Getting Into Warhammer 40K, Part 4: How to Build an Army (and Fight!)
This is gonna be a quick-and-dirty intro to how to play Warhammer 40K, which should hopefully be enough of a primer to help you understand what you’re getting into. If you’ve come this far, God help you, because in all likelihood you’re already setting aside a large chunk of your next paycheck to get a shiny new box of minis.
You’ll be one of us soon.
If you haven’t read the previous articles on the basics, choosing your faction, or choosing your allies, go back and read those suckers. Otherwise, you’re probably not ready to digest the complex, 4-D chess-level advice I’m about to hit you with.
Note: A lot of this stuff is covered in the Official Battle Primer, but that can be dry and confusing. This is much more fun.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO PLAY WARHAMMER?
The primary source of joy in Warhammer is rolling the fickle but beautiful six-sided die (known as a ‘d6’ to initiates). If you’re doing well, you’re rolling a lot of d6 each turn, and rolling them well.
In fact, you can think of yourself as a d6 farmer: you plant the dice you want by choosing the right Units and equipment, you cultivate those dice by giving them the best bonuses you can, and then you watch your dice sprout when you roll ‘em. Then you pick out the ripest, juiciest dice and use them to kill your opponent.
Of course, there’s more than just rolling dice—there’s tactics, strategy, and springing nasty surprises on your opponent. But let’s start at the beginning—building your army roster, or your “list.”
ASSEMBLING YOUR ARMY
So let’s say you’ve chosen your faction (be it pansy-ass Eldar or the filthy, filthy Tyranids), bought the Codex that goes along with it (which gives you all your units’ stats, equipment, and lore), bought your models and painted them all (which is an article in itself). Let’s say you’ve done all that. Finally, you’re ready. Ready to deliver some high-velocity, tabletop miniature ass-whoopings.
Just hold on a second.
If you’re going to play against an opponent, you gotta make sure the playing field is even. And you do that by totaling up your army’s “points.” Every squad of soldiers, every vehicle, and every piece of equipment in your army has a point value, and when you add ‘em all up, you get a number that roughly estimates how tough they are.
So, it’s time to choose your new Brute Squad.
Choosing Units and Models
Each individual little guy on your table is a Model. Models almost always travel in groups, called Units. Here’s the basics on how Units work:
- A Unit is always made up of a single type of Model, like Ork Boyz or Genestealer Cultists.
- The number of models in a Unit can vary, so you can adjust how many guys you want in a single Unit.
- A Unit moves and attacks as one group, and usually have to stay grouped together or suffer penalties.
- If there’s only one Model in a Unit, it makes up its own Unit.
You’re generally going to want to use different Units in different games to counter or smash whatever you think your opponent is packing, or to run different types of strategies. Each type of Unit has strengths and weaknesses, and half the fun of building your army is choosing the right Units for your strategy.
Example: Say I’m gonna play a small game with a 400-point max. I choose a Unit of 5 Plague Marines because they’re flexible and tough, a Noxious Blightbringer to help them move across the tabletop quickly, and a Lord of Contagion to serve as my army’s leader and generally fuck shit up in melee. That’s 3 different units, 7 different models, for a total of 278 points. If I’m going up against an army with strong ranged weapons, I’m gonna want to add a Unit of 10 Poxwalkers to protect my Plague Marines from gunfire, too. Poxwalkers adds another 60 points, for a total of 338 points.
Some armies, like Space or Chaos Marines, have access to a sci-fi Skymall catalog of equipment, from chainswords to plasma pistols. Other factions, like Imperial Guard, get a rifle, knife, and the fervent hope that their Commissar knows what he’s doing.
If you’ve got the luxury of having a big equipment list, you can go wild customizing your units, allowing otherwise identical units to take on different roles, like long-range artillery bombardment or up-close melee shredding. Some weapons are specially suited to dealing with vehicles, or bring the user huge buffs.
Take the Combi-Melta, for example: it slices through armor and deals a d6 worth of damage at 12 inches away, and double that when within 6 inches. If you have an army that thrives in getting up close and personal, a Combi-Melta becomes the bane of any enemy beefcake that gets too close, whether it’s one of those weeb Tau mecha suits or a straight-up tank.
Even though you might be tempted to blow all your points on the flashiest gear, remember that equipment and models both cost points. This means outfitting four Space Marines with Golden Fuckmotron 9000s might not get the same mileage as eight Space Marines with Bolters.
Example: For my 400-point game, I don’t have too many extra points to blow on cool gear, so I want to make my equipment choices count:
- Lord of Contagion: The Lord is all about wrecking in melee. I’d love to give him a Plaguereaper, but a Manreaper scythe is less costly. He’s gonna get shit done either way, so that’s fine.
- Plague Marines: Most of these guys are gonna get the basic loadout: Bolters and Plague Knives, which cost nothing for them. The Plague Knives are good in melee and the Bolters are decent at range, but I am gonna give one guy a Plague Belcher which is a short-range flamethrower-like weapon that automatically hits. The idea is to get this whole Unit into close range ASAP and start spraying infantry with bile, then outclass ’em in melee.
- Plague Champion: I get to designate one Model in this Unit to be my Plague Champion, who’s essentially the squad leader. He gets access to cooler weaponry, so I give him a Combi-Melta to deal with tougher, high-value enemy models at close range and the rather brutal Flail of Corruption for the inevitable melee slaughter to come.
- Noxious Blight Bringer: This guy’s basic loadout is a Cursed Bell and Plasma Pistol, which is just fine–he’s not going to be a big combat asset, but his buffs to my Plague Marines are gonna be invaluable. The Plasma Pistol packs a pretty decent kick anyway.
- Poxwalkers: All these guys get are Improvised Weapons, so not much choice here. Poxwalkers’ main job is to act as meat shields for the main force and gum up enemies in melee, so that’s fine.
Putting It All Together
People spend hours carefully choosing what units they want in their army, what kind of weapons they’re going to equip ‘em with, and weighing the cost and benefits of say, giving one squad a heavy weapon or adding a couple extra units. Finally, you have your ‘list’—the units and equipment you’re going to play with. This should include an HQ unit, which is like your army’s commander:
- Lord of Contagion with Manreaper (HQ) (120+17)
- 5 Plague Marines with Bolters, Plague Knives, and a Plague Belcher (95 +10)
- Includes Plague Champion with Combi-Melta and Flail of Corruption (10 + 17)
- Noxious Blight Bringer with Cursed Bell and Plasma Pistol (63 + 7)
- 10 Poxwalkers with Improvised Weapons (60)
Total: 399 points
Your Codex is gonna have all this information, along with a quicker, dirtier version of points called ‘Power Ratings,’ which can be used if you just want to slap together an army for an impromptu game without doing all the math.
Be advised, however: if you’re not down with doing a lot of basic math, you picked the wrong fucking game.
ATTACKS, DEFENSES, AND STATS
Okay…okay…you’ve done all the bookkeeping, all the high-level strategic planning for your army, double-checked your list and run through various contingencies. You’re ready to wage war. But…how do you do that?
Warhammer’s combat system and statblocks can seem confusing and complicated, and that’s because they are. Remember that metaphor I used about being a d6 farmer? This is where you learn how heart-breaking and difficult farming is.
For the sake of us all, I’ve tried to explain this as simply as possible.
The Basic Stats:
- Movement: how far a unit can move, in inches.
- Wounds: a model’s hit points or health. Each time a model takes damage, you put that amount of little wound markers on it. When the markers add up to a model’s Wound stat, it’s dead.
- Attacks: the number of attacks your model can make in a turn.
Self-explanatory so far, right? For reference, most models in a unit have 1 wound and 1 attack. Around 6 inches of movement is standard for Space Marines, while other factions, like the Eldar or Imperial Guardsmen, have higher or lower movement speed.
Attacks and Weapon Saves:
Let’s get into attacking next. Attacks rely on two stats, which are confusingly called “Saves.” Think of a ‘save’ as a number you have to meet or beat when you roll a die. Each model has two ‘weapon saves,’ which determine how good they are at using said weapons:
- Melee Save: what a unit has to roll on a six-sided die to make a successful melee attack
- Ballistic Save: what a unit has to roll on a six-sided die to make a successful ranged attack.
Every time you have a model fire its bolter or swing its axe, you have to roll a die for it. If the result on a die is below your melee or ballistic save, congrats, you’re a goddamn failure—you automatically miss. Nothing’s worse than letting loose a salvo of gunfire on your enemy from three inches away, only to roll a slew of 1’s on the dice.
However, when you do manage to avoid embarrassing yourself and a few of your models match or exceed their ballistic save, that means that they hit their targets!
Strength, Toughness, and Saves:
All right, now that brings us to the slightly more complex stats. These are arguably the most important, since they can mean the different between a Chaos Cultist and a Chaos Space Marine:
- Strength: a measure of the model’s overall ability to kick ass. The stronger you are the, easier you can wound an enemy.
- Toughness: a measure of a model’s general beefiness. The tougher you are, the harder you are to wound.
- Save: what a unit has to roll on a die to negate damage from an enemy’s attack.
This is where things get weirdly complicated. Intuitively, you’d think the following:
“Okay, my glorious Death Guard have fired at those filthy, effeminate Eldar, and three of my Plague Marines passed their Ballistic Saves, which means I get to do three wounds to the Unit! Thank you, Papa Nurgle!”
Pump the brakes, sonny. Back it up. There’s still the Wound roll and the Save roll.
Wounding the Enemy
After your Plague Marines hit those Eldar, you take all the dice that succeeded on their attacks and roll ‘em again to see if your Marines sheer firepower is strong enough to get through the Eldar unit’s defenses and inflict some Wounds. This is called the “Wound Roll.”
Here’s how it works: if your Strength is higher than your enemy models’ Toughness, the minimum number you have to roll on your dice to Wound is lower and easier to hit. If it’s the opposite situation, it’s harder to Wound your opponent.
So let’s say you rolled like a god, made all three Wound rolls, and now your opponent is looking at three Wounds to his Eldar Unit. You’re a champion. You’re the king of the world. You’re unstoppable, right?
Nope—you forgot your opponent’s Save roll.
Every Unit has a Save stat, which it rolls when it gets hit with wounds (confusingly this ‘Save’ stat is totally different than the aforementioned Ballistic or Melee ‘saves’). For each Wound, that unit gets a chance to roll a die and negate it. Some Units, like Poxwalkers, have 7+ Save stats, which means it’s almost impossible for them to negate Wounds when they roll their dice. Others, like powerful warlords, may only have a 2+ Save stat, making them able to shrug off most damage.
This brings us to the most important and soul-crushing rule of Warhammer combat:
The Most Important Rule in Warhammer Combat:
To kill anything, you need to succeed twice and your opponent needs to fail once.
But let’s say your opponent fails two of his Saves. If that’s the case, pop the champagne and cue your music, because you get to inflict wounds on that bastard’s Unit! Because these Eldar are squishy and have only one wound each, your opponent chooses two models in that unit to assign the wounds to, thereby killing two of his little guys.
You did it—you killed something in Warhammer! You took all your opponent’s carefully painted minis and threw them into the bowels of hell, where they belonged from the beginning. Now, you truly are the lord of war!
HOT TIP: When your attack in Warhammer, you attack a whole Unit, not individual models. When you inflict wounds on a Unit, your opponent gets to decide which models in that Unit get the damage.
At the end of the game round, you get to reap the further benefits of killing stuff—Leadership checks.
- Leadership: a measure of a Unit’s ability to clench their butts and not flee when they lose their comrades.
For every model a unit has lost, that unit has to make a Leadership check by rolling a six-sided die and adding the number of models that were wiped out this round. If the roll is higher than their Leadership stat, you check the difference and remove that many models from the Unit
Example: Let’s say the Unit of Eldar has a Leadership characteristic of 6. At the end of combat, the player controlling the unit rolls a d6 and gets a 5. After adding the three models he just lost, that number becomes 7, which is one greater than the Unit’s Leadership stats. That means one surviving model deserts their post and runs for it, removing them from the game.
Summing Up Combat
To sum up: you gotta hit, you gotta wound, and your opponent has to fail his save. Tied into that is the number of attacks you can make, how high your weapon saves are, how tough your opponent is, how strong you are, and finally, how good your opponent is at saving from wounds.
If you can understand that whole Rube Goldberg machine of a process, congrats–you’re now qualified to start rolling some d6, as well as grasp the subtleties of goddamned international accounting practices.
Veterans may notice that I’ve skipped over the different types of units, the deployment phase, or the turn order in the game. That’s because we’re gonna cover those in the next article—the PART 4: HOW TO FIGHT CONTINUED–THE RECKONING.