Getting Started With Warhammer 40,000: The Basics

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Warhammer 40k! This article fits in as the starting point for two different series – it’s the introductory point for our Getting Started series for Warhammer 40,000, but it’s also a good jumping off point for new players getting into our Start Competing series. Whichever way you found it, our goal here is to create a newbie-friendly introduction to the game that will help you navigate your entry to the game but also prepare you for more serious play down the road.

The Core: What You Need to Play and Know

Once you’ve got your tiny plastic children built, primed, and painted*, you’re eventually going to want to gather them into an army and see whether you’ve got what it takes as a commander. Fortunately for you, the brilliant minds at Games Workshop have provided a comprehensive set of rules suitable for creating a war-blasted hellscape with nothing more than your kitchen table, some random junk to block line of sight, and the judicious application of a few “pew pew” noises**. Unfortunately for you, it can be a pain to figure out which rules you actually need in order to play. In this section, we’ll cover the rules you need to play the game you want to play, whether you’re preparing for your first foray into the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, playing in a regular campaign at your FLGS, or entering a competitive tournament. For a full list of every faction and its relevant rules, you can check out the “Rules and Where to Find Them” article, which we try and keep as up to date as possible – for now, we’re just going to talk in general about how rules in 40k tend to fit together.

*You do not have to do these things to play, but we recommend working towards a painted army eventually if you can
**You don’t have to do this either, but if you aren’t making ‘pew pew’ noises with your lovingly-painted plastic space dolls, what the hell are you even doing here?

I'm sure this kind of neglect will never lead to unresolved issues
Playing Your First Game

You’ve built your army, read all the fluff you can put your hands on, and listened to every episode of the 40k Badcast twice, but now it’s time to take the plunge: Your first game. Don’t worry about buying a bunch of books yet; you don’t need most of them to get your feet wet. All you really need to get a feel for the game is a copy of the Core Rules and the rules for your army

The first thing you’re going to need is the Core Rules. These tell you everything you need to know about how to move, shoot, fight, and everything else you’ll need. You should take the time to carefully read these rules and become familiar with them. It’s not a lot of material, but a good understanding of them will make you a better and speedier player, as well as making it more fun for other players to play against you. You can find them for free on the Games Workshop website, or in the Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook if you’ve already bought it. While you’re going to want the full rulebook eventually, you don’t 100% need it for your first game – though you will definitely want it as soon as you step out of the “push models around to figure out how the guns work” phase, so pick it up as soon as you can. Strictly it’s less necessary than before because most of the rules also appear in the Chapter Approved books, but there is one vital section that appears nowhere else, which is the army construction rules – so you will at least need to get a look at those in the big book.

In addition to the Core Rules, you’re going to need to get a copy of the rules for your army. Your army’s Codex contains datasheets and point costs, additional psychic powers and relics, and faction-specific stratagems that let you spend your CP on cool effects. In 9th edition, many armies still have a significant chunk of their rules tied up in the “Psychic Awakening” series which ran at the end of 8th edition and added supplementary rules for the majority of armies in the game. These are being replaced as new codexes are released (so for example, Space Marines no longer need the rules in the Faith & Fury book) but if you’re playing a faction that hasn’t been updated yet, they may stay current for a while. You don’t need these for your very first games, but if you’re playing an army that doesn’t seem likely to get a codex imminently, it will be worth picking up in future.

Those Dark Eldar jerks are always stuffing marines into lockers
Open Play, Narrative Play, and Matched Play

As you browse the rules and play your first games of Warhammer 40,000, you’ll notice that the rules often refer to different modes of play. Principally, there are three modes of play for Warhammer 40k:

  • Open Play is the most casual way to play, using Power Level and generally built around the notion of “just put some plastic mans on the table and have them fight.” The Core Rules come with an Open Play mission designed to whet your appetite, and resources like the Open War deck are a great way to change things up in interesting ways when you just want to jump right into playing. Open Play games tend to use Power Levels for building armies and are great for beginners who just want to play.
  • Narrative Play tends to focus more on specific scenarios that are more story-driven, and in 9th edition this primarily takes the form of the “Crusade” mode – a more free-form style of play with a kind of campaign system attached to it. In the past, Narrative and Open weren’t very different; now there’s a clear demarcation between the “just put stuff on the table and roll some dice” Open Play style and the “narrative-driven campaign style” of Crusade. This can be a great way to play – many of our authors love it – but if you’re just building your first 500pts of Space Marines you probably don’t need to get into the minutiae of a Crusade game immediately.
  • Matched Play tends to focus on balanced play between evenly-matched armies in symmetrical scenarios. Matched Play games use more granular points rather than power levels, and have missions generally aimed at providing a competitive play experience rather than storytelling. For many people this is the “default” way to play, so that’s something to be aware of if you’re looking for games at a local store or similar. Tournaments use Matched Play rules, supplemented with the tournament-specific rules and missions found in the Chapter Approved pack.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for which ruleset you have to use, or how they can be mixed. It’s very common for players to play Open and Narrative games using matched play rules such as points values instead of power level and detachment restrictions. The main thing to consider is who you’re playing with. If it’s you and your group of friends and you all like messing around tailoring the rules to your own tastes, then go ahead and do that. If you’re heading out for a pick-up game with a random person in a store, you should probably adjust your expectations accordingly to a more standard matched play game, unless you’ve talked about it ahead of time and decided otherwise. If you have a specific type of play in mind – whether you only want to play fluffy Crusade games, or intricate custom scenarios you mostly wrote yourself, or balls to the wall competitive tournament-style games – then you may need to do some work to seek out a group that’s right for you.


Reading a codex on a tablet or phone just isn't the same, man
Ready for Anything

Many people will play their first games with a friend who’s also gotten into the hobby, or even just on their own, playing both sides just to get a handle on the rules. A great way to branch out of playing the same couple of people – or if you’re getting into this on your own, to find opponents at all – is to head down to your FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) to make some new friends. But before you do, you’re going to need a few more things. In addition to the Core Rules and your Codex, you should have access to the full Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook like we talked about above, and also check out the Warhammer Community site (where you can find FAQs and rules updates). You may also want to take a look at the most recent Chapter Approved book, specifically the Munitorum Field Manual part which for most armies has the most up to date points values in it. Together, these rules will form the core that you need in order to play in almost any game.

Note that if you’re playing in a pick-up game at your FLGS, you should expect to use Matched Play rules, or at the very least, use points values and Matched Play restrictions in a Narrative or Open Play mission. If in doubt, be sure to bring 2 HQ choices and 3 Troops so you can build a quick Battalion detachment for play (more on detachments later).

Something worth mentioning here quickly is the exciting technological future we live in. Games Workshop have released an app which includes Battle Forge, an official army builder, which largely doesn’t work that well. You will also run into many, many people using Battlescribe, an unofficial third party list building app. Both of these have errors in and while you can use them to build your army, you should definitely double check both the rules and points in your codex to make sure you’ve got your list right.

If you’re looking for a tool to give you a more visually-appealing layout to your lists, we’d recommend taking your Battlescribe output and using Goonhammer’s Buttscribe tool to make custom datasheets for your army. They’re easier to read, have some handy notes for things like wound tracking, and look great.

40k 9th edition rulebooks

Core Rules You Will Need:

  • Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook
  • The Codex for your army, and its relevant Psychic Awakening book if that’s still current
  • The latest edition of Chapter Approved – the Munitorum Field Manual and the Grand Tournament Missions pack

Extra Rules You’ll Want to Read at Least Once or Be Familiar With

  • The latest FAQ/Errata for the Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook
  • The latest FAQ/Errata for your army’s Codex
  • The latest Big FAQ for the game

There are a few other documents you’ll want to be familiar with before you go to the shop to play. First, go to the Warhammer Community site and check out the Core Rulebook FAQ. This document answers some simple but fundamental questions that might arise during play. Familiarity with this document will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

As you build your army, check out the FAQs/Errata for the rulebook and your army’s Codex. In addition to answering questions raised during play, these documents contain rules changes and clarifications that you need to be familiar with. Some of these changes are huge, so you’re going to need to be familiar with them. They may have major implications for how your army plays. You may even want to print a copy of your Codex FAQ to bring with you.

You’re also going to want to be familiar with Chapter Approved (“CA” for short). This is an annual collection of rules updates that includes new narrative scenarios, cool new rules to play around with in open play, and points updates and new missions for matched play. Although there’s matched play missions in the core rulebook, it’s very common for “matched play” games to use the missions from the Chapter Approved Grand Tournament pack. Crusade also has some supplements and these add new missions, relics, and mechanics – whether you want these will depend on your group and how they’re approaching a campaign. 

If, at this point, you’re thinking that there’s a lot of content spread over a lot of sources well, you’re not wrong. There are a few other rules sources we haven’t mentioned yet, but most people will never need those so we’ll cover them in future articles.

Bigger and Better Battles

If you’ve read all the rules above, you’ve got everything you need to play a game of 40k at your local shop with total strangers. We sincerely hope it goes well and you have a great time. As time goes on, you’ll want to branch out and read more. Start with the Codex and errata sheets for armies you play against often. Understanding the options they have available to them will help you create strategies to use against them. Choose the rules that appeal to you and play the game you want to play, whether it’s a competitive tournament list, a narrative campaign, or just a fun game between friends.

One other important aspect to getting started is etiquette, and how you approach coming to the table – Garrett wrote up a great intro to this here. Otherwise, from this point on you can either check out the “Getting Started” article for your faction included in the list here, or start thinking about getting better at Warhammer 40,000, which you can find within the Start Competing page – we talk about upping your game here and understanding probability, a hugely important factor in knowing what’s actually happening at the table, here.