22 August 2017
The legendary miniatures game trims the fat with a fantastic new edition
In news sure to shock teenage collectors of plastic figures across multiple generations, Warhammer 40,000 turns 30 years old in 2017. Over the decades – and more than half a dozen different editions – the iconic grimdark game of battling Space Marines, Orkz, Eldar and Chaos has become somewhat notorious for its convoluted and bloated ruleset, putting off those attracted by the top-notch models and brutal, bloody universe.
This year’s eighth edition aims to solve that with a stripped-back set of rules, spearheaded by the beginner-friendly Dark Imperium boxset. On almost all accounts, it’s a resounding success that injects a much-needed freshness and excitement back into the aging wargame, bringing it back alongside rivals from the last few years that had begun to creep ahead with their fast-flowing gameplay and streamlined rules.
The Dark Imperium box itself is an excellent starting point, packed with the eight edition’s core rulebook, the bits and bobs needed to play (including 12 dice and a range ruler – though, strangely, no objective markers are included, despite their importance to the new rules), and 53 miniatures split into the new Primaris Space Marines and Death Guard armies.
If you’ve encountered Games Workshop figures before, you’ll know they are among the very best out there, and these are no exception. Covering standard infantry, a handful of powerful unique characters, the airborne Inceptor squad of the Marines and the Foetid Bloat-drone vehicle of the Death Guard, it’s a varied and vast selection that showcases the impressive sculpting and production that made Warhammer a household name to begin with –the spiked, contorted and grotesque Death Guard troops provide a nice contrast to the smooth power armour and tactical poise of the Space Marines. The multi-part models aren’t hard to put together, especially so thanks to an included construction and painting guide, which makes it little harder than building a Lego model (albeit using superglue).
The real triumph of the set, however, is in the rules. Taking heavy inspiration from the similar reimagining of its fantasy sibling Age of Sigmar, 40,000’s core ruleset has been condensed in a way that maintains the depth and strategy of the wargame while also making many of the overly-complicated and unnecessary rules of the past much more logical and straightforward to understand – or removing them entirely.
One major example is the presence of vehicles, which could previously become near-unstoppable killing machines that only took damage from certain attacks; they now use the same combat statistics as standard units, allowing them to be hurt by standard troops, and weaken increasingly as they soak up wounds, which helps to even the battlefield a little. Another overhauled system is morale, which has been simplified to a simple die roll that dictates how many additional troops are lost.
Meanwhile, terrain no longer impacts movement, and universally increases sheltered or covered units’ saving throws by one – simple as that. All templates, such as those for grenades, have been removed, replaced by a random number of automatic hits, helping to speed up combat resolution.
There are countless examples of such tweaks across the game, but the upshot is that 40,000 is both easier to understand and faster to play.This doesn’t mean it’s been dumbed down, just that the same actions and characteristics can have an effect on battles without players having to waste minutes working through the intricacies of each and every decision. In fact, the eight-page rules reference included covers nearly everything to enough of a point that you could almost play straight out of the box – a few hours' of gluing and painting of models not permitting.
With the rules no longer weighing the flow of each match down, 40,000 skirmishes become much more cinematic and dynamic events. This is reflected by the new division of matches into open, narrative and matched games, which offer different setups and play formats focused on whether you’re after flexible multiplayer, story-driven battles or more regimented, points-dictated rules for tournaments, respectively.
Regardless of which mode you go for, an assortment of missions and randomly-selected objectives provide much greater variety than just slaughtering the opposite team (although there’s certainly nothing stopping you), introducing the chance to earn bonus VP for tasks such as holding points around the map, eliminating specific characters or protecting your base.
Even in non-narrative matches, these added objectives bring to the fore more of Warhammer 40,000’s vast universe and lore. It encourages more on-the-fly and thematic storytelling within the game – a lone Space Marine holding off a squad of Poxwalkers from a strategic point is far more exciting than just crashing two squads into each other and seeing who survives.
Unique characters can no longer be part of units, both stopping the use of the models as a way of forming overpowered squads and giving them the chance to stand alone as notable singular forces on the battlefield. Their presence also helps to give weaker troops a new purpose, as characters cannot be targeted by enemy shots when another unit is closer, stopping players from focusing all their fire on the most powerful character first by using the weaker units almost quite literally as a meat shield and allowing the character to get in closer instead of being wiped out from the off. Again, this makes every match more variable, as characters roam around the battlefield and opposing forces attempt to outmanoeuvre them in order to take them down.
While the missions and objectives lend themselves to 40,000’s more varied play, there is a weakness in the initial setup of many of the missions, as players take it in turns to place objective markers around the field and the person who places last then decides the layout of troop deployment from one of six in the core rulebook. This is a strange choice, as it often gives the second player a huge advantage while choosing the placement of objectives. What’s more, the first player must start deploying their troops first, saddling them with another tactical handicap. It’s a decision that will likely be adjusted in the months to come with the living set of rules, or simply ignored by those looking for a more balanced setup.
The reference materials for the new edition are roundly excellent, with the revised unit profiles making it painless to check all the necessary information for each unit and its potential equipment and the rules reference serving as a one-stop shop for newcomers learning the ropes. The core rulebook isn’t always as streamlined or easy to understand as the rules it’s explaining, with a few questionable choices in terms of the way and order in which more advanced rules are explained, but it’s still a huge improvement on past editions.
Despite a few very minor missteps, eighth edition is an outstanding evolution of Warhammer 40,000 across the board. It brings back the excitement and feeling of cinematic action that many remember from their early days of playing the game, but which wasn’t always reflected in a ruleset that had grown out of control and isolated the game as more of a past relic than an up-to-day contender to modern sci-fi wargames. With this, the Emperor may very well have reclaimed his throne.
By stripping back the unnecessary complications that had built up over decades, Warhammer 40,000’s eighth edition makes the classic a fast, exciting and vibrant wargame once again. The increased focus on atmosphere is a joy, and the fantastic Dark Imperium box is the perfect place to dive back in.
Publisher: Games Workshop
Time: 2+ hours
This review originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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