What Even Is Warhammer 40,000? Let Us Find Out, Together

This article was partially inspired by a twitter from Warmistress Tanya, who is a good poster and also (disclosure) her posts have appeared on Goonhammer. I love this game, but she is absolutely, one thousand percent, correct.

The thing about Warhammer 40k that makes me insane is how you can understand the basics of it – move, shoot, use a strat, punch – and still be utterly lost by what happens while playing. There are so many interlocking rules that knowing the core gameplay loop hardly even matters. Let’s say you have a handle on it. You know what the movement phase is, the hit/wound/save sequence, and how fighting works. You are now ready to play. 

Ah, hold on, wait. No. I am receiving news now that you got critically murdered turn 1 because the other player had a Bit they could do, involving CORE and Auras and damage reduction and exploding 6s and re-rolls, and it caused a bunch of Mortal Wounds. Enjoy getting slowly fed into the trash compactor for two hours. Better luck next time.

The problem I am having, and you may also be having, is that the theory of Warhammer barely resembles how it works in practice. I don’t think this is a bad thing; I don’t want to revert to early 8th edition Indexhammer. The game is cool now, and it’s interesting, but it’s also a lot, all of the time.

Codexes are built around datasheets, which are supposed to describe everything about a unit, but most of what determines whether it sucks or not isn’t even on there. 40k has the most insane divide between “stat block values” and “what a unit can realistically be expected to do” of any game I have ever seen. Shooting at Deathwing Terminators with heavy bolters should wound on 3s, except it doesn’t because of Transhuman Physiology, except also 6s to hit auto-wound, and also 6s to wound do Mortals instead. Have fun accounting for all that when you’re Doing Strategy. I don’t think anyone – maybe our own James Grover, but certainly no one in charge of designing this game – understands the full complexity of what 40k actually is presently. I’m willing to bet that every local group or scene is playing a different variation of the game, a shadow on the cave wall, none of them actually being the Platonic ideal of it.

Hell yeah. Credit: Games Workshop

But let’s compare some units. Land Speeder Typhoons with missiles and a multi-melta are 120 points each, and two of them totals out to 12W at T6, with 8 S8 shots (half at d6 and the rest at d6+2 if you’re within 12″), and a 16” move. That’s the same points cost as 4 multi-melta attack bikes, which have 16W at T5, and the same number of shots (albeit all at d6+2 within 12″) and a 14″ move. Their other stats are identical, normal Marine stuff: same leadership, same BS/WS, same armor save. They should be roughly equivalent, but one of these is an expensive trap for morons (ie, me), and the other is a spammable meta choice. Why? They should be interchangeable. Point-for-point, you roll the same number of shots, and they all hit on 3s. The speeders are nicer, even, in some ways – higher toughness, can soak a couple of extra wounds before they lose any shooting output (though not as many overall), and they move slightly faster, on top of having FLY. The bikes do get 4 extra bolter shots each, which is nice for chip damage or splitting fire, but the real difference is that Speeders aren’t CORE, but they are VEHICLE. They get no access to re-rolls on hits/wounds, and an apothecary can’t heal/resurrect them, or give them a 6+ FnP Aura.

I refuse to believe they’re doing this on purpose – which beggars belief because it happens all the goddamn time, they make a random old-as-crap model the belle of the ball – I think it’s because there’s just too many rules, and no one actually knows how they all work.

The thing with the bikes isn’t like a -1 damage ability, or a psychic power to let one unit shoot through walls, where you can explain it pre-game. You can try, but no one will remember due to having their own problems, and also it would involve running through the full codex and explaining the interactions, while letting them digest every little morsel until they know what’s about to happen to them. The pre-game phase could last two hours, and it still wouldn’t be enough, somebody already lost the game in the list-construction phase. It’s a hopeless task, explaining Warhammer to humans. Entire websites have been built on this premise.

All of that said, these are space marines. On some level, everyone knows how they work because we all have an army of them hidden somewhere. Now picture the same problem but with AdMech, or Drukhari, or Sisters, or whatever the fuck Craftworlds are going to be. If you’ve never played as or against them, good luck having any clue what’s going on the first time you do. There’s faction rules, sub-faction rules, stratagems, abilities that change by game turn – Power From Pain is at least a linear progression, but I can’t wait to see what kind of buck-nasty action players get up to with Custodes and Martial Ka’tahs. The upside here is that if you want to cheat at Warhammer, it sure is easy these days to make up outrageous lies about stuff and brow-beat your opponent into accepting it.

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Here’s another fun example. You know about the three movement phases, right? Regular movement, obviously, and the free real estate that is the charge phase (“always be 17.1 inches away from Death Guard” is a harsh life lesson), but then there’s the realest pro gamer time: consolidate/pile-in shenanigans. You can’t move in the consolidation step unless you end up closer to an enemy, which feels like a real bad trap when you first notice that tagging an enemy model in base-to-base means you don’t get to consolidate at all. Since the natural impulse is to slam your dudes all the way in, a savvy player outmaneuvering you with free movement in the combat phase feels like cheating. It isn’t, but it feels like it is. They know something you don’t, and it is a mondo “oof” the first time you clock that you are not playing remotely the same game as the person across the table. 

I love 40k, I really do. It’s a lot to deal with and sometimes I find it impossible to analyze what’s going on, or predict what’s going to happen, so I drift rudderlessly around the table and get demolished. What does all this shit even do.

I don’t have a solution to offer here. Hell, I’m not even sure this is something that requires a solution in the first place. Competitive 40k is a complex system to get spun up on – not only to understand the mechanics and the core rules, but to be legitimately good at it, to compete in a real way. I’m not sure it’s worse than modern Necromunda, or keeping tabs on all the wacky shit that can happen in a Crusade. My only advice here is “anticipate intense trauma” and “do the work”. Make your cheat sheets and try to be a good opponent, but at the end of the day just play the game and screw up until the right moves are seared into your brain matter. There’s nothing I can offer here beyond getting the reps in and taking your lumps. Maybe it never works, I dunno. 

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

If there is a way through, it’s in player solidarity. Bombard the universe with 40k knowledge. Psychically broadcast any weird facts or rules you find, until there’s an ambient warhammer zeitgeist swirling around the immaterium that we can all patch into. Playing more games is the start, but maybe the Posting Astronomicon will take us the rest of the way. 

I dunno. Yell at me in the comments if you feel like it.