Getting Into Warhammer 40K, Part 2: Choosing Your Faction
Choosing a faction in Warhammer 40K is sort of like taking a Rorschach test. One person may look at Space Marines and see bland sci-fi beefcakes, while another might get excited by their Darth Vader helmets and cool pauldrons. Likewise, a normal person may look at Tyranids and immediately feel disgusted, whereas most sociopaths actively enjoy the idea of swarming their opponents with hordes of eyeless monsters.
I think it’s most important to choose an army that excites you, either because their playstyle fits yours, the lore fascinates you, or their units look awesome. If you haven’t read my journey toward loving Nurgle and the Death Guard, you can read that here.
Two notes before we dive into the factions: first, I don’t have the rulebooks for all these armies, so I’m speaking generally about their character and abilities. Second, these are not all the factions in the game–the bulk of the rest will come in the next article.
Astra Militarum (Imperial Guard)
In a galaxy full of seven-foot-tall giants in power armor, transdimensional berserker demons, and Egyptian cyborg skeletons, the Imperial Guard is a bunch of average Joes with rifles, bayonets, and a dream: to drown the enemy in a sea of their broken, bloody bodies. To paraphrase Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket: “Guardsmen die. That’s what they’re here for.”
The Guard do best when they’re shooting down the enemy with massed ranks of infantry and blowing them apart with volleys from huge fuck-off tanks. What the Imperial Guard models lack in individual firepower or survivability, they more than make up for in numbers, support units, and awesome armored vehicles (seriously, those tanks are boss). Synergy is a big part of what makes the Guard terrifying on the battlefield, so keep in mind that you’re going to need units like Commissars, Sergeants, and Commanders.
If you scoff at the idea of playing an army of grunts, my friend Will recommends reading the Black Library series Gaunt’s Ghosts, which follows an Imperial Guard company called the Tanith First and Only as they fight their way through massed artillery, Chaos forces, and the horrors of war. There’s something heroic in playing an army of normal mortals who manage to beat the worst in the galaxy with some armored vehicles, a couple machine guns, and a brazen disregard for their own lives.
Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines)
Space Marines are what happen when you cross a human with an adult polar bear and slap it in power armor. Space Marines chew bubblegum and kill heretics, and they’ve been out of bubblegum for ten millennia. They’re the flagship faction of Warhammer 40K, and they’re the guys to call when you need Emperor-approved badasses.
Space Marines are tough, pack a good amount of damage, and have a nice variety of units and weapons. Though you’re usually forced to field fewer of them than, say, the Imperial Guard, you don’t need to rely on superior numbers—each of your units is a mobile wrecking ball of righteous fury, spitting bolter fire. Add in some amazing combat support units and dreadnoughts (living sarcophagi mechs with assault cannons), and Space Marines are rock-solid all-rounders who can suit almost any playstyle or scenario.
Space Marines are split into different legions, each with its own flavor and abilities: there’s the Dark Angels, Deathwatch, Ultramarines, and Blood Angels, just to name a few. The Dark Angels, for example, are an ancient legion that has access to more high-tech weaponry than others. They also have three different subfactions–the Greenwing, which specialize in “holding the line” in battles, the Ravenwing, which are all about fast-attack vehicles, and the Deathwing, which are elite veterans clad in heavy Terminator armor.
Adeptus Mechanicus (Machine Priests)
The Adeptus Mechanicus are a cult of pseudo-religious technophiles who worship the Machine God and hang out on big Forge Worlds scattered across the galaxy, cranking out machinery and weapons for the Imperium. Originally human, they’ve spent the past few millennia augmenting themselves with hardware and collecting ancient, high-powered tech. Their big clubhouse is on Mars, right next to Holy Terra (Earth).
Because they’re the only ones who actually know how to build and maintain technology in the Imperium (which looks upon science with fear and superstition), the Adeptus Mechanicus have access to some of the best weapons—seriously, their infantry is packing armor-piercing boom sticks that make Space Marines’ bolters look like staple guns. And because they’re a bunch of cyborgs, many of their special units have the ability to repair themselves.
Best of all, the Adeptus Mechanicus are best buds with the Knight Worlds, meaning that they have access to some of the coolest units in the games: Titans. Every Warhammer player dreams of owning one of these hundred-dollar behemoths and absolutely wrecking someone with it, and with the Machine Priests, all your wildest dreams can come true.
On the downside, they’ve got fewer vehicles to transport them around, bad leadership (which can cause units to flee if too many are killed), and a limited number of units available to play with.
Heretic Astartes (Chaos Space Marines)
Only one force in this universe is badass enough to withstand 10,000 years of continuous, no-holds-barred warfare against the Space Marines: Chaos Space Marines, also known as the Heretic Astartes or Traitor Legions. These sick bastards decided for one reason or another to betray the Emperor of Mankind and instead side with Chaos, a decision that has doomed them forever. Playing Chaos Marines is similar to playing normal Space Marines, but before you go and call these guys palette-swaps, shut the hell up and listen for a second.
Each Chaos Space Marine faction has its own cool, unique traits, just like the normal legions: the Death Guard, for example, have an ability called Disgustingly Resilient that allows all their units to soak up gunfire and knife wounds with their rotting flesh. They also get access to virulent diseases that can wipe out whole units and special rules that allow them to become a slow-moving juggernaut when it comes to infantry battles.
The Thousands Sons, meanwhile, are one of the few armies in the game that focuses on psykers, the psychic sorcerers of the Warhammer 40K universe. These tricky sons of bitches are highly mobile, disturbingly hard to kill, and able to pull of big, flashy magic effects that will blow your opponents’ minds. If Thousand Sons played Magic: The Gathering, they’d be building annoying mono-blue decks.
There’s something else Chaos Marines have that normal Marines don’t: daemons. Daemons take many forms, from titanic maws like the Great Unclean Ones to legions of horned murderers like Bloodletters, and most of them have the ability to make invulnerable saves, which can instantly negate points of damage. Downside? You usually have to summon them first, like any good Satanic cultist.
These guys are a bunch of fuckin’ nerds.
Aeldari, Drukhari, and Ynnari (The Eldar)
Eldar are for the kind of person who sympathizes with the graceful, sorrowful elves in Lord of the Rings more than the dirt-covered humans—the sort of cultured sci-fi wargamer who gazes in disdain at armies clad in chunky power armor and prefers more precision and beauty in their faction. If Space Marines are human meat tenderizers, Eldar are a tray of surgical tools.
In terms of lore, the Eldar are among the oldest and most advanced races in the galaxy, with an understanding of technology and the Warp that makes the Imperium look like hairy, religious cavemen (which, to be honest, they are). After reaching their peak, however, the Eldar fell into decadence and ended up unleashing a new Chaos God upon the galaxy, born from their collective unconscious. Now that Chaos God, Slaanesh, is slowly consuming the Eldar that survived the cataclysmic fall of their civilization.
Eldar are highly mobile, have excellent high-powered guns, strong and consistent psykers, and great flying units. Unfortunately, they’re also glass cannons: they snap like Pringles in the face of enemy fire and melee armies, and though they can dish out a lot of destruction, they can’t take much of it, especially considering that their units are usually small in number. On top of that, Eldar have a higher learning curve for new players, since each unit of soldiers is usually specialized for one task—if your specialists are in the wrong place with the wrong tools, they can get shredded like mozzarella cheese. That’s part of the strategy of Eldar, but it’s also one of the key drawbacks.
Apart from your vanilla Aeldari, there are also the Drukhari, Ynnari, and Harelquin sub-factions, each of which has their own flavor and plan to deal with the looming threat of their race’s extinction. Except the Harlequins. Nobody knows why they do anything.
Orks are the lovable, incredibly violent cockney ragamuffins of the 40K universe. Seriously, these guys draw their battle plans in crayons and have trouble pronouncing polysyllabic words. They call guns “shootas” and heavy machine guns “big shootas.” What they desperately, desperately lack in brainpower they make up for in sheer brawn and big, dumb smiles. Ork armies aren’t supposed to be too serious—they’re meant to be Judge Dredd mixed with old Popeye cartoons.
Orks like to travel in big ol’ hordes, so be prepared to have a lot of guys on the board mobbing your opponents. Orks excel at stabbing people at close range and bashing them apart with melee attacks, but their long-range weapons are spotty at best. This is mostly because they’re too stupid to build anything more complicated than a club and generally have to rely on scavenging and jury-rigging their equipment from fallen enemies. Though their weapons are generally unreliable, when they hit, they hit hard. Orks love big, flashy explosions and huge hailstorms of gunfire so much that they have their own recognized onomatopoeia for the sound a machine gun makes: “dakka dakka.” This, of course, leads to the immortal Ork quote “Never enough dakka.”
Necrons are robotic Egyptian space skeletons who have been scattered across the galaxy in giant, hidden tombs, awaiting the day when they can burst from their techno-sarcophagi and claim the stars in the name of primordial cosmic gods, called the C’tan. They’re basically cyber-liches, and they don’t take shit from nobody, especially not sad, fleshy organic lifeforms.
Necrons have a couple big things going for them: first, they’re made of the same liquid metal as the T-1000, meaning they can regenerate damage. Second, if you do manage to push them in a giant vat of molten lava (or you know, just shoot them enough), they have a chance to come back from the dead. Nothing hurts your opponent’s soul like spending a turn triumphantly wiping out half a squad of Necrons, watching you roll some dice, and seeing you put those little skeletons back on the table, one by one. On top of that, Necrons have incredibly powerful armor-piercing weapons across the board and additional protection for their vehicles in the form of quantum shielding. However, they pay for all these obscene necromantic goodies by being relatively slow and having no access to (or protection from) traditional psykers.
If you want to land on my personal Shit List forever, go ahead and play Tyranids.
I’m serious. Do it. Tweet a picture of your new Tyranid army at me along with a photo, and I will fight you in a bare-knuckle showdown on the Brooklyn Bridge. Because you are what’s wrong with this world.
Tyranids are the classic swarm army. If you’ve played against Zerg in Starcraft, you already know what they are and what they do (mostly because the Zerg are based on Tyranids). If not, imagine that you’re sitting across a table that is half-covered in a sea of little eyeless dinosaurs that move in packs of twenty. Sooner or later, the swarm is going to reach your guys, and though you may kill ten, twenty, or even thirty of them, it still may not be enough to save yourself.
Of course, my friend Will loves Tyranids. He’s very fond of quoting Phil Kelly, who once said “If your opponent is looking across the table at your army and thinking ‘how am I going to kill all of this?’, you’ve already won.”
In the Warhammer universe, Tyranids are less of an army and more of a galaxy-spanning hivemind that threatens to blot out the universe with creatures that can evolve and adapt to any threat. You’re essentially controlling a bunch of miniature xenomorphs that excel at melee, but Tyranids are (regrettably) very flexible, and come with a lot of different loadouts.
Tau Empire (For Real This Time)
All right, the truth about the Tau is that they’re essentially the only decent people in the entire goddamn galaxy. The Imperium are a bunch of corrupt, oppressive religious zealots who are too busy throwing millions of lives into the giant blender of perpetual war to realize that they’ve lost their humanity, Chaos is a rag-tag horde of power-hungry psychopaths and literal hell-spawn who would burn the galaxy to the ground in a heartbeat if they had the chance, and most alien races (excluding maybe the Aeldari) are terrifying, mindless engines of destruction whose sole purpose is to kill everyone and everything that isn’t them.
And that’s what made Warhammer 40K fun—no one’s the good guy, nobody deserves to live, and nothing can stop this bloody cycle of death, destruction, and war.
Then Tau had to come along and offer a legitimate hope that somehow the races of the galaxy could put aside their differences and sacrifice their own self-interest for the Greater Good. Instead of being dogmatic purists, the Tau welcome all races to fight by their side. Instead of ultimate dominion over the galaxy, they want to establish a new order that brings peace to all. Instead of having looking like normal faces, they look like blue fish people.
All jokes aside, Tau is one of the stronger ranged armies in the game, with excellent guns and a lot of infantry. They’re similar to a mix of Eldar and Imperial Guard, with massed infantry units pouring some really nasty fire into enemy lines. Their soldiers and tech look very sleek and space age-y when compared to some other factions (like Orks or the World War II-looking Imperial Guard), and one of their key selling points is their big Gundam-esque mech suits.
Still, if an opponent manages to endure the withering fire and get into melee combat with Tau, these guys will generally crumple like a soda can. Another downside is that the Tau, like Necrons, have almost zero psykers on their side, making them extremely vulnerable to sorcerers and psychic powers.
That’s it for the first part of the faction overview–next one will include the Genestealers, Grey Knights, Imperial Knights, and more!