Space Marines, eh? Love ‘em or hate ‘em, if you’re aware of Games Workshop’s tabletop miniatures games, or the ever expanding universe of novels, video games and merchandise that surrounds them, you can’t get away from them. As the poster boys for Warhammer 40,000, GW’s most popular game, they’re almost as ubiquitous as the Warhammer brand itself.
All this means that there is a good chance that you’re already primed to have strong feelings about the (take a deep breath) Warhammer: The Horus Heresy - Age of Darkness boxed set due for release on June 18th.
While the game does have a handful of factions that aren’t part of the Legiones Astartes, to use their fancy name, the Space Marines are the stars of the show. If Space Marines bore you, why would you be interested in a game that’s almost entirely about them? And if you’re already a 40K Space Marine player, what’s the point in investing in a new game that’s just more of what you already have?
The short answer is that “Oops, All Space Marines!” is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. Since Dicebreaker HQ will get very cross if I send them a couple of hundred words and call it a day, I will now elaborate.
The Horus Heresy is effectively the founding mythology of Warhammer 40,000 as we know it, set a mere 30,000 years into our future at the dawn of the Imperium. The Emperor has created his superhuman Space Marines and even more super Primarchs (no, not the clothes shop) to lead them.
After spending 200 years spreading across the galaxy, rediscovering Earth’s lost colonies and bringing them into the Imperium (peacefully or otherwise), favoured son Horus has been left in charge while the Emperor goes home to work on a new project in his shed.
The Horus Heresy is effectively the founding mythology of Warhammer 40,000 as we know it.
Through a combination of daemonic influence, general skullduggery and massive daddy issues, Horus is convinced to lead a rebellion against Big Daddy E, taking half his brother Primarchs and their legions of Space Marines with them.
Horus is ultimately unsuccessful, countless lives are lost, the Emperor ends up stuck on life support and the Imperium is left to stagnate for the next ten thousand years, leading to the horrible grimdark affair we know from 40K.
As a concept, the Horus Heresy has been kicking around for decades, but only started being explored in-depth in 2006 with the release of Warhammer 40,000 book Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. This was the start of a series of novels and short stories released via Games Workshop’s Black Library that is still going, over 50 books later.
In 2012, GW released a Horus Heresy game under its Forge World imprint. Commonly known as Warhammer 30,000 and based on the seventh edition of Warhammer 40K, this was the baby of the late game designer Alan Bligh.
Forge World is mostly known for producing resin miniatures aimed at more advanced hobbyists, largely inspired by historical wargames and modelling. This influence was easily seen in 30K, which featured detailed accounts of the campaigns and battles of the Heresy, as well as the troops that fought in them. The dirty, weathered and battle-worn miniatures, mostly painted by the Forge World team themselves, stood in stark contrast to the clean, edge-highlighted ‘Eavy Metal house style of GW proper. Also, there were a lot of tanks.
In the decade since, Warhammer 30K has trundled on, gathering a small but dedicated fanbase. With a handful of exceptions, the game used resin miniatures produced by Forge World, which were both more expensive and more difficult to assemble than their plastic counterparts. Now GW is changing all that with a second edition of the game in the form of the big value Age of Darkness box and a huge range of new plastic miniatures to replace many of the core 30K resin models.
Got all that? Good, back to our original question: why are the little plastic marines good?
The bulk of the armies being the same makes their differences more pronounced.
First of all, the common core of the forces involved makes The Horus Heresy much more approachable from both a rules and collecting point of view. When learning a new miniatures game, understanding the ins and outs of your own army is intimidating enough, let alone grasping enough of your opponent’s armies to make good decisions. With 30K, every Space Marine army is based on the same pool of units, rules and army structure. Once you’ve mastered your force, you know the majority of your opponent’s units too.
This means that all of the miniatures GW is releasing to support the new edition are potentially useful to you, because all of the Space Marine legions have access to all of the equipment. Want to split the Age of Darkness box with a friend? Go for it - you’ll each have a great starter army. What about keeping the whole thing for yourself? That’s also perfectly valid. There will be plenty of folks buying and selling excess minis too, making it easy for you to get the bits you want.
At the same time, the bulk of the armies being the same makes their differences more pronounced. Each legion has a handful of special rules, including unique units and options for building an army focused on specific tactics that make them entirely their own beast, despite the shared elements. Do you want your marines speeding around on bikes? Go for the White Scars. Stealthy freedom-fighting emo kids more your jam? The Raven Guard is the legion for you. Whether you like speed, shooting, fighting or Egyptian-themed space wizards, one of the legions will fit your aesthetic and tactical sensibilities.
On the subject of aesthetics, 30K has a lot more room for personalisation than might be apparent at first glance. This is something hugely important to me; creating names, histories, colour schemes and such for all my miniature game forces is a big part of why I enjoy the hobby.
Warhammer 30K is like a historical wargame, but for fictional history.
In Warhammer 40,000, Space Marines are organised into small chapters of around 1,000 men, but there’s loads of them, so if you don’t want to collect an official one, you can just make up your own.
It’s true that in 30K there are only 18 legions, but each of them sports tens of thousands of troops, sometimes even going into six figures. They aren’t fighting as massive armies either, instead being split up into much smaller forces which then go on to fight their own battles, gathering their own traditions, battle honours and insignia. Or, in the case of the Alpha Legion, just switch around armour colours to mess with you. The books feature plenty of examples of these alternate colour schemes and markings - the gorgeous colour plates being one of my favourite parts of the game - and you’re actively encouraged to define your own force however you wish.
All this is very much by design and tied into the game’s historical wargame roots, which conveniently leads to my next point. I am a massive nerd. I enjoy history, I love in-depth technical detail about machines, but I’ve never been a fan of historical wargaming. It all feels a bit too real for me, and sets off the squick-o-meter. I’m not massively into WW2 or modern-day first-person shooters for the same reason.
30K is like a historical wargame, but for fictional history. It has all the nerd factor, but none of the ick. I have no interest in recreating the D-Day landings, but the Siege of Terra? That sounds fun! The default - albeit by no means mandatory - mud and trenches look is much easier and more fun to paint for me than other styles. Gunk washes, weathering, rust and grime are all very much my jam. It grounds the setting as a whole, as well as the individual stories.
This makes the individual Space Marines much more interesting. It’s why the Black Library novels, at least the good ones, are so compelling. Unlike 40K, the Emperor isn’t worshipped as a god, the Space Marines aren’t yet key figures in a ten-thousand-year-old religion. Yes, they’re genetically enhanced and they have the best training and the best weapons, but beyond that they’re just normal men, albeit far from innocent. While I wouldn’t call their stories relatable, they’re tales of family and betrayal, of hope, doubt and despair, that resonate far more strongly than those of the Space Marines’ implacable, otherworldly 40K incarnation.
Is Warhammer: The Horus Heresy - Age of Darkness: Something, Something Subtitle: Redux any good? I don’t know! I’m waiting to buy my copy on the 18th along with everyone else. Games Workshop is betting big on 30K and has made sure there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re a 40K player looking for something a little different, a fan of the books looking to take things to the tabletop or completely new to Warhammer - or even tabletop minis games as a whole - it’s well worth taking a look at what’s on offer.