Tabletop Game Review: Warhammer 40,000 Sixth Edition

Some Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. (Imperial Guard Chimera, Witch Hunter Inquisitor, Grey Knight and some custom-built Servitors)

Having been out of the loop of Games Workshop wargames for quite a period of time, the release of a new edition of their flagship miniatures game Warhammer 40,000 seemed a good time to get involved again. These new rules are, it seems, a very workable and quite enjoyable game, albeit one with a few flaws which largely seem to result from a slow miniatures release schedule.

The core rules are fairly standard wargame fare; players alternate in taking turns in a fixed order, rather than activating single miniatures or squads alternately or changing the player order each round. Similarly, activations are done en masse per game phase – a player completes all his movement, then all his ranged combat actions then all his melee actions. There is no formal cleanup or refreshing phase; casualties are removed as they are inflicted, and units test for rout immediately this is necessary. While this could have seemed simplistic and uninspiring in comparison to more complex systems, the rules are designed around turning this apparent simplicity into tactical choices. First and foremost among these design elements is the rule regarding removal of casualties from a unit; they must now be removed from the “front,” defined as the nearest visible model to the attacking unit. This makes positioning figures within a unit a key consideration; a short-range weapon like a flamethrower might be worth protecting but at the same time will then be unable to shoot. Similarly, in units with mixed defence values, there is now merit to positioning the toughest units at the front, so they take the first hits.

While this seems stacked in favour of the defender, it is counterbalanced by another rule which, while apparently adding needless bookkeeping, works well as a balancing tool. The defender must resolve damage from multiple weapons in an order chosen by the attacker, as follows. First, the attacker resolves all shooting with all weapons that are being fired. Then, the successes scored are grouped by strength. Finally, the attacker decides which “pool” of successes will be resolved by the defender first – meaning high-strength shots can be allocated against key targets, and less powerful hits against weaker rank-and-file. These two rules work well in combination with each other and make movement and positioning a key part of the game. 6th edition Warhammer 40,000 seems designed around turning simpler rules into complex decisions; the rules concerning which weapons may fire following movement are simultaneously lenient but also risky. Basic weapons are divided into two types – Rapid Fire and Assault. The former may fire two shots at half their range or one at full range, and the latter their full shots value at full range. However, firing the former type prevents a unit from making a melee combat action, while the latter does not. Similarly Heavy weapons may fire after moving, but at a hefty penalty to hit. This differentiation of weapon types makes some units less generalist; units armed predominantly with Rapid Fire or Heavy weapons can no longer fight as effectively in melee. Melee weapons have similar differentiations, with some striking slower but stronger, and lighter weapons less powerful but appreciably quicker to act.

The rules for firing in response to an enemy close assault, and the randomness in assault moves, make strategies based around large hordes of weak figures risky and allow smaller units to stand a chance of thinning out a charging unit. Indeed this, combined with the rules about removing casualties from the front, can mean a charge can be blunted completely if the defender kills enough enemies to mean the new front line can’t reach its target. Similarly, if an attacker does well with its ranged attacks to soften up a potential melee target, it may find the enemy are now too far away to engage.

Rules concerning vehicles are sound, but possibly where the game falls down – especially around aircraft. The core vehicle rules work fine, with accuracy penalties for vehicles trying to fire multiple weapons, and an elegantly-designed damage system whereby glancing hits simply weaken a vehicle while penetrating hits inflict damage to specific systems as well, but aircraft are currently over-strong in game because they are not evenly distributed among the factions. Aircraft can only be effectively targeted by other aircraft, or anti-aircraft weapons, but the factions have not all been updated to include these. While addressing this is a focus for Games Workshop, at the moment it means that some faction matchups are not fair fights as one will inherently have air superiority. The inclusion of rules for defences purchased as part of a force go some way to fix this, with any faction allowed to pick a generic anti-aircraft emplacement, but this is an inelegant patch for the issue – especially given it does nothing to reflect faction weapons or styles. If and when GW get around to adding full lists of defences and aircraft for all factions, the rules will likely work well.

The alliance rules are similarly flawed – while fine in concept, encouraging players to experiment with cross-faction unit combinations, the table of acceptable combinations does not very well reflect the background of the game and has already been seen to allow exceptionally powerful combinations that are difficult for more balanced forces to face. It appears to be a case of rules written to encourage casual and fun play being appropriated by competitive players to get even more of an edge. While competitiveness is no bad thing, it does stratify a game’s player base and a casual player of Warhammer 40,000 may be put off by continued defeats at the hands of someone with an eye for optimising their force in competitive terms. That said, the rulebook is well-focussed at new players rather than appealing solely to diehards, with useful painting advice given and tips on how best to assemble model kits for the best results. This information is probably of no use to a seasoned fan, but its inclusion is useful for gaining new players. Similarly, there are insert boxes throughout the rules recommending players do play in a more casual way, encouraging experimentation and the creation of variant rules. The terrain and building rules are established as a simple framework on which new ideas should be built, which is a good feature – a series of setpiece scenarios give suggestions on how to add special rules to pieces of terrain, or adapt the core rules to reflect weather conditions or other sci-fi phenomena.

So to conclude, Warhammer 40,000 6th edition is a capable wargame; the failings of the rules (uneven distribution of special rules and features such as aircraft, and disparities in wording in older faction rules) should in time be fixed by means of faction rule updates and if this happens it will be a good wargame for new players to enter the hobby by. The complexity is not a result of endless lists of exceptions, for the most part; it is from establishing simple rules which can be used to a player’s advantage, and an element of risk management that a good game should have. Of the games I have played of it so far, I have seen the rules used to their full competitive extent with someone taking a highly optimised force using powerful allies and aircraft, and played some more casual games against people with forces built around running with a theme and having fun. The latter suited me more as a player of games, but the fact that the rules apparently work for both (when considered separately, not played against each other) can be considered a success.

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