Warhammer 40k - Introduction to the Tabletop Game Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Warhammer 40k - Introduction to the Tabletop Game

1 Conversation

Warhammer 40k
Introduction | The Imperium of Man
Ancient Races | The Forces of Chaos | Alien Aggressors

Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed...
– Warhammer 40k Rulebook1

Warhammer 40k is a science fiction tabletop game invented and sold by Games Workshop. Just like Warhammer Fantasy the game is about miniature armies fighting against each other, except this time not in a fantasy but in a science fiction story background. Although Warhammer 40k is a very popular game it is not as popular as Warhammer Fantasy.

40,000 years in the future mankind has expanded its territory to many other planets of the galaxy, but they are not alone. A war starts with the alien races. A fight for power, survival, and more mysterious goals. Alliances are forged and break up again and the players of Warhammer 40k take the side of one of the races and lead one of their armies to war.

How it Works

If you know nothing about tabletop games, you can imagine it as a game a bit like chess, just with a lot more rules. The Rulebook is several hundred pages long and also contains the background story about the world in which the game is set. New editions with new and revised rules are published every few years.

The game is  usually played between two players, but it is also possible to play in teams. Each player commands an army, but unlike in chess there is not just black and white. There are several miniature armies that actually look like the soldiers, creatures, tanks and aircraft they represent. The armies chosen are up to the players. There are also a lot more pieces in the game than in a game of chess, as Warhammer is played with whole troops of warriors and there are quite a lot of miniatures on the field in one game. Just like in a game of chess the different figures have different abilities in how they can move and which special tactics they have; there are really a lot of rules about that and every type of model has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the player to choose which types of troops they want to use and which fit best to their play style. Every single model carries a weapon and/or is equipped with psychic powers which are used to fight against the opposing player. All psychic powers and weapons have additional rules.

The game is not played on a board but on any relatively flat surface like a big table or the floor. The battlegrounds are structured with plastic, wood, paper or polystyrene terrain and include rocks, forests, rivers, swamps and buildings or anything else the players can think of. If nothing else is available anything from books to office materials can symbolise any terrain that is needed, although 'proper' terrain certainly gives better scenery for any game. Terrain is not simply decoration, it actually serves a purpose. Miniatures that hide in forests for instance are harder to hit, while swamps or rocks can slow down the movement of a unit. For those who do not want to make terrain themselves, Games Workshop and other companies sell a wide range of scenery parts.

Before the game starts the players have to decide how many 'points' they want to play with, this defines the size of the armies and therefore also how long the game will take. Each player gets a defined number of points which they can spend on their army. Every miniature in a game is associated with a certain number of points, depending on how strong or useful it is. While a standard soldier who is more likely to hit his own foot than his enemy may cost about eight points, a strong creature or vehicle can easily cost over 100. These points are used to keep chances even between players.

At the beginning of the game every player deploys their troops at their end of the table or other defined playing area. Unlike Warhammer Fantasy, units in 40k are not arranged in ranks and battle formations, but in loose groups without defined shape, with a maximum distance between models of one inch. They are allowed to stand in a row next to or behind each other, as well as an orderless huddle. When all players have deployed their troops the actual game can begin.

As there is no board and all miniatures can move in any direction and not just at certain angles like chess pieces, movement is not measured by squares but with a ruler. Each type of troop can move a certain distance as defined in their rules and every troop can move during a player's turn - unless the player chooses not to move them. After moving, each unit can attack the units of the opposing player with either long distance weapons or psychic abilities. Every weapon also has special characteristics that define its strength, range and special rules. The player has to throw a number of six-sided dice to see how many of their soldiers have hit their target and how many hits have actually wounded their target. The points on a die that the player needs to roll to achieve the goal depends on the stats of the attacking and opposing models. Every single model has different characteristics that define their attack and defence reliant skills. If the dice show that a model has been hit, the owner of this model can throw dice again to see if the armour of the model has helped against the attack. If the armour did not protect its wearer the model loses one of their wound points (also a characteristic of each model). Once a model has lost all its wound points it is dead and removed from the game. After shooting, the player can decide to also move some models into close combat with the opponent. Again, dice are rolled to decide wounds suffered by the opponent, but unlike in ranged combat2, the other player's models which are attacked can now immediately strike back. The movement, shooting and assault phases constitute one turn per player.

There are many different mission scenarios for the game, one player might for instance defend a certain object or building for a number of rounds while the other attacks. The game is over when the objective is fulfilled.


As mentioned above every player can choose to play with one of quite a few different armies. They vary largely in background story, miniature design and in their specialities and weaknesses in battles. The armies vary in shooting and close combat skills, some are fast and others are slow. There are also armies made up of lots of weak and few strong models. Each army has a separate rule book called a Codex. As well as all the special rules and lists of all the various miniatures available for that army, the Codex also includes the background story and miniature painting guides.

The available armies range from humans to ancient alien races, from Space Orks and insectoid aggressors to the corrupting forces of Chaos. Some armies rely heavily on infantry, others are specialised in artillery. Some have many vehicles and machinery, others consist of alien creatures. Choosing an army is a matter of personal taste and depends on design, background stories and army specific rules.

A typical game is played with armies of between 500 and 2000 points. How these points are spent is up to the players, one may choose to use a few very strong units while the other may decide on masses of weak soldiers. In addition to soldiers there are also buildings and other defensive structures on which the player may spend their points. Unfortunately some models in the game turn out to be a lot more valuable than their point values suggest, while other models are a lot less useful than they were intended when the rules were written.  As new rules are published only every few years these flaws remain and are not updated for a relatively long time.

Basically the units of every army are chosen from lists of five different types: Headquarter, Elite, Troops, Fast Attack and Heavy Support. Unlike in Warhammer Fantasy, the maximum number of models in an army is not infinite. Every unit type has a maximum number per army and larger armies may double the amount of each troop. While some armies have special rules that allow them to get more troops of a certain type, the standard configuration allows the following:

  • One or two Headquarter choices. These are usually very strong models that have special abilities and stand out against the mass of other miniatures; also in design. A headquarter usually consists of one powerful model with, or without, bodyguards.

  • Up to three Elite units. These are also more powerful than ordinary models and usually come in small groups, or fight solo.

  • Between two and six standard Troops. They make up the main part of an army, often simple foot soldiers and usually have the most models per unit (anything from about five to about 30).

  • Up to three Fast Attack units. These are models that move faster than others as they are, for instance, mounted on bikes, jetbikes or wear jet packs.

  • Up to three Heavy Support units. Very often these are tanks or other battle machinery, but also models which are equipped with especially powerful weapons.

This means that the minimum size of a standard army is one Headquarter and two Troops. The maximum size of a smaller army consists of 14 units, while large armies may double this amount. This does not tell how many miniatures are in the game. One unit may consist of anything between one or 30 miniatures, depending on the rules about this unit.


The miniatures for playing Warhammer are produced by Games Workshop's company Citadel. Each army has its own special design that makes it easily recognisable on the battlefield. Most models can be bought online or at various retailers such as Games Workshop themselves. Prices can vary, so it's always worth comparing them, even with different countries. The majority are multi-part plastic models which need assembly, however there are a few of just one part but both types need painting. It is possible to buy ready-assembled and painted models, but the prices can be very high depending on the quality of the paint job. Until 2011 Games Workshop also sold white metal models which were usually done for special characters like Elite and Headquarters models, but now all of them are made in resin. Games Workshop said the reason for this was the high price of white metal, but the resin miniatures are now more expensive than the old metal models ever were. Metal models can still be found on eBay.

Just like the rulebooks, the designs of miniatures also changed over the years. The very first miniatures look quite crude compared to today's more detailed ones, and some have been discontinued as they were deleted from the rules. Although not used in the game any more, some of them are highly sought after by collectors and can command high prices.

Quite a few units and characters that appear in the game have never been produced as miniatures by Games Workshop. Some of them are sold by Games Workshop's company Forgeworld, which also produces new miniatures and writes special rules for them. Some other companies also offer miniatures that can be used for this purpose. Some miniatures cannot be bought and have to be converted or built by the players themselves.

As every model has to be bought, assembled and painted, collecting a complete (and painted) army takes quite some time, money and many hours of work. For starting a new army Games Workshop offers boxes with different unit types called 'Battleforces'. A Battleforce usually is much cheaper than buying the included models separately, and in many cases really is a good start for an army. In some cases unfortunately it is waste of money - it depends on the army and their current rules. With the change of rules and a new edition of the rulebook it is usually also necessary for the players to review their army setup and make changes - which often includes buying new miniatures. For people who are new to the game every new edition of the rulebook also brings a new starter box, which contains two small armies of different races as well as dice and other essential equipment.

History of the Game

Warhammer 40k was originally a spin-off of the Warhammer Fantasy game. The first edition of Warhammer 40k was published as 'Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader' in 1987. It was designed as a game for short battles with few miniatures. The whole game was rather like a mixture of tabletop and a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. Rules for the armies of  various races can be found in the Rule book, but separate Codexes did not exist at the time. It also included races like space dwarves that are not featured any more in the present day game. In the late 1980s and early 1990s various additional books were published, including new army lists, rules and background story. New races became available during that time, while others disappeared.

The 2nd edition of the Warhammer 40k Rulebook was published in 1993. It came in a box set of Space Marines and Orks. The rules of the 2nd Edition were still very complicated and designed for small battles. They very much resemble the rules for present-day Necromunda. Along with the Rulebook, the box contained a book called 'Codex Army Lists' which explained rules for Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Squats (space dwarves), Orks, Eldar, Tyranids, Chaos Daemons and Chaos Space Marines. Also included was the 'Codex Imperialis', another rulebook with background information and 'Wargear', which was about the weapons used in the game.

In 1993 the 'Codex: Tyranids' was the first separate rulebook for a Warhammer 40k army. It was followed by Codexes for various other armies during the following years. These first Codexes included a lot more background information than later editions.

In the 3rd edition of the Rulebook, published in 1998, the rules were simplified and the game was made more accessible, opening it up to a wider audience. It was now also possible to play bigger battles than with the difficult rules of the first editions. The background story is a lot darker than in the previous books. Just like the 2nd edition, the 3rd Rulebook was followed by new Codexes for all armies. New additions were the armies of Dark Eldar, Tau and Necrons.

Only a few changes were made in the 4th Edition of the Rulebook published in 2004. The book was available separately or in reduced form in a box with Space Marines and Tyranids. It was followed by the release of updated Codexes.

In 2006 the expansion Cities of Death was published. It was a separate book with additional rules for battles in urban environments.

The 5th edition of the Rulebook was published in 2008 and was again available either separately or in a box with Space Marines and Orks. This edition brought a few changes to the rules and included additional rules for specific situations in the game. The background information covered in the 5th edition is more detailed than previously. Many, but not all, Codexes were updated after the release of this edition.

In the same year the expansion Apocalypse was published. This was an additional rulebook, but for battles of a much larger scale than the usual games with armies of over 3,000 points and options for a few players joining one game. It offers special battle formations for all armies, none of which would be possible with the normal rules.

The expansion Planetstrike was released in 2009. Planetstrike features battles between two players, one being the attacker, the other defending their planet. The defender can set up the terrain in any way they want to best secure their base, while the attacker can strike with powerful orbital attacks. Both players have different options to set up their armies.

The newest change (at the time of writing this Entry) was the 6th Edition Rulebook published in 2012. This brings a standardisation of the psychic abilities of all races and more rules for aircraft as well as larger armies. All new Codexes are now in full colour and bound in hard covers.

The Hobby

Just like Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40k can be a very time-consuming hobby. Depending on the care a player puts into assembling and painting their army, this alone can consume hours upon hours of time. The games themselves - depending on scenarios and army sizes involved - can also last for several hours. Warhammer 40k (like other tabletop games) is also not a cheap hobby. Although bargains can be made on the Internet, the initial setup of an army can cost between 100 and 200 Euros, later additions not included. Shop prices outside of the Internet are usually a lot higher. People who speak English also have the advantage that Games Workshop sells their products in the UK at a much lower price than anywhere else in the world, prices in Europe, for instance, can be almost twice as high, so ordering from the UK is almost always worth the additional cost and waiting times for a parcel.

Due to the constant rule changes, the addition of new, more detailed, and better quality miniatures, armies have to be adapted and improved all the time, so collecting a Warhammer army is in fact a task that never stops. It has to be said that compared to older miniatures they constantly got more detailed and of better quality, but also more and more plastic was used instead of metal. Of course, Games Workshop also sell their own Warhammer 40k themed rulers and dice and other gaming materials next to their own range of paints, brushes, glues and everything else a gamer could need - or not.

People who play Warhammer often come together for games at regular intervals. Some have private playing groups, while others play in so-called Games Workshop Hobby Centers, which are basically shops that also offer finished terrain for playing, places for painting and shopkeepers who can advise people on how to do things best. Players who want to go a bit further find official tournaments and painting competitions. Various Internet forums are of course also dedicated to the topic of general tabletop and Warhammer 40k.

Games Workshop's 'Black Library' has published many books set in the Warhammer 40k universe written by various authors. Each book usually focuses on a certain race or important fighting unit or important battle. Here players can find out more about their favourite characters. There are also various spin-off games like Battlefleet Gothic - a spaceship tabletop; Necromunda - a skirmish tabletop; Inquisitor - a more role-playing-like game; or Space Hulk and Space Crusade - both board games. For computer gamers, strategy games like the Dawn of War series and the action shooter Space Marine are available. A Warhammer 40k-themed MMORPG was also planned but will not be realised.

1This is probably the most well-known quote in the whole game.2Ranged combat is fighting with long distance weapons as opposed to close combat fought, for instance, with swords or axes.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more