Unless you have been living under a rock (or perhaps deep in some form of cave system), you’ll have noticed that there has been rather a lot of noise coming from the direction of Nottingham. For it is here that the goliath of the UK games industry, Games Workshop, is based. Well, a new version of their Warhammer 40,000 miniatures war game has just been released and trust me, they really want you to know about it.
I shall briefly pause for you to praise or vent your spleen about the good/evil that Games Workshop is responsible for. Over the years they have been vilified and justifiably so, however they of late are trying finally to move with the times and fix some of the sins of the past. And that’s all I’m going to say about that right now.
Thirty years ago, designer Rick Priestley, introduced the world to the first edition of Warhammer 40,000, also known as Rogue Trader (also known as 40k). This adapted the rule system of the Warhammer Fantasy game and placed it into the sprawling universe of the Imperium – a vast human stellar empire. The game was designed as a skirmish storytelling system – with the rules encouraging a games master role to design scenarios and battlefields for the other players to fight over.
The setting proved extremely popular and has sprawled into multiple novels, sourcebooks animated movies, video games building upon the violent history of the fictitious Imperium. Whilst the original 40K universe proposed a dark vision of the future (think of a sci-fi universe designed by Iron Maiden for its first iteration), the subsequent revisions have embraced the gothic and bleak going full death metal. In a nutshell, The ruler of the Imperium is a barely living husk encased in a life support system, whose will is interpreted by a council of bureaucrats and priests, who make brutal edicts uncaring of their effects on much of humanity. Vicious aliens gnaw at the edges of human space – seeking expansion, extermination or to devour humanity. Throughout the worlds of the Imperium – traitors and mutants seek to overthrow the current oppressive rulers. And amongst this melting pot of mayhem, the daemons of the warp (a parallel universe of madness and chaos) seek to corrupt and destroy everything. This is what is known as the ‘grimdark’ setting of Warhammer 40k.What we saw with the first three editions of the game was a stripping back of the rule system and move from skirmish to a larger scale system. 3rd edition radically overhauled movement, shooting and combat in true 40K style it eradicated its roots in Warhammer Fantasy becoming its own creature entirely some would argue this was a start of a slippery slope.
Personally, the editions that followed, 4th and 5th, were the game at its peak. Yes – there were issues of balance which veterans of that time period will remember. There are several armies that passed into infamy whose combinations and unit choices made them the king of a thriving tournament scene. But for the time, the basic rules, whilst creaking at the edges, held up. Then along came 6th edition.
The 6th and 7th editions were when 40k lost a lot of players. It’s not that the rules were bad – they were at heart the same system we had inherited in 3rd. But it was the extras. Allies rules were introduced and in some cases, were utterly schizophrenic (of course my upstanding soldiers of humanity would ally with soulless robots who wear human skins like rags …). Flyers came into the main rules for the first time and promptly dominated the game for a while. Lords of War – massive machines previously reserved for special friend games, became part of the main rules. And army construction was now more akin to algebra than anything resembling fun. Add into this the extra supplements for Warzones; Flyer aces; Fortifications and formations (special collections of units that existed outside of normal army construction rules) and you had a system that was disappearing up its own wormhole.
And as a result, I like many others I’m sure stopped playing 40k. And that reason was 7th edition – playing a game was an intimidating and soulless prospect mired in volumes of rules and minutiae that sucked the fun out of the experience faster than the cold dark vacuum of warp space.
So with the troubles of 7th edition, Games Workshop has clearly seen that there is an issue here. And they have undertaken the most radical relaunch of the game since those heady days of 3rd edition back in 1998. And in this writer’s humble opinion, it might have just saved the game.
The first thing you notice is that the basic rules are 100% free. If you want to play a game of 40k, you go to the Games Workshop website and you download their pdf with the basic games rules; some illustrated examples and the basic scenario upon them. Yes – you need some miniatures and these are going to cost you. You also need the army books, of which there are currently five, which incorporate the rules for a few different forces in each. Only recently I picked up my epub copy of Index Xenos 1 which has rules for all the Eldar armies (about 4 of them), plus Necrons, for £12.99 which isn’t that bad in my opinion (just let’s not discuss the value of my current Eldar collection).
The rules themselves have been stripped down to 8 pages, which when you consider the weighty tomes of old, is a substantial decrease. Each turn is broken into a number of phases, starting with movement. Each unit moves a number of inches equal to its move statistic. Units can advance, which means they lose the ability to shoot certain weapons or charge later in the turn, by rolling a single six-sided dice and adding it to the movement distance. Terrain does not slow models down- except by having to avoid things they physically can’t move through or non-infantry model going beyond the ground floor of a building.
The psychic phase follows, which has had a suitably radical change. Previously players rolled dice from a pool and had to get 4 or higher on a number of those dice to use the power. Now each power has a target number to get on 2 dice. Equal or beat it and the power triggers. An opposing psyker can try to deny the power by beating the number you rolled on their dice. If you roll a double 1 or double 6 whilst attempting to cast, something has gone wrong and your model will take damage as a result.
One of the important rules of this phase is that no matter how many models you have that case use psychic powers, you are only allowed to attempt each power once. Previous iterations of the game had allowed this phase to become an arms race – with spamming of psykers and powers dominating the game to a ridiculous level. Whilst these abilities are indeed powerful, they are not as game breaking as they once were. More often they are buffs to other units, making them more accurate, harder to hit or more resistant to damage. Some attack powers still exist, but their damage is far more balanced.
Shooting still works similarly to previous editions, with each unit featuring a Ballistic Skill, which sets a target number to hit your target. Each weapon is given one of four types, which indicate how many shots it fires and at what range. Pistols can be used in close quarters, unlike other weapons. Heavy weapons become more inaccurate when you move with them. Rapid fire guns double their shots when in half range. And assault weapons can be fired even when the miniature has advanced, although they will suffer penalties to hit if they do so. What has gone from the game is the brightly coloured plastic templates that used to represent flamethrowers and explosive weapons. Blast weapons now do a random number of hits. Flamers are the same but suffer from a shorter range than most other guns but they make up for this by automatically hitting their targets.
I have mixed emotions about the loss of templates – they were always part of the 40k “visuals” to me. However, not being forced to spread your models out is nice and from a gaming perspective, the new rules reflect this new streamlined no-nonsense approach. I do lament the passing of the old flamer template, there was a certain visceral excitement in seeing how many luckless souls you could incinerate under it.
Wounding is still done on comparing a weapon’s Strength against a model’s Toughness – although gone is the old comparison chart and the statistics are no longer capped at a maximum strength of 10. Instead, if the numbers are the same, you wound on a 4+. If Strength is higher than Toughness it becomes 3+ (or 2+ if it is double or higher). The inverse is also true, so a higher Toughness will lead to 5+ or 6+ to wound. This change to wounding is frankly huge, as previously units could find themselves in situations incapable of hurting some of the big monsters or war machines. Now small arms fire has a chance, no matter how unlikely, that you can get a hit through. For each wound done, the model needs to take an armour save or suffer a wound. Previously, weapons either gave a full save or no save, dependent upon their armour penetration. In a throwback to 2nd edition, weapons now have save modifiers making the roll more difficult. However, being in cover also give bonuses to armour saves, representing the shot hitting a wall or tree trunk. This does mean that the more destructive the gun, the less likely cover will help.
Weapons now have a damage rating as well, which means that certain hits can do several wounds – another feature we have not seen since 2nd edition. Gone from this edition are the much-maligned Destroyer weapons which represented hugely destructive capabilities that just removed some models from play. Instead, we have mortal wounds – damage that ignores the wound roll/armour and is applied directly to the model in question.
Close combat works similar to shooting with the hit to wound rolls and armour saves. But when a unit attempts a charge (roll 2 dice and try to get within 1” of a model), that unit gets to fire overwatch. This is an out of sequence shooting attack that only hits on rolls of a 6 to represent the panic fire as something closes in for the kill. This is one of the better parts of the previous two editions and I am happy to see it remain. The order in which assault is done though is different – all models that charged this turn fight first. Then players alternate between units that remain in combat from previous turns. Selection the correct models to fight next becomes part of the strategy – when you suffer casualties, you can take away models that may be in combat with characters or units that have not fought yet. If you do so and they are not within an inch of an enemy model, they will not get to fight.
But what if your unit is struck in combat and will slowly be ground down with little chance to survive? Well lucky for you the new fall back rule comes into effect. A unit can move out of combat so long as all its members end up over an inch away from an enemy model. The unit that fell back cannot take any action this turn – it’s essentially carrying out a fighting withdrawal. But the unit it was in combat with is now exposed to the guns of your own force.
The last phase of the system is the morale phase. Previously units could be forced to take morale tests at several times during a single turn and failure would see the models run a random distance. Now any unit that lost a model checks its morale at the end of each player turn. You roll a dice and add the number of models lost from the unit that turn, for each point that number is over the unit’s leadership a single model is removed from the table to represent desertion in the ranks. It is certainly a cleaner system than previous efforts which saw broken units scattering to the four winds getting in the way of other models, but I cannot help but feel that something has been lost here. The rules feel a little bit too much like rules losing some of the thematic meat with units previously known for their stoicism in battle, such as Space Marines and their ‘And They Shall Know No Fear’ rule, now feeling a little less heroic.
Another area that has been cleared up is army selection, which I previously stated, had been a mess of formations and detachments and allies. The way they have resolved this is to give every unit a set of keywords to represent their allegiance. So a Blood Angel Space Marine has the keywords IMPERIUM; ADEPTUS ASTARTES and BLOOD ANGEL. When an army is chosen, you take one of these keywords as the basis for it. Then every miniature in the army must share that keyword. You may think that the best way to take an army would be with the broadest set of keywords, as taking an IMPERIUM army would give you access to Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Inquisitors, Assassins and more. However, the narrower keywords give you the most interactions and buffs, as certain characters will allow re-rolls or bonuses to their own faction. This is a soft way of encouraging characterful armies, rather than a very deliberate structuring that forces you to take the “right” type of force.
The units entries that form your army also contain all the rules you need to start playing with them straight away. Previous editions have seen special rules collected together in a single place in the rulebook. Some players may prepare this central resource, but I find it refreshing to not be having to refer back to the main rulebook to check exactly how each unit works. The one gripe I would have is that some units have abilities that are functionally the same but given different names and slightly different wording. A little bit more consistency would not have been a bad thing …
The rules allow for three different styles of army selection – the narrative play what you want approach or for the hardcore wargame aficionados detailed points for each unit and finally power level. Power levels are the most interesting to me only concerning themselves with unit size, rather than the in-depth working out of how much each upgrade is worth. The last game I played, I was able to have miniatures on the table in 5 minutes ready to play. And I’m really rather happy with the way it works – putting responsibility in the hands of the players to have a social experience, rather than a maths lesson prior to starting.
The game also provides a new system of command points, which are granted dependent upon how you have selected your army. These are spent during a turn in a number of ways – re-rolling a single dice; allowing a unit to fight out of turn in close combat, or automatically passing a morale test. You can only use them once in each phase; so if you re-roll a failed to hit roll, you could not then re-roll a wounding roll. This is a welcome additional layer of strategy that does not overwhelm the basic game and drawing out your opponents use of those points at the wrong times can be a crucial part of a game.
Before you come to believe that my opinion on the new 40k is all sunshine and puppies, there are parts that still don’t sit so well with me. For example – tanks. Tanks now have a Toughness and Wounds like everything else – I have no problem with that. But like everything else, they have a 360° firing arc; suffer penalties for shooting heavy weapons on the move; and cannot shoot when falling back. That’s right – my hulking great piece of metal is put off shooting by some rookie soldier with a knife. The loss of the old system means vehicles no longer suffer hits that can knock out weapons or immobilise them. Instead, as wounds are suffered certain characteristics, like move and Ballistic Skill go down it works but from a thematic standpoint its, all a bit mechanical I lament the passing of the critical hit tables.
Flyers have been both reigned in and fixed? They now move in straight lines with a single turn of up to 90° beforehand. But can still shoot in any direction – not just their facing. I guess you could argue this represents them straffing over where they move, but when its target is to the model’s far right? However, being able to be shot with a -1 modifier (rather than the previous only hit on 6s rule) and allowing models with jump packs and other means of flight the ability to attack it in close combat is really welcomed.
There are occasions where giving vehicles toughness and wounds makes a lot of sense. Under previous editions, the Eldar Wraithlord Walker was treated as a monster, whilst the Space Marine Dreadnaught was a vehicle. Both were mechanical constructs controlled by a pilot entrapped within but were given very different ways of working. Now the two have a far easier point of comparison for units that are functionally very similar.There are some idiosyncrasies in some of the rules, particularly with re-rolls. One of the main rules is that re-rolls occur before any dice are modified. So this may lead you to a situation where you cannot re-roll a dice result that is ultimately unsuccessful. An example in my first game was my opponent hit me with a weapon that wounded on 3 or higher and re-rolled failures. However, I had an ability that meant all wound rolls suffered -1 modifier. So whilst he was able to re-roll the 1s and 2s, the 3s had to remain where they were because at the time of the reroll, they were successful.
What I am most impressed with is that the game has represented a great rebalancing of the 40k universe. I accept it is not perfect (show me a miniatures game that is …), but the opportunity to start from scratch has given the designers the chance to look over what had been overly powerful and what had been neglected, before bringing it all back in line. There are still some poor units, but they are much fewer than previous editions. What does bode well for this is GW’s approach to Age of Sigmar, which has seen points values and unit rules sensibly evolve to bring better balance. It is highly likely that these miniatures may see some love as the playtests reveal where they may be lacking.
And the miniatures – GW have treated us to a whole new set of Space Marines and Deathguard (traitors dedicated to the Chaos God of disease). And for the most part, they are fantastic (the Poxwalkers are not for me – but I know people who like them). GW just know how to make brilliant miniatures and it is fair to say that they are the world leaders are producing them. As they have become more and more experienced at the process, their misses (of which they have been many in the past) have become less and less. The recent Dark Imperium box represents outstanding value when you consider the contents in miniatures alone. From a collecting perspective, GW boxed games are without doubt, great value for money, even if the games may be at times appear a little lacklustre or rules light (Execution Force – I am looking in your direction …). Their Start Collecting boxes are equally good entry points for what is an expensive hobby.
And that may be the ultimate barrier to people who are considering getting the newest version of 40k. It is still a very pricey hobby, especially if the bug gets hold of you. Of course, there are bargains to be found – eBay and trading sites if you want to dig around the internet a bit. But be prepared for a fair amount of your money to end up in GWs bank account.
But for those of you like me, whose collection of miniatures has been gathering dust whilst the worst of 7th edition was ravaging around you, there is literally no excuse to not give it a go. A couple of downloads; a maximum of £15 for an army book and you are ready to play. And despite its oddities and quirks, what you will find at its heart is probably the best 40k experience in some time. If 3rd edition was a revolution, 8th edition is an evolution. It looks back to the games past and cherry picks the best parts to forge a miniatures game that has given me my best 40k experience in the last 8 years.