Getting Started With Warhammer 40,000: The Basics

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Welcome to the Wonderful World of Warhammer Forty Thousand! If you’re reading this article, you’re either a relatively new player to the game looking to learn the ropes or a more experienced player ready to comb over our mistakes and roast us in the comments section. In this article – the first in a larger series – we’ll cover the basics of Warhammer 40,000 tactics, hopefully arming you with the foundations you need to understand the game and start playing better. Our goal with this series 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

by Condit and TheChirurgeon

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.

*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.
***This one is mandatory

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, and all in about ten pages. 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. If you bought one of the starter sets, such as Dark Imperium, Forgebane, Tooth and Claw, or Wake the Dead, you’ll find that GW has helpfully included a copy of these rules in your box set, so you won’t need to track them down. Otherwise, you can find them for free on the Warhammer Community site in the “Battle Primer”, 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 need it for your first game. Mark it down as a purchase for later.

In addition to the Core Rules, you’re going to need to get a copy of the rules for your army. Army-specific rules come in two flavors: Index and Codex. You want the Codex. The Indexes were stopgaps to allow players with existing armies to use their models in eighth edition. Your army’s Codex contains updated datasheets and point costs, additional psychic powers and relics, and faction-specific stratagems that let you spend your CP on cool effects. Don’t bother with the Index for now.

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, such as asymmetrical missions and exotic battlefields. The most prominent examples of Narrative Play are the rules for Planetstrike, Stronghold Assault, and Cities of Death in the Chapter Approved supplements. Narrative play games tend to add additional mission- and battlezone-specific rules. Narrative Play can provide some of the coolest ways to play, but you’ll want to work out the parameters of the game with your opponent before diving in.
  • Matched Play tends to focus on balanced play between evenly-matched armies in symmetrical scenarios. Matched Play games use points, and tend to have a significant amount of additional rules based on feedback from players and tournament results. Tournaments use Matched Play rules.

That said, 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. We’ll dive into matched play rules more in future articles, especially when we start talking about tactics and strategy for 40k in more detail — those discussions will primarily center on matched play.


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

Now that you’ve got a few games under your belt, it’s time to head down to your FLGS**** 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, the Warhammer Community site (where you can find FAQs and rules updates), and Chapter Approved: 2018 Edition. Together, these rules will form the core that you need in order to play in almost any game.
****Friendly Local Game Store

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).

The Rules You’ll Need

If you take nothing else away from this section, take this: Do not show up to play with nothing more than a list-generator printout. The last thing you want to deal with is making a critical error because some well-intentioned stranger screwed up copying the rules into Battlescribe, so make sure to bring your actual rules with you, whether that’s in print or on a tablet or other device. You’re already bringing boxes full of minis; a shopping bag to carry your rules isn’t going to break your back.*****
*****Note: This assumes average levels of back health and is no way meant to construe ableism. At Goonhammer, recommend a regular exercise regimen that includes deadlifts, rows, pull-downs, and good mornings.

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.

As far as what rules go in the bag, this is the point where you’re going to want the full rulebook. In addition to the Core Rules, it includes the rules for constructing detachments, which give you the CP you’re going to need to fuel the stratagems in your Codex. It also contains rules for deployment, mission objectives, and terrain that you need to be familiar with. Take a close read through the remaining rules before your first outing at the shop.

Hopefully you can get away with three books, but these days it can require many more.

Core Rules You Will Eventually Need:

  • Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook
  • The Codex for your army
  • The latest edition of Chapter Approved

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

FAQs can be found on the Warhammer Community site

There are a few other documents you’ll want to be familiar with before you go to the shop to play. First, go to Warhammer Community site and check out the Designer’s Commentary. 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. While you’re there, read the Big FAQ. Each spring and fall, GW makes a balance pass to address imbalances in the game. Read this FAQ carefully – it’s relatively short but makes substantial changes to the game.

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. The missions contained in CA are better balanced and more fun than the missions in the core rulebook, and the points updates are crucial.

Currently, there are two editions of CA that have been released: 2017 and 2018. However, the list of updated points values in CA 2018 includes all the points updates from both CA 2017 and CA 2018. Unfortunately, neither edition contains points values for units that were not updated, so when building your list, you’ll need to refer to both your army’s Codex and the most recent edition of CA to get all your points values. If you’re only going to pick up one edition of CA, get the most recent one.

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.****** Check out the campaign books, like Vigilus Defiant, for more list-building options and new terrain and battlezone rules to keep things fresh. Look into CA 2017 for more game modes, missions, and battlezones. 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.
******You may also find that someone has been cheating against you for like, the last three months, possibly because they just mis-interpreted a rule. I’m looking at you, GREG


In our next section, we’ll discuss basic statistics and how you can use those concepts to make better decisions during your games, predict outcomes, and build better army lists.


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