What Warhammer 40k Army Should I Start?
There is no one-size-fits-all army that everyone should start Warhammer 40k with. Each has its own unique playstyle and lore and look, all things that ought to be kept in mind when deciding which army is the right one to spend your hard-earned dollars on.
If you're reading this article, I'm going to assume that you're relatively new to Warhammer 40k. Maybe you've watched games being played and are toying with the idea of taking the plunge. Maybe you've just heard about the game and want to know what all the fuss is about. Or maybe you're an experienced player with one or more armies under your belt and you're now trying to decide which army to play next.
I can't possibly cover all of the many, many Warhammer 40k factions in one single article, so I'm going to break things down today according to the armies that I personally have played. At a later point I'll write about the armies I've played against or watched played (or never watched because no one ever plays them).
So let's start with everyone's most loved and most hated, the Adeptus Astartes, otherwise known as the Space Marines. (If you're new to 40k--or Games Workshop generally--you'll soon learn that they've renamed a lot of their armies in an attempt to better copywrite them. Space Marines are now Adeptus Astartes, Imperial Guard are now Astra Militarum, Eldar are now Aeldari. You'll get used to it.) (Everyone still calls them by their old names anyway.)
The reason that these are the most hated and most loved is because they are the most pervasive. Every starter box is Space Marines vs Someone. Every product launch features some new Space Marine unit or model or update.
But the reason for all of that love is because the Space Marines are 1) so easy to get started with, and 2) a blank canvas on which you can do almost anything. For the purposes of this article, I'm not going to break things down by individual chapters of the Space Marines, but suffice it to say that if you want frenzied, vampiric Space Marines you've got them in the Blood Angels. Want Vikings? Take the Space Wolves. Want a whole army of the toughest Space Marines, the Terminators? Then take the Dark Angels? Or, on the other hand, you can put all of your Space Marines on motorcycles and that's also the Dark Angels. Psychic powerhouses? Grey Knights. Tough-as-nails artillery-heavy Marines? Imperial Fists. Generic vanilla? Ultramarines. I could go on. There is no end to the possibilities you can choose from for your Space Marine chapter.
Space Marines themselves are eight-foot tall superhumans who have been genetically bred to be the best fighters in the galaxy. (At least that's how they are in the lore.) Multiple extra organs, incredible strength and toughness, they are a force to be reckoned with.
The Astra Militarum, or the Imperial Guard as they're better known, are the everyman soldier. Recruited from a million worlds, these are the regular humans with regular weapons who are doing their best to survive.
The reasons to pick the Imperial Guard are 1) they are just as varied as the Space Marines (at least in appearance), and 2) they are extremely shooty and love tanks.
The average Imperial Guard army has eight or ten squads of guardsmen--you're dealing with a lot of soldiers--but they're backed up by some serious heavy weapons. The Leman Russ battle tank is the old standard, but they've even upgraded to some super-heavies: the Baneblades (and their varieties).
The three regiments that are sold in plastic are the Steel Legion (from a death world called Armageddon, they are very tank-reliant), the Catachan (jungle fighters who look like they stepped out of Predator), and Cadians (the standard vanilla troop choice). But there are so many interesting options if you look for alternate models, such as the trench-warfare Death Korps of Krieg, the very British Colonial-looking Praetorian Guard, the perfect upright soldiers of the Mordians, the desert-dwelling Tallarn, and many many more.
If you like the idea of weak soldiers with a lot of guns, who desperately try to cut down the enemy before they can get close enough to engage hand-to-hand, the Imperial Guard is for you.
Okay, so 10,000 years ago, the Space Marines had a big division, called the Horus Heresy, and the result was that ten chapters stayed loyal to the Emperor, and ten legions went heretical and joined the Chaos demons of the Warp.
Everything I said about the Space Marines (lots of options in both gameplay and appearance) can be said about the Chaos Space Marines. The Chaos Space Marines are a delight to play and paint: for marine corrupted by pestilence and plague there is the Death Guard; for marines with psyker abilities (and amazing headdresses) the Thousand Sons; for berserkers with a thirst for blood and a love of chain axes, World Eaters.
But the Chaos Space Marines have a trick up their sleeve, which is that they can be fielded with actual demons. Some of the demons are small, like Bloodletters, but some are big and terrifying like the Great Unclean One and Be'lakor.
And instead of heavy transports with lascannons they have crazed war engines like the Defiler, the Forgefiend, or the Helldrake.
The Orks are just plain fun. Yes, they are very very loosely based off of orcs from Tolkien fantasy, but they are so far removed as to be nearly unrecognizable. Orks would be a joke if they weren't so effective. The designers just have a riot with these guys, giving them the most screwball contraptions to drive (their vehicles literally run on the power of positive thinking--really). Their guns are bizarre. Their clothes are silly.
But they've been around since the very beginning of Warhammer 40k which means they have an absolute wealth of options for vehicles and units. With massive war walkers called Gorkanauts and Morkanauts, with helicopters called Deffkoptas, and the most absurd collection of bikes, buggies, wagons and dragsters (collectively known as Speed Freeks), you can do all kinds of hilariously silly things with your Orks. Kitbashing with Orks is almost a must-do (and the worse it looks, the better).
In the game they are both shooty and choppy (with their Shootas and Choppas). They are a good introductory army for someone who is looking to have a really good time. Seriously, I have never met an Ork player who was a rules lawyer or a nitpicker--they're all just there to have fun.
If Orks are orcs in space, and Aeldari are elves in space, then Necron are the undead skeletons in space. Ancient, they are robots who were once flesh and blood but made a deal with the devil and became the undead. They are fiendish to fight on the tabletop, as they can literally come back from the grave (rolling a few dice after being destroyed can bring your Necron warriors right back into the fight).
They're very shooty, which is good because they're slow. They have a great Egyptian aesthetic, and did I mention they have trapped a god? Yes, the very gods who tricked the Necrons into giving up their living forms have had the tables turned and been trapped by the Necrons.
The Necrons have a mindless desire to kill and a ruthless hope of one day becoming living beings again.
A faction of the Eldar, the Harlequins were one of the first armies I ever owned. Basically elf space clowns, these are acrobatic, agile entertainers who make no distinction between art and war. They do everything in service of the Laughing God.
Wearing outlandish theatrical outfits, they weild extremely powerful weapons, such as the Harlequin's Kiss, a mono-filament weapon that injects itself into your body, lashes all around, and turns your insides into jelly.
Great if you like small forces, these are close combat units who use deception and visual distraction to cross the battlefield and get into the fight with the enemy.
I admit it: I bought a lot of T'au--like, a LOT of T'au--before realizing that I couldn't paint them worth a darn and turned around and sold them on eBay. So I've never actually played with them, but I got the gist of it.
If there is anyone in the Warhammer 40k universe who could be said to be the "good guys" it might be the T'au. They're kind of space communists who do everything for the greater good. (In case I didn't mention it above, the Space Marines--even the non-Chaos ones--are not "good guys". In Warhammer 40k, everyone is terrible.)
T'au have a very gundam appearance to them, which makes them look out of place in the very grungy, Blanchitsu world of the game. They are another very shooty army, with some heavy firepower.
Okay, so Squats no longer exist and you can't pick them as an army. But they were SO GREAT! They were my very first army in Warhammer 40k. Think of them as space dwarves, and where fantasy dwarves are gruff miners, space dwarves are, well, gruff miners with power tools.
The toughest of all Squat units had mining armor that was nearly impenetrable. They looked like little metal spheres as they slowly plodded across the battlefield. But if they were slow, their brethren were anything but: they rode around on massive three-wheeled motorcycles. The squats were the blue collar biker gang of Warhammer.
The Sisters of Battle have been part of Warhammer 40k forever, but for decades they were very neglected, despite getting a lot of love. They had few units, what they did have was old, and their rules never got updates. That all changed in 2019 when they were re-released all in plastic, and they've been incredibly popular ever since.
They're essentially militant space nuns whose job it is to root out heresy and purge the heretic from the galaxy, preferably with fire.
Everything in Warhammer 40k is over-the-top gothic space-Catholicism, and we see all of that in the Sisters of Battle. Their vehicles are small churches or shrines: the Exorcist is a pipe organ on tank treads that shoots rockets, and the Immolator has a stained glass window as a shield.
In a universe where there are literal gods of chaos, there are also literal angels, like Celestine, the Living Saint.
In gameplay, the Sisters have a lot of heavy weapons but like to get up close and personal with their flamers.
That's all the armies that I have personally owned and played over the years. In the future I'll break down into more detail the individual armies, as well as covering the other armies that I haven't played.
Have you decided which army you want to play yet?