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How to play Warhammer 40,000 - and what to buy first

It’s more than just Space Marines.

Warhammer 40,000 is fundamentally all about war. War all the time. War on an unknown scale. Its tagline is “In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war,” which is very economic scene-setting: you engage with the game and its rich fiction by enacting miniature war on your tabletop. And it’s a whole lot of fun.

If you have managed to avoid its numerous video game adaptations, or its ubiquity in the tabletop miniatures scene for more than three decades, Warhammer 40,000 is Games Workshop’s flagship tabletop wargame and the sibling to the fantasy-flavoured Warhammer: Age of Sigmar.

Designed and manufactured in the UK, it has a different feel to many other tabletop games as it is steeped in over 30 years of fiction and world-building. It provides players and hobbyists alike a rich seam of fiction to draw on in order to build, paint and play with peerless models.

How do you play Warhammer 40,000?

Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop wargame that sees you playing battles on a tabletop, ideally with miniatures that you have built and painted yourself.

Currently in its eighth edition, it is a much more streamlined game than it used to be, built around playing relatively fast objective-based matches which involve rolling a whole lot of dice, measuring distances and using your faction’s unique rules to enact synergies and tactics to best your opponent.

You’ll face off against an opponent with a force which could be a couple of units or a sprawling army. In a given turn you will pick units to move, use psychic powers, shoot from your gunline and finally charge, and attack. You’ll use rulers and dice to measure distances and successes. In each game you’ll have a limited pool of command points with which to enact game-changing Stratagems to boost the effectiveness of your units at key times.

Sisters of Battle Codex cover Warhammer 40K miniatures game

Though many will argue that Warhammer 40,000 comes alive as a competitive game, Games Workshop attempts to support both Open and Narrative play - though in my experience the sweet spot exists somewhere between competitive and Narrative and finding good people to play against who match your enthusiasm and expectations is a must.

Open is as it suggests: an opportunity to put anything on the table, dropping and adding rules as you and your opponent see fit. Narrative acts as a blend of both of these, but focuses on quasi-historical battles based on the fiction,forgoing balance for the cinematic bombast of doomed sieges and exhilarating infiltrations. Games Workshop analyses and refreshes its points for matched play every year with a supplement known as Chapter Approved, which also tweaks rules for various armies.

What are the Warhammer 40,000 factions?

As we’ve said, Warhammer 40,0000 is about war. In a huge galaxy teeming with a surplus of life, war grinds all to dust. Its Ur image is the skull - an abundance of ivory craniums being crushed under boots, treads or nefarious alien limbs.

On the tabletop, and in the fiction, the forces at work are largely split into three sides: the Imperium, the forces of Chaos and the remaining Xenos factions.

The Imperium

The Imperium represents humanity, twisted and broken, a lumbering theocratic fascist empire shattered by betrayal. Most of mankind worships the Emperor - a superhuman being that once unified the human race in a grand crusade to the stars, commanding multiple legions of loyal Space Marines: towering genetic supersoldiers bred only for war.

Space Marines are the quintessential 40K faction: towering soldiers in powered armour who adorn themselves in quasi-religious symbology. They come in various flavours, from the vaguely Greco-Roman Ultramarines to the more esoteric Blood Angels and Space Wolves, blood-drunk pretty-boy space vampires and drunken, brawling werewolf vikings respectively.

Supporting the Space Marines are the Astra Millitarum. Endless regiments of guardsmen and legions of tanks and warplanes rain down enormous volumes of firepower against the enemies of the Imperium - they are a faction of immense quantity rather than quality.

Mars, now a giant munitions factory, is ruled over by the Adeptus Mechanicus. They worship the Cult of the Machine creating the most deadly warmachines of the Empire, using ancient near-forgotten blueprints they revere as holy texts.

Whilst Warhammer 40,000 in general struggles with diversity and female representation, one of the token rebuttals are the Sisters of Battle, an ecclesiarchical force of Battle Nuns who purge their enemies with faith, fury, and huge gouts of flame.

Chaos Knight Codex cover art Warhammer 40K miniatures game

The Forces of Chaos

In the Warhammer universe, both the fantasy Age of Sigmar and futuristic 40K, there exist the ruinous powers. Four gods brought into existence by the psychic tendencies of sentient races. They are Khorne: War and Bloodshed, Tzeentch: Change and Magic, Nurgle: Entropy and Decay, and Slaanesh: Perfection and Temptation.

In Warhammer 40,000, they exist within The Warp - a dimension that can be used for cross-space travel. Many in humanity worship these gods and are gifted horrendous powers and mutations in reward, allying themselves with the Traitor Legions - Space Marines who defected from the Imperium in the Horus Heresy - a schism formed between the various Space Marine chapters leading to a long drawn out war that broke the Imperium in half.

The Xenos

Though the endless conflict between The Imperium and Chaos takes up much of the narrative, the Warhammer 40,000 universe isn’t without its fair share of aliens, with Xenos forces adding some much needed colour to the setting.

Once a unified race, the Aeldari fell to decadence and birthed Slaanesh, tearing a gaping wound in space known as the Eye of Terror. They split into the Crafwotld Aeldari, those who maintain a tradition of asceticism by going to war only when it is necessarywith elegant warmachines made of living bone and frightening psychic powers, and The Drukhari: pirates who emerge from secret pathways throughout the warp in massed raiding parties, enslaving humans and aliens alike to torture in their hidden city of Commoragh. Finally, the secretive Harlqeuins are roving warriors that repeatedly act out the fall of their race in a ballet of violence.

Orkz (don’t forget the Z) show Warhammer 40,000 at its most loud and fun. A brawling mass of brutish warriors and madcap scientists enact mighty Waaaaghs, building crude weapons and warmachines that function through pure willpower alone, never happier than when they’re carrying enough dakka (firepower) to topple a whole army.

Based on HR Geiger’s xenomorphs in the Alien movies, Tyranids are a locust swarm, turning biomatter into fuel for their armies which float from planet to planet, blotting out the stars with their numbers. Their gestalt consciousness also manifests itself in the minds of many as a godlike entity, causing Genestealer Cults to be seeded in advance of the main fleet’s arrival, sowing chaos and disorder.

Third Eldar Codex Cover Warhammer 40K miniatures game

Long before the Aeldari fell, they battled the Necrons, a race who were tricked into sacrificing flesh for living metal bodies, resurfaced from ancient Tomb Worlds to reclaim the galaxy, their implacable advance bolstered by horrendous anit-matter weaponry.

Last but not least, the T’au Empire is positioned as the youngest and the most advanced faction in all of 40K, waging war with fleets of drones and high-powered battlesuits.

How expensive is Warhammer 40,000?

It’s no lie that it is an expensive hobby, but it can also be an incredibly fulfilling one. The sense of accomplishment you can get from making an army, painting it and fielding it on the tabletop is second to none. It’s very hard to overstate the feeling you can derive from building and painting a force. When I compare my own experience with Warhammer versus board gaming, I get a lot more out of my money with Warhammer, primarily because I spend a lot of fulfilling time painting - an important consideration to make.

The bare minimum you’ll need to play is the current Warhammer 40,000: Eighth Edition rulebook (£30), the codex rules (£30) for your chosen faction, and the miniatures and accessories needed to play on the table top. The current eighth edition is fairly good at representing small skirmishes all the way up to large battles, and it’s very easy to pick up one of Games Workshop’s generously-priced Start Collecting! boxes and have a fun, if perhaps imbalanced, time on the tabletop. One of these will set you back around £50 to £60, but will net you a HQ, a troop choice, and a big fun model such as a tank or walker.

40K has quite a flexible list-building system, supported by a cost system of either power level or more granular, balanced points. It’s relatively simple to grab a few kits and bash together a fun army, and I’d encourage people to get at least a HQ (around £12 to £25) and a few troop squads (£20 to 30 for ten models) and play a few games with power levels before adding more moving parts later. Don’t concern yourself with dropping hundreds on a fully-formed 2,000-point army (the competitive standard) and instead enjoy the slow growth of your force.

Tooth and Claw cover Warhammer 40K miniatures game

Currently the most cost-effective way to play is to get into Space Marines or the Death Guard as the current starter sets (priced from £20 to £90) are based around these two armies, perfect for splitting between two players. Space Marines also have the benefit of being the most well supported faction, with access to a large array of fun and thematic rules based on their fiction.

If getting into the full game of Warhammer 40,000 is daunting for you in any way, but you enjoy the fiction, there is also Kill Team: a more granular squad-based game that is playable with a rulebook (£25) and a single squad of troops. I’d advise getting the Arena set for new players as its board-based combat does a lot to alleviate the need for terrain which, whilst immersive and great to play with, can be inconvenient from both a cost and storage perspective.

The scope for building armies in 40K is much broader than in Age of Sigmar, and as such there are many valid ways to engage in the hobby. You can build a bunch of highly personalised Kill Teams of various factions, or you can go all in and try and create a sprawling detachment of one of your favourite canon armies. Either way, there are lots of exciting communities out there to get involved with, but it’s important to think long and hard about what you want from the hobby. For me, it’s a chance to get away from the constant focus on screens, and to work out a creative itch in a way that gives me a tangible result. Playing is entirely ancillary to me, and it may be the opposite for you. Take your time, and don’t buy in massively without doing your research. Relish the small steps too, remember that the small stops along the way are often just as important as the destination itself. It’s worth keeping in mind that at the end of the day, it is just a hobby - it’s there to improve your life, not consume it! You can leave that for the Tyranids.


Luke Shaw avatar

Luke Shaw

Contributor

Luke Shaw is an occasional writer whose work has featured on Vice, Waypoint, Kotaku and PCGamesN. All that time tiring his eyes out has caused him to expand to his hobbies into painting miniatures and playing tabletop games, which he’s now writing about too.