This month I am going to take a break from charting my progress towards playing in the Leicester Warhammer 40,000 Grand Tournament and take a step back to talk about the game as a whole.
My break from 40k between 1995 and 2020 was complete: I gave away all my models and books, and just stopped even thinking about it. I think I went into Games Workshop Leicester once when 3rd edition was released to have a look and did not return. Yet here I am, so immersed again in the 41st Millennium that I am writing a blog and spending time everyday painting minis, never mind having army list and modelling ideas rattling around my brain. I've fallen into it again hard, this hobby I last loved when I was 14 years old, and I wonder whether I will sustain my enthusiasm or burnout – probably sometime after winning the Las Vegas Open and Golden Demon Slayer Sword. I would like to think am back in for good this time around, and here's why.
In my opinion, the game has changed in three significant ways since it began. I'll got through each of these in turn, and then explain why none of it matters.
1. Models used to be produced to match rules, now rules are produced to match models.
The original ruleset for 40k was released after a long gestation period as a complete game in a book, with initially very few miniatures to support it. The author encouraged the use of whatever suitable figures gamers could get their hands on, including WW2 tank kits and toy monsters. In fact, the reason why we have fantasy races in space is that Citadel already produced many fantasy ranges that they knew sold well and GW’s boss thought that keen hobbyists could just convert these for the little niche space game that had been written by one of their developers in his spare time.
You might think that this lack of models was limiting, but the opposite was true. That big box of 30 plastic space marines represented a blank canvas – with only a tiny fraction of the 1,000 chapters even named, having a short paragraph and colour scheme each, we were free to make them our own. I know that there is tons of creativity going on in the hobby now, but back then it was driven by necessity, which brings me back to the rules.
The rules back then were not blindly written with no thought about what models would actually be used to play the game, and we can see lots of examples of compromise, with many factions sharing the same weapons and vehicles. There was only one armoured transport kit, the Rhino, so it could be used by Imperial Guard as well as Space Marines. One of the first army lists published was Harlequins, and they could take Land Raiders. Very often though, unit options would appear for which no models existed, and often never would. There are loads of bits of art and lore that never got officially realised on the table-top, such as the slavers on Logan’s world and their giant walking gun platforms. Nevertheless, they fired the imagination and modelling skills were employed to fill the gaps. Nowadays rules, art and lore are created in service to the models being made, or that’s what it seems like. This has led to there being many more unit and weapon profiles, as well as tons of special rules. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to you, but having thousands of kits available is undoubtedly awesome. You can still be creative and do something different, but you don’t have to. Take a look at McGibs’ Bubble Helmet Marines in Dakka Dakka’s Painting and Modelling Showcase section for some truly inspiring work that plays as a regular army.
The ‘no models, no rules’ policy that seems to be creeping in is definitely not cool, in my opinion. I can understand why it’s happening, but I think it will stifle creativity among veterans, get newcomers used to being spoon-fed, and lead to bad rules writing as games developers have more restrictions placed upon them. Why can’t Ork Nobz have a shoota instead of a slugga and choppa? Is it because new players can’t buy Nobz off the shelf that are already modelled with them? That’s a pretty lame reason. How come every Painboy has to have a power klaw? You’ve taken a character that used to be kustomisable and made him the same guy for every warband out there. Of course you can always write your own rules, and many fans have done just that. Trust me, Games Workshop won’t mind.
2. Model count has increased, and models have got bigger…
...but tables didn’t have to get smaller. For matched play, the table sizes given for each level of game are described as the minimum allowed. From my experience (played one game, watched 1,000 battle reports!) I would like to see at least an extra 6 inches on all sides, to stop artillery tanks being bunched up in a corner like they are all trying to fit into overlapping car parking spaces laid out by a disgruntled council worker with a drinking problem. For open play, I am going to be breaking out the 6’x4’ even if there’s only three or four squads on each side.
My marines look a lot better on 32mm bases than they did on the 25mm ones they came with. Even my Space Ork raiders – tiny lead orks barely bigger than a modern-day grot – have benefited from being upgraded. For a very long time GW were happy for a model’s feet to overhang the edge of their little patch of green flock and I wonder why? Was there some in-game reason, so models could fit into smaller spaces on the table-top? Or was it just kind of overlooked?
I first saw a Knight in the window display at Warhammer Leicester (same shop, different name now) when I was getting interested again, and I was blown away. They are hugely impressive and a mark of just how far this hobby has come. I think the price is very fair also, considering how many hours joy you can get building, painting, and playing with one. It’s only September and I have already written a letter to Santa.
On the battlefield, Knights are symptomatic of the scaling up of the narrative. It seems no longer to be about the average trooper, and more about super-powered elites, war machines and characters. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I think something has maybe been lost in the arms race. Something only looks big and scary, cool and impressive, if given a human scale to be compared against. One Chaos Knight leading an assault against an Imperial Guard stronghold is much more interesting to me than a whole army of them taking on Roboute Guilliman, some Centurions and a couple of hover tanks with 100 guns each. In first edition, your general represented you on the tabletop. I suppose that I find it easier to identify with the man in the trenches than a ten-thousand-year-old Primarch of a Legion who can punch 30-foot robot to death. Then again, I always preferred the early stages of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and there could still be traces of role-playing in my approach to war-gaming.
3. Competitive play is the most visible part of a vastly bigger hobby world…
...and it exerts an outsized influence on everything. I won’t dwell on the reasons 40k has exploded in popularity; the fact it’s been around so long and has grown up alongside the internet is explanation enough. Also, Americans. I had been planning to make a comparison here with the rise of craft beer. The way the US brewers came here to Europe, took some recipes back over there and made them bigger and bolder, then exported them back to us so we could copy them in turn. Except GW was founded on importing an American game (D&D) so the comparison doesn’t hold true. It’s hugely exciting though, isn’t it? The way 40k has blown up in the States, and the sheer amount of content, like the stuff Front Line Gaming network puts out. I am a big fan. Not a country to do things by halves, there are videos out there by American enthusiasts that will cover every aspect of how to be more competitive, even down to what to eat on the day of a tournament. The maths of probability is another favourite subject and one I feel comfortable with to the point of boredom, after being obsessed with online poker in the years that I wasn’t playing 40k. Efficiency is still one I am getting my head around.
It’s not hard to see that 9th edition is geared towards 2,000 point matched play battles over symmetrical terrain consisting of ruins. This feels more like a boardgame than a wargame, and I will struggle to insert much role-playing into the experience either. I think it’s still going to be hugely enjoyable, just in a different way. I am already having fun list building (more on that next month). There is Crusade, which looks a little bit like a perpetual league rather than true narrative play, and even that has a competitive edge. What the game lacks is a casual mode. On the surface Open Play fits the bill but it doesn’t cut it when it comes to pick-up games since it’s not tightly enough defined or well enough supported. It could be moulded into the standard way to play 40k casually, and if that is something that piques your interest, check out Arbitor Ian’s Youtube video on the subject.
Has competitiveness seeped into other areas of the hobby, such as painting? Well maybe, yeah. Through better techniques and tutorials, standards have improved to the point where incredible paint jobs are run-of-the-mill. When I hear guys on podcasts talk about being scared to start painting a mini because they are afraid they won’t do it justice, I cringe inwardly. White Dwarf magazine, with it’s examples of ‘Battle Ready’ and ‘Parade Ready’ don’t help either. It’s as if they are saying you can’t field your models, and they won’t be good enough, until you have painted them to our standard. As a veteran with thick skin and a healthy disregard for other people’s opinions, this will never bother me, but is it a barrier to entry for new hobbyists? I hope not. It can’t be repeated often enough that the only painting standards you should adhere to are your own. Let’s not forget, cardboard counters and books for hills is how it all started. Strive to be ‘better’ if you want to be, but only if you enjoy doing that. Uncle Atom from Tabletop Minions has a good attitude and some good videos on this subject.
Why none of the above matters.
This game is what you make it. You can play any way you want and if you make it fun, chances are you can convince others to play with you too. There really is no need to be on the merry-go-round of new releases of rules and models unless you want to be.
Personally, I think I will be plugged into the tournament scene for a while, but once I start building a battlefield I’ll start inventing stories and get into being a games master again, maybe. If GW are doing things I’m not into or I get bored I can dip back into Rogue Trader. I would love to host a 2nd edition tournament one day as well. There’s Bring Out Your Lead, a retro Warhammer Event in Nottingham I want to get to, and I’ve got loads of modelling projects planned. Once I get that Knight, he is going to need some feudal peasants with lasguns to fight alongside… and that’s why, now I’m back into the hobby, I don’t think I will ever leave again. It’s not really changed that much anyway. There are still Chainswords, it’s just that now there are also Reaper Chainswords, and a lot more opponents to use them against.
For now, I’ll carry on preparing for the Leicester GT, and I’ve already bought a ticket for the Nottingham GT next year. Next month I’ll have a final army list to share and will reveal why I agonised for ages over whether to make them Dark Angels successors or not. Until then, stay safe and keep passing life’s leadership checks.
All the best
Kieran (aka PaddyMick)