Why bother doing a review of Warhammer 40k? If you’re interested in it, you’ve probably already sought out the multitude of websites devoted to the “hobby”. I thought, instead of a review of whatever mechanics may be in place now, I’d give you some insights into why I think Warhammer 40k is both one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had, and also one of the worst.
Is Warhammer 40k something that can even be played? Is it not, instead, a lifestyle- a creeping mould that will infect your apartment and every waking hour of your life? Should you ever get involved in something that is less a game and more of a social experience? Is this even the kind of social experience that you should seek out?
Time for the basics!
Warhammer 40k is set in the far future, where Mankind has spread out amongst the cosmos and is at all sides besieged by forces that threaten to cause its extinction. In the Future, there is only War. Fine. Fair enough. We’re playing a Wargame. If you don’t like wargames, this is certainly not a game for you. Precondition #1: You have to want to actually play a war game.
The first thing to do before you start playing is pick an army. I’m assuming that you don’t have a friend with a bunch of painted armies laying in wait for you – you’re about to start from scratch! You go into a store, take a look around, and pick out the models that most appeal to you. Why start like this? WELL, because you’re going to have to spend the majority of your waking life painting the things if you ever want to actually play the game the way you’ve been sold it.
You’ve entered the store, you take a look at the GORGEOUS tables, full of fantastically painted miniatures, and you want to play that game. Of course you want to play that game. It looks like everything you’ve ever dreamed a game could be. There’s a giant Mechanical Ork thing with a huge Axe, and a Golden Hero with a giant sword thing that looks like it’s crackling with Energy. This is the stuff that your dreams are made of.
You buy a battle box and get to modeling and painting. You should enjoy modeling and painting if you’re going to do this. Precondition #2 – you should enjoy modeling and painting miniatures.
You want to pain the miniatures right, so you go out and buy paint, and brushes, and little bits of sand and rocks for the bases, and glue and another kind of glue, and now you want your main characters to be raised on their bases, so you need some cork, and you need to learn how to actually paint miniatures (which isn’t actually that hard). OMG, you’re learning a skill! This is actually fun. Watch as your skill improves over time. INCREDIBLE. You’re painting and finishing something and isn’t this all wonderful? You’ve dropped some paint on your hardwood floor but you don’t tell anyone and cover it over with a chair leg. Your table is becoming a mess, your Apartment is overrun with Space Warriors from the future and you FINALLY, after weeks of work, have enough little dudes painted to play a game.
You then go and get a forklift and bring home the rules. Now, if you’ve been reading my articles, you know that I’m FINE with a giant set of rules. I’ve read 40k front and back. I know the rules pretty well. The problem is when you start playing with other people who also think they know the rules pretty well. The rule disagreements in 40k are like nothing you’ve ever seen. You can have hundreds of hours of playtime under your belt, come across a new interaction, terrain, whatever, and be forced, AGAIN, to consult the rules. Warhammer – more like RULEHAMMER! Precondition #3 – You gotta LOVE rules.
Finally, the game. Everything up to now has been about GETTING to play the game. Take a look at Settlers of Catan. That takes 10 minutes to set up, 10 minutes to do a rules explanation to NOOBS and an hour to play. High level strategy can be got to after an hour. Warhammer takes at least a few weeks of normal human time (work and sleep taking up the majority of your normal human time) to get on the table. A 500 point game (relatively small game, about 20 miniatures a few tanks) takes about an hour to play. Anything larger can take 2+ hours. Precondition #4- You gotta love long games.
The game itself is pretty 90s. That’s to say, very little interaction. If you’re sitting there saying that there’s plenty to do on your opponent’s turn, I think you’re pretty far gone. Perhaps we should agree that you and I can talk after you’ve stopped chasing the dragon. To me, rolling dice is not interaction. Making a handful of choices about which dudes will die is not interaction. The game is basically you go, I go, which is to say, that I take my whole turn, and then you take your whole turn- and turns can be 30 minutes long. This is a long game, with huge swaths of time where the only thing keeping you from going on a smoke break is the fact that you need to watch the other player to make sure they aren’t breaking the rules.
I used to be all in for this game. I’ve wavered a lot since the release of 6th Edition. I’m not going to go through the changes, or what I think about the new game, or the inclusion of stuff that wasn’t in the game previously. This game has FUNDAMENTAL problems at its core.
1. You go, I go is outdated where it concerns Miniature Games. There are other, better ways to structure the turn.
2. Interaction is at a minimum.
3. Rule disputes are frequent, and there is a structural issue- the rules cover most every interaction- which means you are forced to go to the rule book to resolve your issue, which slows the game to a crawl. This structural issue isn’t a problem in almost any other game- but in Warhammer the interactions are so numerous, and the disputes so frequent, that this becomes a problem. In not abstracting their game, they’ve made it less playable.
4. Months of work to get a game going. Hours of play.
If you can get past all that, you’ll have years of fun. I had a great 2 years playing 40k, thinking about 40k, painting 40k, coming up with scenarios, coming up with campaign ideas, coming up with my own iconography and backstories. There’s TONS to do. I loved painting the Catachan Devils- Rambo Warriors in Space. I have some Space Wolves as well – my first love.
Finally, the deep dark heart of Warhammer criticism: Balance. Nope. There is no balance. This game is unbalanced. It revels in being unbalanced. I started Space Wolves. My friend played Eldar (Space Elves). I think I won most of our 2 hour games. It wasn’t because I was a better player than him – he bests me in most board games across the board. It was mostly because my army was structurally better than his. My list won me most games, not my play. Eventually, life happened, and we both had less and less time for miniature games.
To sum it all up, if you can avoid the call of 40k, you’d be wise to do so. If you are like me, and NEEDED to paint miniatures, needed to explore the universe, needed to be in it, then you don’t need a review at all – you probably need rehab.
Next week: Rehab.