How Do You Play Warhammer 40k?
Warhammer 40k is a tabletop wargame. If you've never played a tabletop wargame before, you may be in for a surprise. And, if you've played other tabletop wargames, such as historicals, you may be confused as well.
Warhammer 40k has been around for a long time--nearly four decades--and as such it has a rich and deep setting. For any of the factions in the game (and there are many) there will have been multiple novels written about them that get into the lore and backstory of the Warhammer 40k universe. You can get into all of that later, but for now let's lay out the basics:
What is Warhammer 40k's Premise?
As the tagline says, "in the grim dark future of the 41st millennium, there is only war." And that's the main thing that you need to know. There are many, many factions in the game, including many factions who appear to be on the same side, but they all fight each other all the time. The tagline might as well read "in the grim dark future of the 41st millennium, there are only bad guys."
It's year 40,000 and the galaxy is in never-ending wars between many races, but they are generally broken down into the Imperium (humans--with various embellishments), Chaos (demons and traitors to the Imperium), and Xenos (alien races.) But at any time, there may be a war where humans fight against humans, demons against demons, or aliens against aliens.
But the basics for you to play the game are just to know that you have an army, your opponent has an army, and they want to destroy each other.
What are Warhammer 40k's factions?
As mentioned, the factions are broken down in the humans, otherwise known as the Imperium, Chaos, which encompasses a lot of territory, and Xenos, who are as different from each other as they are from humans.
The Imperium of Man
The poster boys of the Imperium are the Space Marines, who are genetically enhanced and biologically improved (they have extra organs, they can spit acid, etc.). They wear massive power armor, and they are considered (in the lore, at least) to be among the finest fighters in the galaxy. There are many different chapters of the Space Marines, each different from the last (and you are free to make your own "homebrew" chapter if you'd like). To learn more, read my article about what each of the Space Marine Legions are known for.
There are also your run-of-the-mill humans who make up the Imperial Guard. They are weaker than Space Marines, in weaker armor, and carry weaker guns. They make up for this in quantity and in heavy support--the Imperial Guard rely on tanks and artillery more than any other faction in the game.
There is an all-female branch of the Imperium known as the Sisters of Battle (or Adeptus Sororitas). They are essentially space nuns who root out heresy and are trying to reclaim the galaxy in the name of the Emperor, who is considered a god. Two additional Imperium forces protect the Emperor and are extremely powerful: the Adeptus Custodes and the Sisters of Silence.
A little background that's important to know is that 10,000 years ago, in the year 30k, there was a civil war fought called The Horus Heresy, where half the Space Marines remained loyal to the Emperor and half became servants of Chaos Gods. So there are Chaos Space Marines, who are similar to their former brethren in a lot of ways, but who also have a lot of extra: mutations, deformities, curses, psychic powers, etc.
In addition to all of the Chaos Space Marine chapters (who are every bit as different from one another as the Space Marines are) there are also the actual forces of the Chaos Gods: Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle, and Slaanesh. These gods feed off the emotions of all living things in the galaxy and exist in the Warp--an immaterial realm made up of psychic energy. Each of these gods has demons who will sometimes join the Chaos Marines in battle, and sometimes will fight on their own as demon armies.
Finally, the Xenos. These are lumped together in a category, but they have little to nothing to do with each other. They are neither human nor chaos, and that's about it.
There are the Orks, who are a brutal race (who also have their fair share of humor). There's the Necrons, who are undead robots, the relics of an ancient race. There's the Eldar, who were once the most powerful civilization in the galaxy and then gave in to their worst desires. There are the T'au, who look almost like Gundam in their mechanical suits. And the Tyranids, a bug-like race who have only the singular purpose of consuming everything they come into contact with.
That's about it for all the factions in the game. I didn't mention a few, like the Genestealer Cults, the Adeptus Mechnicus, the Grey Knights, and several more. But you get the idea.
For more ideas on which factions you want to play, read this article.
What is Warhammer 40k's Gameplay Like?
There are a few different ways to play the games, but almost always (because we're dealing in generalities here) you will have equal forces on each side. The way that this is determined is by either point value or power level. Each unit, such as a squad of Space Marines, or an Imperial Guard tank, or a Genestealer Cults motorcycle crew, will have a point value attached to them in the rules. So, if you want to play the most common game--2000 points--you will pick enough units to get your force equal to 2000. (Each unit also has a Power Level, which is kind of a quicker and less precise way of determining equal value.)
Once you have your force chosen, you will determine the type of game you are going to play. This is either agreed upon by the players or selected at random from a deck of cards or a roll of the dice. Generally, these games have more sophisticated goals than merely "kill all of the opponent's forces." There may be some objectives that are known to both players, such as certain places on the game board that you need to claim, but there may also be other objectives that only you know. When you accomplish these objectives, both the known and secret objectives, you are awarded Victory Points. At the end of the game (which is generally determined by a turn-limit, usually five or six turns) whoever has the most Victory Points is the winner.
The objectives make the games more interesting because you have goals that you need to accomplish. If the game is just "kill the other side", and you have a particularly shooty army like the Imperial Guard, you would plant yourself firmly on your table edge and never advance--just fire your guns. If you were playing a close combat army, like the Tyranids, you would run across the open ground as quickly as possible to slaughter the enemy. The presence of objectives makes you use more sophisticated strategies.
Living and dying is generally left up to the results of dice rolls, and there are usually quite a few rolls needed to determine who lives and dies. You roll to hit (either in Shooting Phase or Close Combat Phase), and if you hit you compare your strength characteristic to your opponent's toughness characteristic. The weapon may have additional powers that make it stronger or penetrate better. And then there is usually a savings roll to see if the defender's armor blocked the impact. It sounds like a lot of dice rolling--and it is, especially if you're rolling all the shots from a single squad at once--but you get used to it, and it goes pretty fast.
If you've never played a tabletop wargame before, then perhaps one of the most unusual things is the lack of board squares or hexes. Units move a certain number of inches, guns fire a certain number of inches, and assault units charge a certain number of inches. Keep a tape measure handy.
How Do You Get Started in Warhammer 40k?
To get started in the full game is a big investment, as the models aren't the cheapest. (Read this article to get a good idea of how expensive Warhammer is.) But there are other ways for you to get started in the hobby without committing to that full cost.
Combat Patrol is a variant of Warhammer 40k that, instead of using 2000 points on each side, only uses 500 points on each side. There are also restrictions as to the types of units that can be taken (so a player can't take a single 500 point monstrous model).
Kill Team is the another good gateway game into Warhammer 40k. It still uses points, but you are building a skirmish team, buying individual characters instead of units or squads. A typical Kill Team will consist of anywhere from five to twenty models per side. Kill Team is a particularly good way to get into the hobby because it is a low cost way to try different factions to determine which one you like the most and which you'd be most interested in collecting.
Necromunda is a similar kind of skirmish game to Kill Team, but with the difference that, while it takes place in the Warhammer 40k universe, the factions (or gangs, as they're called) aren't part of any of the 40k factions. They're all (mostly) human, but they're neither Imperial Guard nor Space Marine. They're violent gangs who live in the underground nether reaches of Hive Worlds.
There are other games that are related, but which are more board games. These include Blackstone Fortress, which is a board game but which offers stats for using the characters as part of a Warhammer 40k army. Also, Space Hulk is one of the most famous Warhammer board games, which pits Space Marine Terminators (extremely-heavily armored) against Genestealers (aliens which are part of the Tyranid range).