Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop miniatures game by Games Workshop, and it is one of the most popular army scale tabletop games in the world. This is a Warhammer 40k Beginner’s Guide and it will teach you everything you need to know to get started.
40k is a game of galactic conflict set in a dark future where humanity battles alien species and daemonic forces, fighting with ancient technology and faith as their weapon against the apocalypse. On the gaming table, players field scores of painted plastic models ranging from infantry to tanks, heroes and monsters and fight against each other by rolling tons of dice. The game can be played in single games played just for fun, as narrative campaigns with an engaging storyline, or as a fiercely competitive game in tournaments all over the world.
While in the past, getting into Warhammer 40,000 was a bit more complex than getting into other games we cover on this site such as Age of Sigmar and Warcry, now with the new 10th edition rules, it should be a much easier to get started playing! With this guide, and our faction overview article for 40k, you’ll have no problem figuring out how to get started. This will basically be a Warhammer 40k for dummies or a Warhammer 40k tutorial.
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Lore breakdown of the Warhammer 40K Universe
Warhammer 40K takes place more than 30,000 years into the future, where humanity has spread across the galaxy. Millions of worlds are populated by trillions of humans, most of them united in the galaxy-spanning Imperium.
It’s not the futuristic high-tech space empire you might expect, though: Since the Emperor of Mankind almost died in a galaxy-spanning rebellion led by one of his closest companions (google the Horus Heresy and come back in three months when you’re done going through the various fan wikis), enlightenment and progress has all but disappeared from the Imperium.
Now, the Imperium is run mostly by its space version of a very powerful church, the Ecclesiarchy, and it’s various religious and administrative branches. Everyone must worship the Emperor or perish, even though he is now a barely living corpse enshrined in his life support system, The Golden Throne, back on earth, guiding and protecting his subjects with his psychic powers.
Nobody really knows how or why anything works anymore, and inventing new technology is mostly forbidden. Guns are inscribed with runes and prayers, and armoured vehicles are accompanied by Tech-Priests who appease the machine spirits with incense and psalms.
Not only is the Imperium a complete horror show of theocratic and bureaucratic madness, but the alternatives aren’t fun either: Aliens such as the insane but numerous Orks, the disciplined but dwindling Aeldari or the artificially undead Necrons threaten Humanity on all sides, and both from without and within, the daemonic forces of Chaos have fought the Imperium for ten thousand years.
The only thing standing between the horrors of the galaxy and humanity (apart from all the ordinary men and women fighting in the various military branches of the Imperial forces) is the monastic orders of the Space Marines, genetically engineered posthumans who are designed to carry out the Emperor’s justice.
So: the galaxy is not a nice place by any stretch of the imagination. This is an important pillar of Warhammer 40,000 lore: there are no good guy factions in this universe, everything is pretty horrible, and humanity is always just moments away from being obliterated or conquered. All you can hope for is to live to fight another day.
In the recent editions of the game (as mentioned prior, we’re currently in the 10th edition), things have gotten even worse, but also a bit more heroic: The forces of Chaos have split the galaxy in two. There’s now a nasty rift down the middle spewing out demons, and nothing can pass through it reliably. This means that one half of the Imperium is completely cut off from the Emperor’s psychic light, which helps them navigate and communicate.
The other half is beset on all sides, but one of the Emperor’s Space Marine Primarchs (his “sons” and the leaders of the Space Marine legions), Roboute Guilliman (yes, that’s his name) has returned from his 10,000 year-long sleep to lead humanity in a crusade to save what’s left of the Imperium. He brings along with him a radical vision of how to restore the Imperium to its former glory, and an ally, the cyborg priest Bellisarius Cawl, who has broken the old rules and is inventing all sorts of new tech for the Space Marines to use in their last attempt to save humanity.
On top of all of this, Vashtorr (a Chaos demi-god who seeks to join the ruinous powers as a 5th Chaos God) teamed up with the the Abaddon the Despoiler (the dude who is responsible for ripping the galaxy in half) and went on a campaign and successfully found and unified several fragments of a key that would allow them to unlock a powerful weapon that is said to be able to destroy the Imperium. The only thing stopping Vashtorr from achieving his goal is that he is unable to find the lock behind which this powerful weapon can be found.
And to add to the Imperium’s woes, the Third Tyrannic War has begun! Uncountable swarms of highly adaptive xenos known as the Tyranids have renewed their push on Holy Terra with only one goal in mind: to consume the galaxy.
It’s all very, very over the top, and if you can’t see the slightly satirical side of it, it can all seem very dark and horrible. But: it is also a fictional universe that’s been around for more than thirty years, so it’s unbelievably detailed and full of history and exciting stories for you to build on for your own narratives.
It is also a great tabletop game with awesome customization, fantastic miniatures and crazy strategic depth, so if you’re even a little bit intrigued by the fictional universe, don’t hesitate to sink your teeth in the game as well.
There are scores of amazing novels that you could also read if you are more interested in the lore, so if you’re a reader, take a look at this list of best warhammer 40k novels.
Warhammer 40k Beginner’s Guide: What you have to buy to get started
Miniatures and hobby tools you need for Warhammer 40k
First of all, you need some miniatures to represent your army on the tabletop. Each unit, character or vehicle in the game’s rules has a corresponding plastic (or resin, or metal) miniature kit to represent it.
These kits are available in Games Workshop’s stores around the world, or at their own webshop, but there’s also a vast selection of third-party stores both online and offline that will sell you the same kits, often at a discount.
All Warhammer 40,000 miniatures need to be assembled. They come on sprues, and you have to cut them off with a pair of plastic cutters or a hobby knife. So you need one of those as well. The miniatures will also look much better if you have a file or a mould line remover to remove any excess material on the parts of the model before you put them together.
Most Warhammer 40,000 miniatures have to be put together with glue. Resin and metal miniatures are put together with superglue, which you might already have in your home, and plastic miniatures, which are the vast majority of models available, are put together with plastic glue, which you can buy in all sorts of hobby stores. Please do note, while many older models are made from metal, you will find that all new models are made from plastic or resin! Just a useful thing to remember when trying to determine the age of a model.
Some of the more recent miniature kits are Easy to Build kits, which have little pegs on the parts of a model so that you can assemble it without any glue required. This can lead to some gaps in the model, so if you want it to look its best, cut off those pegs and glue the model anyway.
If you’re in doubt what kind of assembly is required for a model you’re about to buy, the Games Workshop webstore has a description for each kit that details what material it’s made of.
Most Warhammer 40,000 players also paint their miniatures (the minis are grey out of the box otherwise). This adds a lot to the gaming experience, and painting your models is an immensely rewarding hobby in it’s own right. We have guides for which paints to use, which brushes to use and how to take your first steps into miniature painting, as well as other hobby guides, here on Age of Miniatures.
Painting your models for Warhammer 40,000 is specifically fun because many factions and regiments in the game have their own lore and heraldry tied to different color schemes, so that your painting helps you tell the story of your army.
Just know that the painting side of Warhammer is a hobby that can take a lot of your time, but for some, it is also the most fun aspect of the game.
Getting the rules for Warhammer 40k
Warhammer 40K can be a pretty expensive hobby, but luckily, the core rules are free and can be downloaded on the Warhammer 40,000 website here.
You can play the game with just these core rules and the indexes (you can find all of the indexes for each faction here), but if you want to expand your gaming experience and go into more depth with the hobby you can also explore a faction’s Codex, or if you want to experience the game in a more casual way, you can take a look at Combat Patrols (we have an entire articles dedicated to Combat Patrols here if you wish to know more!).
If you are unfamiliar with what a Codex is, a Codex for your army is also necessary if you want to know any rules for your army that go beyond the information presented in the indexes. A codex contains the lore for one specific army (such as the Space Marines), as well as datasheets for the units that army can field, its special abilities, equipment, psychic powers and command abilities. A Codex also has a selection of different detachment rules that allow you to customise the way your armies play.
If you want to know what armies you can play in 40k, we can an updated list of all 40k armies here.
The core rules and a codex for your army is really something that will enhance your experience of the game. If someone else teaching you the rules for a certain faction, you can maybe skip buying it and borrow their book for a few days but purchasing your own is invaluable for quick references and long term planning for your army collection. On top of these two books, there are a ton of campaign books available for the game, but you don’t need any of those to get started (in fact they might confuse you a lot).
A tape measure
Movement and weapons range is measured in inches in Warhammer 40K, so any kind of tape measure that’s measured in inches will do.
Warhammer 40K uses six-sided dice to resolve anything from advancing to shooting, fighting and casting psychic powers, and you need a lot of them to play. You can get by with 20-30 of them if you don’t have an army with a high model count, but having around 100 of them around won’t hurt. It can be a good idea to have a few in different colors as well.
A gaming board or scenery
Warhammer 40,000 can be played on any flat surface, but scenery and terrain plays a big part in the game if you use the full rules, so any kind of scale-appropriate scenery will do. Games Workshop has plenty of scenery packs you can buy, such as the Battlezone: Manufactorum – Vertigus, but for your first games you can also get by with soda cans and LEGO bricks on a dinner table.
All in one: Starter sets
If you’re looking at a one-purchase way of getting into the game, there are currently three starter sets available. Each of them include rules, two armies of miniatures, dice, a ruler for measuring and a battlefield:
- The Introductory Set contains 16 miniatures, 5 for a Space Marine army and 11 for a Tyranid Army. The rules in this set are not the full rules, not even on the datasheets for the units included, but it will teach the most basic rules and also comes with some paint and plastic cutters! All the models in this set are push-fit so you don’t need glue to assemble them. The set also provides a range ruler and 6 dice so you can play straight away.
- The Starter Set adds two characters and a couple of units, bringing the total miniatures in the box up to 38. For ease of getting into the game, it also comes with some handy reference sheets for all the units as well as more dice and an extra ruler.
- The Ultimate Starter Set adds the full rules (but not the actual core book) and a set of plastic scenery to the mix.
If you just want to build one army, the Combat patrol boxes are also great. You can check out our overview of all 40k Combat Patrol boxes here.
How to build an army in warhammer 40k
The Warhammer 40,000 App
Before we get into army building, it’s worth noting that Warhammer 40,000 has an army building app available on iOS/Android. For a small subscription fee (it’s been lowered recently), you can build your army in the app, which then keeps track of what you need to add to the army to make it legal to play.
The app has a lot of options for adding equipment, building different detachments and so on, but you still need to buy the codexes for each army to access the full rules for that army, even in the app. Each physical codex book for the most recent edition of the game comes with a code for activating its contents within the app.
While this app is much less useful than, say, the Warhammer Age of Sigmar app where you can actually buy the rulebooks within the app, the Warhammer 40,000 app still makes it a lot easier for a beginner to figure out how to build an army for the game. So, while it still has a long way to go before it’s perfect, this guide recommends that you download the app for army-building purposes. Just don’t expect the app to have all the rules you need to actually play the game (which would be awesome, but hey maybe someday).
The basic rules of each unit in the game can be found on their datasheet, which is a small block of rules and statistics. While small, it does contain a lot of information. In this section, we go over all the aspects of a datasheet by looking at the datasheet for a Primaris Captain, a HQ unit for the Adeptus Astartes, which is available to download for free at the Warhammer Community website:
In the abilities section you will see that this model is a leader, a core ability that signifies the model’s battlefield role, which is important if you’re building an army for Matched Play. In the faction section we see that this model belongs to the Oath of Moment faction (basically a faction that allows you to play any type of Space Marine faction without having to dedicate your entire army to a particular chapter).
Following these details, we have the model’s abilities, it’s Wargear Abilities and its Invulnerable Save (more on that later).
Then we have the unit’s statistics, which are lined up horizontally just under the model’s name:
- M is Move: How far your unit can move in a turn. It’s noted in inches.
- T is Toughness: Toughness is used to calculate what an enemy has to roll to wound this model by comparing it to the enemy model’s Strength.
- Sv is Save: when an enemy allocates damage to you, you can try to roll higher than this number to avoid taking that damage. There are types of damage that you can’t roll save rolls against, though. Invulnerable Saves work the same as regular Saves but their value cannot be altered by enemy weapon characteristics.
- W is Wounds: This is how much damage your model can take before it dies.
- Ld is Leadership: it is used to determine the morale of the model and is used in battle shock tests. These tests come into play when a unit is below half their wounds or starting model count. When taking a battle-shock test, 2d6 must be rolled. If the result is higher than the Ld value, they fail the test and have their OC value set to zero as well as being unable to make use out of any stratagems.
- OC is Objective Control: This is used to determine who has control over a objective point. If two units are near a objective point, the unit with the most collective OC is considered to have control over the area.
Below this, the datasheet describes the equipment of the model and the composition of the unit if it consists of multiple models, such as a squad of infantry.
Then the statistics of the model’s weapons are aligned horizontally:
- Weapon shows the name of each weapon listed
- Range shows how far away an enemy model has to be from this model for this model to be able to attack with this weapon
- Weapon Characteristics [in square brackets] shows what abilities applies to a weapon. All common abilities can be found in the core rule book mentioned above.
- WS/BS is Weapon Skill/Ballistic Skill: How easy it is for your model to hit another model in close combat or ranged combat. Here it is a 2+, which means you have to roll 2 or more on a six-sided dice to hit your enemy.
- S is Strength: Strength is used to calculate what you have to roll to wound an enemy model by comparing it to the enemy model’s Toughness. If your Strength is higher than the enemy model’s Toughness, it’ll be easier to wound them, and if it is lower, it will be more difficult. This article covers that system in the “Rolling Dice” section further below.
- AP is Armour Penetration. It is subtracted from the target’s Save characteristic to make it easier for you to wound your enemy.
- D is Damage: how much damage each attack from this weapon can do.
At the bottom of the datasheet we can see all the Keywords related to this model. Keywords are useful because they let us know which rules/abilities can be applied to this model.
On the back of the datasheet we can see a fun bit of lore in the top left as well as the different Wargear Options this model can have. The Unit Composition outlines the models and number of models in the unit (since this datasheet is about a singular model, there is only one to note down) as well as the standard equipment assigned to it. If a model is a leader, it will have a list of units it can be joined by.
Datasheets printed in the most recent rulebooks for Warhammer 40,000 arrange all this information slightly differently when it comes to the layout, but they’re still arranged in this order and use the same abbreviations. The Warhammer 40,000 app arranges them in a third fashion altogether, so just keep track of the different categories rather than exactly where they are located.
This is a lot of information for a newcomer to the game, and if this is a little intimidating you will find that the datasheets for Combat Patrols are a lot simpler – great to help you get familiar with reading all the information you need to play.
But don’t be discouraged. This complexity is all worth it, as it allows the game to simulate many different interactions in the game. It can be a good idea to build your first small army with only a few different unit types, so you can get to know their datasheets really well before branching out into greater complexity. If you get a lot of different units, you might find it very hard to remember their rules once you are stressed in a game.
In previous editions, Warhammer 40K had two different systems for balancing your army against an opponent’s army: Power and Points.
Power has been scrapped from the game to help streamline the army building process and give players more flexibility in their army compositions.
The Points System splits all your units into a set of points values (that increases or decreases depending on size). The points value for each of the factions can be found here in the Munitorum Field Manual. It is worth checking up on this document regularly as it is updated often.
While playing a casual game between friends, you may be a lot more forgiving on how strict you are with the points each player can spend to create their army. If you want to play games at tournaments or generally at a more competitive level, however, you must follow the points system strictly. The Warhammer 40K app makes it pretty easy to calculate the points cost of your units, even with all the optional upgrades you would like to bring.
The latest edition of the game has named 3 different levels of play based on points value/power level:
- Incursion (1000 points): If you began your collection with a Combat Patrol, this level let’s you diversify your army with a vehicle/ a monster and some more units and characters.
- Strikeforce (2000 points) This is the level at which many tournaments are played.
- Onslaught (3000 points) This level is best for massive, narrative battles, as it takes a long time to play anything with this many points!
Each of these levels of play also has a recommended game board size, which you can find in the core rulebook. There’s no need to worry about that until you hit the Strikeforce level, though.
In previous versions of Warhammer 40k, in most game modes in Warhammer 40,000, the game requires you to field a specific number of units with specific unit roles. While these specific roles are now largely obsolete, they are handy to keep in mind the different functions a unit can play on the battlefield.
These roles are:
- HQ: These are your leaders, and they’re all single models. They often provide buffs for your other units. Example: Primaris Captain
- Troops: These are the main part of your army, and you’ll often have to take a couple of these. Example: Assault Intercessors
- Elites: Specialist units. Some are single models, some are squads. Examples: Bladeguard Veteran Squad or Judiciar
- Fast Attack: It’s right there in the name – these units are fast-moving assault options for your army, often ideal for skirmishing and harassing the opponent. Example: Outrider Squad
- Flyer: Flying units. For most armies, you don’t have to worry about these for your first couple of games. Example: Stormhawk Interceptor
- Heavy Support: These units are all about heavy firepower. Examples: Eradicator Squad or Repulsor
- Dedicated Transport: Vehicles for transporting your infantry. Typically, you can bring one of these for each infantry unit in your army. Example: also the Repulsor
- Fortification: These are buildings included in your army. Example: Hammerfall Bunker
When building an army, there are generally only 2 things to keep in mind.
- You army cannot contain more than 3 of the same unit/model with the same datasheet (unless it has the Battleline or Dedicated Transport keyword.
- Your army cannot include more than one Epic Hero of the same kind.
So long as you do not go over the points limit, it’s that simple! There are a few other things to take into consideration, but thankfully we have a handy step-by-step guide on how to do that here.
Detachments are special rules that each faction has that can be applied to part of or the entirety of their army as well as providing specific stratagems and enhancements. In the Indexes that were mentioned above, each faction is given one detachment to use but more can be found in their Codexes.
The Warlord is the general of your army, more or less.
A Warlord can gain a Warlord Trait, which is a special ability or bonus. Those Traits can either be found in your codex or in other books, such as in different missions. Warlords can also gain Relics, special equipment from your army codex.
What Army Should You Play?
If you want a full rundown of all the armies available in the game, go have a look at our 40k army overview article here.
But, if you’re just looking for the simple answer to what army you should pick up as a beginner, the answer is fairly straight-forward: Play whatever you think looks cool! It’s all playable, and it’s all fairly complex, so there’s no army that’s just way easier than any other army to play.
That being said, another good suggestion is to ignore the warnings of all the cool 40k hipsters who tell you they’re the boring choice and just go for an army of Space Marines: they are one of the two armies in the available starter sets, almost everything worth taking in one of their armies is available as brand new plastic models that are easy to assemble and fun to paint, and you will never run out of options for building your army.
Just be warned: this doesn’t mean it’s very easy to figure out what Space Marine army to build. They have a ton of different subfactions which can have their own equipment options for different units, and their rules are also pretty complex for a beginner.
How to play Warhammer 40k – warhammer for dummies
Before you start a game, you have to choose a Mission which describes how the battlefield is set up, what your objectives are, and how to deploy your armies. There are missions available in the core book and in a ton of other publications from Games Workshop. For your first game, the Only War mission in the core book is a good place to start. In that mission, you can either win by destroying the opponent’s army or by scoring victory points by having certain units close to objective markers or by slaying the enemy Warlord – which is about as simple as a mission gets. Remember that, in order to secure objective “markers” on the battlefield, units have to have the special rule “Objective Secured”, so always check datasheets for this when building your army. Many Troops units have it, and detachments can affect it as well.
The size of the battlefield is generally determined by the size of your armies, and you can look this up in the core book.
In addition to the size of the battlefield and the deployment rules from your mission, you need to setup some terrain as well. As mentioned earlier in this article, this can be basically anything that helps give your battlefield some depth and block line of sight so that units can hide from enemy shooting, but there is an extra layer of complexity to this: Different types of terrain, such as hills, buildings and so on, interact with the game’s rules in different ways, which adds quite a bit of tactical depth to the game.
The core book has rules for all kinds of common terrain, and some codexes have rules for terrain specific to the army of that codex (which can be included in detachments as Fortifications).
You can buy GW terrain. While it looks cool, it is definitely on the expensive side of things.
Battle Rounds, Turns and Phases in 40k
The game is divided into turns and phases:
A Battle Round consists of a turn for each player.
A Turn is divided into 5 phases. There is a lot to each of them, but it is all detailed in the free downloadable rules. Here’s a very brief rundown of each of them with the most important stuff a new player needs to know but if you wish to know about each phase in detail, we have explained each of these here:
- The Command Phase: This is where you gain Command Points and roll for battle-shock tests.
- The Movement Phase: This is where all of your units can use their Move characteristic to move across the battlefield, and Advance (add the value of an extra dice roll to their movement). If they advance, they can’t shoot or charge later. Units with multiple models have to move in such a way that that models stay within 2 inches of each other (it’s a little more complicated than that, but knowing just this will help you visualize how close your models have to stand to each other)
- The Shooting Phase: This is where your shooting units get to attack at range. See the section below to see how it works. There are a ton of special rules on weapons, and various modifiers that affect this phase, but all the common rules are detailed in the core book.
- The Charge Phase: In the charge phase, units that didn’t advance or shoot get to see if they can charge into melee range of enemy units.
- The Fight Phase: In the Fight Phase, units fight in close combat, but there are a few twists: not only the units of the player whose turn it is, but all units in close combat range get to fight in this phase. Units that charged in the previous phase get to fight first.
After all of these phases have been resolved, another turn begins.
Rolling dice: To hit, to wound, save rolls
All sorts of stuff is solved by rolling six-sided dice in Warhammer 40k: When you want your units to move fast in the Movement phase, you roll a dice and add its value in inches to the unit’s movement. When you want to cast a psychic power, you roll dice. When you want to see if any of your models flee, you roll dice, and so on.
However, there are three dice rolls in particular that you have to know about, since they happen almost every time something tries to do damage to something else:
- The Hit Roll: when you attack anything in close combat or at range, you roll a die and try to roll equal to or higher than your Weapon Skill (for close combat) or Ballistics Skill (for ranged combat). Many circumstances can modify what you have to roll here, such as bonuses from nearby friendly characters, your enemy being in cover and so on, but apart from that, it’s a simple roll to calculate.
- The Wound Roll: If you hit an enemy target, you roll to see if you wound it. This is done by comparing the Strength of your model (in close combat) or of your weapon (in ranged combat) to the Toughness of the enemy target. If both are equal, you wound on a dice roll of 4. If your Strength is higher than the enemy’s Toughness, you wound on a 3, and if it’s the reverse you wound on a 5, and so on.
- The Save Roll: If an enemy succeeds in wounding you, you can roll a dice to see if your can roll higher than your model’s Save characteristic. If you do, you don’t take any damage from that attack. If the enemy’s weapon had Armor Penetration, you have to subtract the value of that from any save roll you make, so it’s harder for you to roll high enough to avoid damage. Some units and characters also have an Invulnerable save, which they can choose to roll for their save roll. An Invulnerable save can’t be modified by Armour Penetration.
Once you’ve memorized how to make each of these rolls, keeping track of a Warhammer 40,000 game becomes much easier.
The Three Ways to Play
Like most of Games Workshop’s games, Warhammer 40,000 is split up into three different ways to play:
- Open Play lets you play the game with whatever combination of 40k units you want, in any way you want, basically. This is a great place to start since you can just play the game with what you happen to have.
- Matched Play is the balanced, competitive mode of the game, where the Points system is used for army creation. This is also the format used for most tournaments you’ll encounter at game stores and clubs. The core book includes many missions for this mode of play.
- Narrative Play is a broad term for games of Warhammer 40,000 where telling a great story is the focus. In the most recent edition of the game, Narrative Play is also the home of one of the most awesome aspects of Warhammer 40,000: The Crusade System. This is a flexible campaign system where your army grows and gains experience from battle to battle, with multiple ways of enhancing and customizing your units as the campaign progresses. Like the campaigns in Warcry, your progress is personal, so you can play against any opponent and still progress in your own Crusade campaign through the results of that battle. This means you can play a campaign even if you can’t muster a dedicated group of players to play every week, for example. The rules for playing a Crusade army are in the core book, but dedicated Crusade rules for each army can be found in Codexes and campaign books.
Final Thoughts on this Warhammer 40k Beginner’s Guide
Warhammer 40,000 can be quite daunting as a game: There are so many armies to choose between, and it’s not always easy to figure out how to build your army in the best way possible. If you’re interested in the game’s fictional universe and want to explore the game’s strategic complexity, however, the game is more accessible than ever with a brand new edition that does a great job of explaining the game’s many systems.
We hope this guide has shown that it’s not impossible to figure out how to play the game, and that you can get started with just a few miniatures, dice and some basic knowledge of the game’s rules.