Warhammer 40K is without a doubt the most popular tabletop strategic wargame today. Created by Games Workshop and first released in 1987, the world of Warhammer has grown into a monster. The franchise has burst through the confines of its miniature-based tabletop origins and has gone on to feature in books, comics, video games, and more.
Yet, regardless of the rise and fall of Warhammer’s popularity in other media, the folks who love the original game never seem to waver at the core of the fandom. Unfortunately, Warhammer has always been an intimidating scene to get into. It requires time, space, the ability to paint, and perusal of a rather dense set of rules that would make any real-world military tactician blanch.
The good news is that the game received a major overhaul in 2017, with a much more streamlined and refined rulebook. It’s still not exactly casual in nature, but it’s no more complicated than it needs to be. All over the world, for three decades now, people have found hours of joy in preparing for and playing W40K games. There has never been a better time to find out what all the fuss is about.
Where to Begin: Learn the Rules
Before even thinking about spending a dime on Warhammer 40K products, you should first familiarize yourself with the rules of the game. Luckily, you can do this for free. The “Battle Primer” for the latest 8th Edition of the game is available as a free PDF download from the official W40K Site.
Read through these rules carefully to understand how the game is played and whether it’s something that will interest you or not. It can seem pretty complicated at first, but the game is broken into repetitive phases that play out in a sequential fashion.
It’s Just a Phase
The game is broken up in “battle rounds”, with each round consisting of six phases. The first phase is the movement phase where you position your pieces on the terrain according to their legal movement abilities, which are listed on the data sheet.
Next comes the “psychic” phase, where units who have psychic powers (known as “psykers”) can put them into play. After the psychic phase comes the shooting phase. Here units that are in range and have line of sight on the enemy can shoot at them. A series of dice rolls and calculations determine which shots hit and how much damage they do.
Once the shooting phase has resolved, your units enter the “charge” phase. Here they can come into close combat range. This works because in the first movement phase there is a limit to how close you are allowed to get to enemy units.
With the charge phase resolved, units that are close enough will enter the fight phase. Now it’s melee weapons only and the real carnage happens.
With all the movement and fighting done with, the final phase of the game is called the “morale” phase. This is one of the neat features of Warhammer. All the damage a unit has taken is tallied and matched against the total leadership for that unit. If the leadership is inadequate there is a morale failure and some units may desert the battlefield. Battle rounds continue until victory is achieved.
While it’s not hard to learn the phases of the battle round, keep in mind that each phase is itself broken up into a smaller unique sequences of events, so there is another layer of depth to the game.
Tools of the Trade
In order to play W40K you’ll need a couple of things. Two tools you’ll be using all the time are a tape measure and dice. Distances between game pieces and elements is a key part of the game. Randomness is introduced with dice just as it is in games like Dungeons & Dragons. However, in W40K you only need common six-sided dice.
Apart from these commonplace tools you’ll need terrain for the soldiers to fight on as well as actual combat units. I’ll talk about these a little later.
The Importance of Data Sheets
A data sheet is basically a massive spreadsheet that contains a list of W40K units and all of their stats and information. You’ll need to refer to the data sheets for your units a lot during play, since you’ll have to use their stats and rules to determine what happens.
The data sheets are also where you get the information you need to put together a viable fighting force. You should really know the data sheets for the units you have in your army by heart. It just makes things faster in general.
The most basic form of a Warhammer game is, well, warfare. You have two armies fighting each other and the first one to be wiped out, or otherwise become incapable of fighting further, is the loser.
However, there is an infinite number of possible missions you and the other players can decide upon. The many Warhammer novels and all the lore that’s available are a main inspiration for the scenarios you might want to play through. You can also make up your own entirely new mission. The game encourages this and the rulebook even describes what to do when players can’t agree on whose mission should be followed. Unsurprisingly, this minor conflict is solved by rolling dice.
Apart from actually playing the game, one of the main parts of W40K is building your army. Some people hardly play at all; they basically just like the miniatures. In fact, there are people who like them so much that they’ll even assemble your army for a price. Doing it yourself is the most fun, however, and it’s not that hard (although I personally have such poor hand-eye coordination that painting plastic models hardly ever yields anything as nice as I imagined in the first place).
When you first get your models they won’t already be assembled. They’ll come in sprues the same way that model planes and such do. Games Workshop sells tools to help you neatly cut your models free from their sprues, and with practice you can do so while also removing most if not all of the mold lines.
Traditionally you’d have to glue the parts of each model together. This is still often the case, but lately a newer type of miniature has become popular. These “snapfit” models don’t have to be glued together after being liberated from their sprues. Instead, the parts just click together. This is obviously much easier, but not everyone likes the snafit approach. One major criticism I keep seeing is the inability to create new poses with snapfit models. When you are gluing you can customize their poses, but snapfit models only have the preordained pose.
Either way, once the models are physically complete it’s time to paint them. This is the most time-consuming but also the most rewarding part of the process. In order to make things as easy as possible, Games Workshop has created the Citadel Paint Guide.
This is a complete guide to painting those jaw-dropping miniatures you always see at tabletop gaming conventions. You have to be very patient and follow all the steps to get a quality final product, but if you put in the time and effort you’ll have a badass army that would make anyone envious.
You can buy absolutely everything you need from Games Workshop, and they now also have a mobile app that’s filled with valuable information on painting your miniatures.
While you can set up a battle between any two armies, there are several canonical factions within W40K to choose from. They aren’t just the same units with different looks. The various factions have their own unique identities.
The Imperium is a massive civilization that is at least ten thousand years old. Shaped by surviving almost constant warfare, it is a formidable but harsh society. Within the ranks of Imperium warriors you’ll find the famous Space Marines, which are probably the most iconic soldiers in W40K. There are also the Blood Angels, Imperial Knights, Dark Angels, Space Wolves, Astra Militarum, and more. This faction serves the Machine God and is probably the most advanced, technologically.
The forces of Chaos, on the other hand, serve the Chaos Gods. Hailing from or influenced by the dark dimension of the Warp, this faction is as close to hell as you’ll get in W40K. Here you’ll find terrifying Chaos Daemons, turncoat Chaos Space Marines, and the Lovecraftian Death Guard that serves the plague god Nurgle.
Finally, we have the Xenos. These are the non-human beings that live among the stars. The most famous of these are the Orks, a sci-fi take on Tolkien-type Orcs. However, there are plenty of interesting alien races to play. These include the Tyranids, Tau Empire, Dark Eldar, and more.
Each side of the conflict provides unique strengths and weaknesses. This means you have to consider what style of play you prefer when deciding where to spend your money. Of course, nothing stops you from having multiple armies, other than the size of your bank account.
So where do you actually start? The easiest place to get going is with something known as a “starter set”. There are also boxed sets that will quickly and easily help you start or expand your army. For example, the “Know No Fear” starter set comes with 31 Spare Marine and Death Guard miniatures. Apart from this, the set has everything you need to get started. There’s a playmat, a rulebook, rulers, and dice.
This set doesn’t include any painting stuff, but then you don’t technically need to paint these little guys to learn the game or start playing. If you include the paint and tools you need with your initial purchase, you could officially enter the world of W40K for less than a hundred bucks. Sure, over time the total amount you might spend can be significant, but if you look at how many hours of rewarding entertainment you get, on a per-dollar basis it’s actually pretty cheap to be a W40K fan. So what are you waiting for? Get a starter pack and prepare for war, er, hammer.