as possible, and produce a ship which can dish out severe punishment to larger vessels. While lacking the batteries the other offensive ships rely upon, it more than makes up for this with a large set of lance weapons and torpedo tubes.
It's a useful craft to be sure, as while it's fragile and can't take too many hits - much like the Solaris - its ordinance and lance weapons can rip ships a new one. Much like the Solaris, you'll want to use this one for flanking attacks or harassment to keep an enemy force split up, but you'll also want to hold them back. You see, they're kind of a one trick pony, likely to rush in, kill something important and then die if improperly timed. Having them hang back and make a few pot shots is usually enough to keep an enemy player on edge, and their speed is enough to get them in close to help any assault.
Again, much like the Solaris, you'll want to deploy these ones either in pairs or small groups.This will allow their combined torpedo launches to have that much more impact, but it will also leave them less vulnerable to counter-attacks by escorts.
While there are a few blind spots here, tactically the eldar offer a good mix of ideas, ships and weapons. As has been made clear over and over again, this is the hit and fade force, the lightning attack one, and while everything here does match that, the mix of cruisers and escorts is well balanced. While certain battles will certainly swing either in favour of crushing victories or outright defeats with very little middle-ground, that's hardly a failing unique to this fleet.
The need to hit hard while dodging enemy fire is always an interesting gaming aspect. However, taking them to such an extreme as here, and with the more unique engine mechanics and holofields does mean that it will stand out well from most forces. It has character as much as a reasonable variety of ships, and it's honestly one of the best examples of the eldar way of war in any game: Timing, skill and controlling multiple units to achieve a single kill. The problem is that, being mere mortals, most players are likely to die over and over again before they start to truly win if this is their firs fleet.
Because of the difficulty curve, the best way to really learn the fleet really is to use it. Unlike orks, Chaos or the Imperial Navy, you can only learn so much from reading it, and while this article is intended to offer a few pointers on the faction, it's one where you need to "feel" it as much as understand it. If you can pull that off though, you can expect to be damn near unstoppable against most forces so long as the dice are with you.