In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, and the newly released 9th edition of Warhammer 40,000 delivers that war directly to your tabletop in an accessible and refined package. The new edition shows an effort by Games Workshop to establish a welcoming platform for players of all stripes and 9th edition rules contain exciting opportunities for players new and old to experience the game how they like.
If narrative-driven legacy play interests you, then they’ve got rules for that. If hardcore tournament play is your thing, then they’ve got rules for that too. And, for the most part, these rules have never been better.
The new Crusade system offers some very cool legacy-style play that is likely to find traction among the non-competitive set. Using the Crusade rules, your units gain experience and battle honors as you play through narrative missions with your friends. The army that you start with will be a novice band of warriors carrying basic gear.
But by the end of your Crusade, if indeed you ever decide to end it, your warriors will carry the scars and honors of their many battles, and some of the choices you can make with your hard-won experience points are incredibly fun and flavourful. I have no doubt that this system will continue to develop and grow throughout the 9th edition.
Games Workshop have also made efforts to bring the competitive players back under the GW tent with the 9th edition. The primary thrust of these efforts was the promulgation of a new set of competition-focused battle scenarios and rules. In earlier editions, the competitive-play rules contained in the core rule book were essentially ignored by the independent tournament circuit. Instead, the independent competitive groups developed their own sets of missions, their own scoring rubrics, and their own terrain rules to make competition more fair and balanced. Games Workshop has been paying attention: The new Grand Tournament 2020 book is a stand-alone rulebook designed specifically for competition players, and the word on the street is that all of the independent tournament groups have agreed to adopt these rules wholesale.
Perhaps the biggest mechanical upgrade to the 9th edition is an overall optimization of the game’s pace. In earlier editions, the tournament-standard game table was sized at 6 feet by 4 feet. In the 9th edition, the suggested table size has been reduced to 60″ x 44″. With a smaller battlefield, the opposing armies begin the game much closer than in previous editions, which means that your bolters and chainswords can get to work without undue delay. Additionally, the standard game length has been reduced from 6 rounds to 5. And finally, the in-game points cost of units have increased across the board, meaning that the armies on the table are slightly smaller than in earlier editions. The net result is that 9th edition games get to the point more quickly and don’t overstay their welcome.
With the changing of the seasons comes also a changing of the guard. The blue-armoured Ultramarines, always the standard-bearers of space marine marketing materials, continue their ceremonial role as the boys on the box. Of course players can and mostly do paint their space marines in the liveries of the other chapters, and the rules for these other chapters of space marines have never been more varied and robust. All of the existing codex books (containing art, lore, and special rules for your favorite armies) remain valid as we move into the 9th edition, but not all of the units and rules remain relevant. Gone, for the most part, are the ‘Firstborn’ marines that you may have picked up in the 90s. It’s not unlawful to run a group of tactical space marines in your army list — just unwise. The newer Primaris marines are better in every conceivable way, and Games Workshop is hard at work replacing the units in your old collection with newer, better stuff. The power creep is real.
But we can’t blame Games Workshop for designing new things, as their business relies upon coming up with new toys to sell and new reasons for us to buy them. Design-wise, the miniature sculpts released with the 9th edition are some of the best models Games Workshop have ever released. The units sold with the Indomitus launch edition include an array of never-before-seen Primaris marines themed around the in-narrative Indomitus Crusade, which pits some powerful Space Marine knight-analogs against perhaps even more powerful bionic skeleton people called Necrons. The detail and precision of these sculpts is absolutely top-tier, and for the initial release set at least, Games Workshop designed them as push-fit ‘easy to build’ models that don’t require any glue to assemble. While I am sure enough digging can reveal someone with a poor opinion of these models, I have a general sense that these models have been widely well-received within the community.
On that note, the Warhammer 40k community also appears to be in a good place right now. Warhammer subreddits are numerous and lively, and there is a brisk second-hand market (on r/miniswap) for those looking to buy, sell, and trade their armies. Likewise, the miniature painting scene is robust and friendly (try visiting r/minipainting for a look at some incredible work). There is something about the structure of Warhammer that brings out a good cross-section of people who share an interest in strategy gaming, collecting, creating art, and hanging out in person to have a game. Even if you don’t know anyone else who would be into Warhammer, a visit to your Friendly Local Gaming Store on Warhammer night is likely to lead you to develop some real and meaningful friendships.
But Warhammer 40,000 is a growing game, and as things grow there are always growing pains. Games Workshop is attempting to go digital with some of their products now, and they now offer an app to help players create army lists and access the associated rules. But Games Workshop is so extraordinarily protective of their physical products that they cannot figure out how to price and deliver digital goods in a sensible way. They want to charge $5 USD per month to access their new app, but to access any of the digital rules (for example, the rules in the upcoming 2020 Space Marine Codex book), they want you to buy the physical book and then input a one-time-use code to unlock the content in the app. It’s just a turn-off with a low value proposition, and it has not been well-received to date. Games Workshop seems to be realizing that, and I expect they will be adjusting their business model to get more traction and buy-in.
And rules-wise, while the game plays fairly fluidly, the game can still suffer from balance issues. In a game where all of the rules are issued in a paper format, it is clunky when the developers need to issue a game patch. But they do issue patches, and they call them FAQs and Errata. To access the FAQ, you need to visit the official website and read what changed. While most competitive players keep up-to-date on this kind of thing, it’s easy for players to simply not know that their units or rules got nerfed. I also note that while most of the Warhammer Rules are well-written, that when Games Workshop misses the mark on writing a clear rule, they tend to miss pretty badly and end up sowing confusion and consternation within the community. This would be the perfect kind of information that would be well-suited for delivery through an app. I think they’ll get there, but it will take some institutional change for Games Workshop to leave the 41st millennium and embrace the 21st Century.
In the final analysis, I think Warhammer 40,000 9th Edition is poised to be a critical and financial success. There is a heartening analog element to Warhammer that allows its players to connect with beautiful physical objects and good people. The books are full of rich art and lore and they are a real joy to own; they’re picture books for adults who love the idea of cleaving an Ork in half with a power sword. The models are intricate and awesome, and I have found a true zen bliss in carefully assembling and painting them. For strategy gamers, there is great depth to be found in theory-crafting your army lists, which is a game unto itself that can entertain you for hours. And finally, the time you spend with your friends showing off your custom army and blasting each other to pieces is the great culmination of your efforts.
I hope to see you on the battlefield. The emperor protects. Or, for those of you so inclined, WAAAAAAGGGGGHHHH!!!!!
All images courtesy of Games Workshop & the Warhammer Community website.