Warhammer 40k - a Blast from the Past

7min read

I recently dove head first into the world of Warhammer 40k. A dark and edgy tabletop game born in the 80s played with many miniature models of science fiction soldiers, aliens, etc.

If you’ve heard of space orks (generic fantasy orcs thrust forty thousand years into the future) who paint their ships red because it makes them go faster (their belief makes it so) or about an immortal Emperor sending genetically modified soldiers all over the universe to defeat the forces of Chaos then that’s Warhammer 40k.

StarCraft was initially meant to be a Warhammer 40k game but turned into its own IP during the course of development. That’s why the three factions within the game, namely the Terran, the Protoss and the Zerg have a close similarity to three factions in the Warhammer 40k universe, namely Space Marines, the Eldar and the Tyrannids.

The game isn’t cheap to get into. A small plastic miniature around half the size of your thumb can cost up to 40$ or more for special characters.

This might not seem like a lot but the costs grow rapidly as the number of miniatures needed to play competitively can be large depending on the faction you’re playing as. As such a newly army bought can easily cost between 600$ to 1000$.

As a couple buddies were introducing me to the game I found a good deal on a used army and was lucky enough to pounce on it before anyone else did.

It was a beaten up Astra Militarum army, formerly known as the Imperial Guard. The guardsmen, which form the backbone of most Imperial Guard armies, are conscripts taken from population dense worlds. They are given minimal amounts of training and a set of equipment which is commonly referred to as a “flashlight” and a “shirt”, a laser gun and a flak jacket, both of which are of dubious quality.

The Imperial Guard are one of the oldest armies and thus have a generous amount of different units they can field with a wide range of competitive options at their disposal. There are exceptions to the rule but most lists, meaning the list of units and set of options a player choose to bring to the table, will favour having a large number of cheap guardsmen coupled with fewer but more expensive units such as Leman Russ tanks, various artillery guns, Valkyries (VTOL jets), Ogryns (towering genetically modified beings), etc.

The guardsmen serve to capture objectives, screen off more important targets, act as an annoyance and optimally do some damage themselves. The more expensive units have more specific roles tied to their stats, skills and also how they fit into the list and interact with other units. For example, Valkyries move fast and can transport a small number of infantry so we can use them in combination with small squads of Ogryns (usually their Bullgryn variant) to transport them where they need to be given that the Ogryns are slow but strong melee units.

The game remains fresh and interesting because:

  • There are around twenty different factions other than the Imperial Guard which play quite different from another.
  • Some factions can be allied with one another and be brought on the table on the same side.
  • Lists using the exact same faction might play and function completely differently from one another depending on the units they contain.
  • The terrain a match is played on can be setup in different ways.

Another aspect of the Warhammer experience is painting the miniatures.

Let me paint a picture for you. Little Timmy enters his friendly local game store. He sees rows of boxes with cool looking toy soldiers, aliens and monsters on them. He points and he says “I want that!” He reaches for one of the boxes, the large humans in armour box, pays for it and heads back home.

To little Timmy’s dismay, he opens the box only to find small grey plastic heads, arms, legs, guns, etc. attached together by thin rods of plastic.

Little did Timmy know that a large part of the fun of Warhammer for some players comes from the assembly and painting of the miniatures. This process allows for a great degree of flexibility, giving the player the opportunity to make their army truly unique. Think of it like an IKEA for toy soldiers.

I took it upon myself to learn how to paint miniatures to finish what the previous owner of the army started. I’ve painted around thirty five guardsmen, five special characters and three smallish vehicles. I’ve also done the bases (the round platform below most miniatures that stabilizes it and denotes the space it takes on the board) for almost sixty miniatures. Instead of standing on a solid black platform, most of my guardsmen are now standing in and on a muddy/swampy surface uniquely sculpted using a texture paste (think of a thick acrylic paste that dries solid) combined with various pigments.

In doing so, I discovered a passion for painting miniatures that I didn’t know I had. Creatively speaking, I’ve done a little bit of many things: composing music, playing drums, pixel art, 3D modelling. But nothing has grabbed me the way that miniature painting has. It’s a flexible hobby in that I can both challenge myself by exploring new painting techniques, colour schemes or thinking up processes for painting miniatures well and quickly but I can also choose to paint another batch of miniatures exactly how I painted the previous ones without thinking too hard.

Painting miniatures requires a steady hand, a good eye and intense concentration at times which encourages me to take deep breaths mimicking the physical state I enter when meditating. I find it quite easy to enter into a state of Flow when painting.

Furthermore, it is well documented that building something yourself, like IKEA furniture, makes you more attached and happier with whatever it is you built. I would hypothesize that the same principle can be applied to miniatures given my own experience and what I’ve seen in others.

The assembly, painting, theory crafting and actual playing of the game combine to make Warhammer a compelling hobby for me even though the cost verges on the outrageous even if you’re lucky enough to find someone selling a used army for cheap.

There are many other similar miniatures games on the market, others by Games Workshop like Blood Bowl (which I play digitally and I’ve written about before) and some by other companies.

One in particular, called Infinity, has recently peaked my interest. It is played with fewer miniatures than Warhammer 40k (15-25 vs around 150 with my Imperial Guard army), its rules remind me of XCOM (small scale tactical skirmishes in urban environments). I like the look of the miniatures which are inspired by video games and anime, two things I tend to enjoy.

I may have been able to convince a friend to try it out with me. If I get into it I’ll write about it here eventually. In the meantime, I’ll continue playing Warhammer (and painting miniatures).

Warhammer 40k is a blast from the past. It doesn’t pull any punches. It expects you to pay a lot of money upfront to be able to play. It expects you to spend dozens if not hundreds (thousands?) of hours painting an army’s worth of miniatures.

Is it worth it? It is for me and maybe this has peaked your interest. If you can find a used army for cheap and can find some friends to play with I recommend you think about it. Maybe I’ll see you at the table!

EDIT: A couple days after writing most of this article, I bought a used but completely unpainted Chaos Space Marines army for a fair price. If I had bought an equivalent army new it would have cost twice as much if not more.

Being unpainted is a boon for me rather than a disadvantage because it will allow me to paint all of the miniatures in the way I desire without me having to strip the paint off a hundred miniatures (FYI I’ve had great success using original formula Pine-Sol).

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