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The blood-soaked battlefields of the 41st Millennium have long been razed and celebrated by thousands of dedicated generals, artists, gamers and nerd-folk the world over. The hobby, and the universe around it has seen a number of successful (and not so much) video game adaptations like the popular Dawn of War series and the unfortunately discontinued Space Marine IP. But while the property has begun to shrink somewhat in the general gaming consciousness, the original tabletop board game is stronger than ever before. On the other hand, high prices and a convoluted rulebook have repelled many a newcomer from truly diving in.

On that note, Warhammer creator Games Workshop released their 8th edition update to 40K in 2017. The update largely streamlines the game’s rules and diminishes the barrier for entry without sacrificing any of the games’ depth (no changes to the pricing though – eish – we’ll get to 2nd hand stuff later). Furthermore, the majority of the balancing issues present in past editions have been ironed out – making it a very level playing field where all factions are represented. To make things even more enticing, the company have been announcing and releasing a slew of incredibly sculpted new units and armies, with more planned in the future.

There has never been a better time to check out the world of Warhammer 40K. With that in mind, the following is a handy introduction for anyone looking to become more familiar with its world.

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The Setting: Mankind in Turmoil

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The history of the 40K universe is vast and rich: Since its inception, scores of official books from Games Workshop’ Black Library have detailed the world’s origin, its myriad characters and even dictated its future. In essence, the central conflicts (at least in the literature) revolve around Mankind’s struggle to survive in the constant war that is the 41st Millennium. Humanity is far past its prime – no longer the dominant strength in the universe and under attack from every direction. Their primary defenders, the genetically modified Space Marines and endless human cannon fodder in the Imperial Guard, are the last bastions of defence against a variety of alien enemies…and darker forces still.

Scores of aggressors threaten to take Mankind’s place of power in the galaxy or to eradicate them entirely. The hordes of Chaos are the antithesis to the Imperium: their ultimate enemy, slaves to the Dark Gods and generally evil incarnate. Entirely alien races like the Tyranid seek only to devour all life, while the war-hungry Orks think no further than the next scrimmage. All in all, it’s an incredibly diverse roster that translates beautifully into the game in the shape of armies that operate distinctly from one another; with unique rules, endless strategies and a fantastic selection of models.

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Armies of the 41st Millennium:

Space Marines

As previously mentioned, the Space Marines are humanity’s first line of defence. They are super-human warriors created from the very DNA of Mankind’s immortal Emperor – originally as his personal army. They are armed to the teeth with the latest imperial technology, highly trained and mentally equipped to resist the forces of Chaos. Split up into a number of distinct Legions, they are separated by their various colour schemes and insignia. The blue Ultramarines are the most iconic and all-purpose, and the Emperor’s own legion, while the crimson Blood Angels specialise in Close-Combat and the hooded Dark Angels in firepower and speed. There are more variations still, like the Viking/Werewolf-esque Space Wolves and the fanatical Grey Knights. The various segments of the Space Marines are generally Games Workshop’s flagship seller; meaning players interested in them will find a huge amount of variety in terms of models and play-styles, as well as a group of armies most friendly to new players.

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The Astra Militarum

Composed of the colossal human armies of the Imperial Guard, they are considered the Hammer of the Emperor and lay waste to their enemies with some of the most powerful artillery and tanks in the game. Much like their Space Marine brothers, the imperial Guard is divided into a number of notable regiments and factions. The olive drab Cadian forces are the most notable and high in number, while the Rambo-looking Catachan specialise in jungle warfare and the tech-savvy Militarum Tempestus melt their foes down with plasma. They offer loads of tactical depth and a wide variety of units to mix and match into different lists, as well as excellent opportunity to serve as a supplementary force for your Space Marines or vice versa.

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Adeptus Mechanicus

The Tech Priests of Mars, and their army the Skitarii, make up the forces of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Technically independent from the Imperium, the Mechanicus produces the majority of the empire’s wargear. They brokered this rare alliance with the Empire of Man for their own benefit: to roam the stars in search of ancient technologies to further their own robotic race and the will of their Machine God – the Omnissiah. Their mastery of strange technologies makes them adept not only in production and research, but in the art of warfare. Like the rest of the Imperium, their armies march in deranged religious zealous – a twisted force of steel and piping with little sympathy for biological life. Furthermore, they too would make an excellent companion force to any Imperial army.

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Daemons of Chaos

A twisted contortion in space known as the Warp is the main source of darkness and evil power in 40K’s universe. Within it live the Dark Gods – Nurgle, Slaanesh, Tzeentch and Khorne – the gods of disease, pleasure, knowledge and bloodshed respectfully. Their individual daemon armies personify these themes in look and rules – making Chaos Daemons a diverse force of carnage with a singular intent: the destruction, subjugation and absolute erasing of the Imperium. The various thematic incarnations of Chaos allow any budding collector to create an army fully themed after a specific god, a twisted alliance between any numbers of them…or a frightening supplement for their ultimate companions.

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Chaos Space Marines

The forces of Chaos intertwine with Mankind’s greatest creation to spawn its most feared enemy. The Chaos Space Marines are the prodigal sons of the Dark Gods and the embodiment of their divine hatred for the False-Emperor and his sickening loyalist dogs. Once loyal to the Imperium themselves, the Chaos Space Marines are consisted also of a variety of chapters – turned to Chaos; offering their souls to any one of the Dark Gods in exchange for the power to destroy what they once loved. The loyalist Death Guard, for instance, swore their fealty to Nurgle – the god of disease. To grant them eternal life, Nurgle imbued their bodies with his divine plagues – twisting and rotting their flesh, but allowing them to sustain incredible amounts of damage. The forces of Nurgle, both Daemon and Chaos Space Marines, are currently Games Workshop’s flagship Chaos faction and the new range of models is simply fantastic.

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Orks

The Orks are essentially a race of brutish, war hungry, cockney football hooligans in space (without the football part). Their obsession with the battlefield and the adrenaline of a fight is the single defining factor of the Ork ‘civilisation.’ They assemble in massive hordes of green-skinned killers, armed with makeshift, ransacked weapons and vehicles to pour into the very heart of combat as quickly as possible. Orks are a wonderful army to see on the tabletop and their rules reflect their endearing lore perfectly. Just get ready to be moving a lot of models around on the table – seriously.

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The Tau

The Tau is a relative enigma among the various factions in the galaxy. They are by far the youngest of the races, but show the keenest affinity towards science and the development of technology – having rapidly expanded their empire despite their fledgeling status – and arm their forces in some of the most advanced and futuristic technology seen in any of the factions. Despite their superior firepower, however, they are perhaps the only faction known for preferring a diplomatic approach and only employing force where all else fails. The Tau general would field an army of sleek battle suits and well-equipped ground troops, backed by stealth systems and a general proficiency at long-range combat; in the noble interest of spreading enlightenment across the galaxy.

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Necrons

Formally the people of the Necrontyr, a dynasty pre-dating any of the other races, the Necron were bound to metal bodies in order to achieve eternal life – turning themselves into formidable engines of war with advanced regeneration abilities and driving out their souls in the process. These husks number countless legions – slumbering in colossal tombs and awakening only to wage war and exterminate the scum of the galaxy in order to reassert their place as its ruler. The Necron are armed with powerful gauss weaponry to tear both infantry and vehicles apart on the battle top, while their Reanimation Protocols ensure many of your fallen units will get a second chance at their immortality and resurrect.

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Eldar

The 41st Millennium’s answer to Elves, the Eldar are too among the eldest races in the universe. Much like the Necron and Humanity, their empire is only a shadow of its former glory. Their psykers (individuals able to manifest the powers of the Warp as psychic powers) are their greatest strength, while their weapons technology is of unparalleled power. Eldar players will find themselves in control of one of the most powerful factions available on the table top. The sheer prowess they show in all fields of combat is enough to make any other player sweat and really have to strategise in order to contend with what you’re packing.

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Dark Eldar

Far from the craftworlds the Eldar call home, lay the black sheep of their race: the deranged and malicious Dark Eldar. From their home city on Commoragh, they breed a culture based on pain, genetic science and guerrilla warfare. The Dark Eldar revels in the blood they spill through space and live merely for the simple thrill of spilling it. An assault from their forces is over before it began. They soar into battle upon the fastest transport vehicles in the game and their troops are among the most nimble on foot. In addition, the Dark Eldar gain in-game benefits by destroying enemy units – becoming more powerful the more blood they spill – and employ the use of a number of genetically engineered monstrosities straight out of Hellraiser

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Tyranids

The Tyranids present one of the greatest threats to every race within the galaxy. Their animalistic nature knows no mercy, no communication or surrender. They move with a single-minded purpose, powered by the Hive Mind, to devour all living things and consume entire planets. Their ships are giant living beings that float through space carrying armies of large tyrannical beasts and millions upon millions of smaller, equally bloodthirsty creatures. The Tyranid army has one of the most diverse ranges of models in the entire game. The player is able to compile armies of giant alien killers of various sizes and purposes, as well as huge hordes of more man-sized beasts or any combination of both. They are absolutely ferocious in close-quarters combat, but bring an impressive number of options for shooting and psychic powers as well.

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Getting Started:

For most folks, the actual game of Warhammer 40K is the main draw of the hobby. While 40K is an incredibly satisfying endeavour from a purely collecting and painting perspective, or from a lore perspective, the idea of this guide is to highlight its ultimate reward – the game itself. Collecting, assembling and painting models is an exciting process, but it ultimately becomes all the more satisfying when one puts those models to use on the tabletop against another’s collection. Win or lose, every round is a game of strategy, outmanoeuvring your enemy and dealing with the unexpected – it’s incredibly dynamic and leads to all kinds of unique scenarios that make every match exciting.

The Rules

All one needs to get a basic understanding of 40K’s rules is a free PDF on Games Workshop’s website called The Battle Primer: an 8 page (whaaaaat?) document that details the basic mechanics of the game and how they function. Warhammer 40K is a turn based war game – something like a mix between chess and DND. Each player turn is divided into a series of phases: namely the Movement Phase, Psychic Phase, Shooting Phase and Assault Phase. Both players take turns enacting all of these phases until a victory is claimed by either party.

Players assemble armies as lists: literal lists denoting the contents of one’s army and the wargear they possess. Each faction of 40K has a codex: a book containing lore, painting guides, fantastic art and, most vitally, the lists of units, psychic powers, special rules, characters and wargear available to each one. Players are encouraged to experiment with different combinations of units, characters, vehicles and allied armies (buy more stuff) and create the most thematic or competitive lists possible.

In addition to the codex and basic rules, there is a larger rule book for when one may choose to become more invested in the hobby. Primarily, this book contains the entire history of the universe, even more amazing art and, most importantly, the various missions players are able to engage in on the table top. Games of 40K are structured around a deep variety of mission archetypes with loads of potential objectives and ways to win or lose. New mission types are released with updates and players are encouraged to create their own as well.

Among the best choices for getting started now is the Dark Imperium box set. This contains two small armies: one being a Space Marines force and the other Death Guard. It also contains the rules, a few dice, something for measuring distance and two Indexes (miniature versions of the codices for each army).

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The Community

If I’ve heard correctly, then local is lekker. Cape Town and Gauteng are home to a very active and welcoming Warhammer 40K community (with other small scenes scattered throughout the country). Establishments like The Battle Bunker serve as hotbeds for hobby activity – they host weekly game nights, organise tournaments and matches are always easy to set up via a simple post on the Facebook page or just by walking through the door of your local hobby shop.

More importantly, the community is very inviting to newcomers and everyone just seems to enjoy themselves in general. People are happy to offer advice, it’s never hard to find someone to lend you that unit you’re missing for a tournament and, arguably the most vital thing, everybody is extremely passionate about Warhammer.

And as a final note, this active community means that there is a thriving trade for 2nd hand Warhammer goods in South Africa. Warhammer Generals’ (.co.za) forum is an easy place to pick up cheap models and even entire armies.

In Closing, Do It Your Way

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There is something for everyone when it comes to Warhammer 40K. Whether you simply need a few cool display items or are artistic and interested in becoming a good painter – maybe you decide to take the deep dive and experience the game – there is a wealth of reward to reap here. Games with friends can be played purely for role-playing and storytelling, while the tournament scene is fiercely competitive and the top players are ranked on Warhammer Generals. Hopefully, the aggressive carpal tunnel I’ve wrought upon myself will be worth it and this guide will encourage someone to take a deeper look at the game.

It’s easy to get into, rewarding to master and home to a delightful community. It’s never been a better time to check out Warhammer 40K.

Last Updated: February 15, 2018

Alec Brynard

Known to ramble about movies, videogames, music & art. Primarily filthy console scum, but occasionally dabbles in the odd MMO or RTS on PC. Vigorously pitching video games as the ultimate art form, aggressively recommending films you've never heard of or cynically questioning the intentions of everyone and everything. Desperately praying for that next great Survival Horror game

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