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are they essential to any DE army worth its salt?
how do they stack up to other war machines?
and are they worth the points and slots?
They're different to most warmachines, so it's very hard to compare. How good are they compared to a Cannon? It's impossible to tell, since they both do different things.
From what I've seen of them, they're great support units. If you can protect them well, they will serve you well. I've never really let any live long enough for me to find out how much damage they can do to my WEs.
I'd say take them or leave them. The shooting will be invaluable, but you'll survive without them. Learn to use them well, and they will work well. That's really how Artillery works.
It really is a good rule of thumb to pack one bolt thrower for every 1k points. Some players prefer other units to them, but they're really invaluable - they're great at whittling down blocks of infantry, and great at dealing with big nasty things. I'd definitely bring 2 along in a 2k army, but if you try and go for 3, well, that's a little cheesy.
My main problem with them (which I may have misinterpreted) is that they're direct fire, as opposed to catapults that are indirect, so you need a line of sight to your target. Consequently I tend to not use them as my own troops would obscure LOS to target.
I don't apply the rule of 1 RBT per 1k points. I field RBT when I fighting tough enemies like chaos, ogres or against brettonia. But I prefer the hydra on softer enemies.
that's why you tend to place them on hills, or on flanks. I don't tend to find my own troops block LOS too much.
A catapult has to have line of site to target a unit as well, it just may not hit that unit due to the scatter dice.
I too have faced the infamous "bolt thrower vs hydra" question. It goes without saying that a good DE army should have one or the other, if not both. At 1500 pts (or when only one rare choice is offered) I find a Hydra more effective. However, once you can take four or more bolt throwers their effect is multiplied considerable if you concentrate their fire on anything scary.
The advantage BTs have over other war machines is that they preform reliably and consistantly - and don't misfire. The Hydra offers survivability plus good combat prowess.
Really, its a matter of who your fighting as to which is prefable. Personally, I'm leaning towards four bolt throwers at 2K, and another two for ever 1k after that.
That said, you can make a decent DE army without BTs - provided you've got a hydra in there.
I like BTs for their low cost and reliability. That and I don't have a Hydra (yet). They can put the hurt on big ranked units and monsters or mess up skirmishers with mult-shot. You can also take 2 per Rare slot, so you can field them in smaller games if you wish.
I try to take one in 1000 points to fit ==My== raiding theme (along with Corsairs, Dark Riders, RxBs, and Shades) but I don't know if I'll take 2+ in 2k. That hydra is very tempting.
Check out ==My== blog: www.bnhblog.blogspot.com