What is Warhammer 40k? Unveiling the Grimdark Universe

Warhammer 40,000 (aka Warhammer 40K, WH40K or just 40K), is a tabletop miniature wargame created and produced by Games Workshop.  To play the game you buy, build and paint your miniature army. Once it’s ready you then play against other people and their armies on a tabletop game space. 

Each army is based on units that have point values.  For example squad of five infantry might be 110 points, while single giant mech is 225.

Example point values as of 2024

As I write this in 2024 the game is in 10th edition, and the army sizes are:
Incursion (1,000 points), Strike Force (2,000 points), and Onslaught (3,000 points). The game is balanced for roughly these size armies.

Of course if you’re just playing with friends you can choose any army size you want.

Players deploy their armies on the tabletop battlefield, set win conditions, and play. Combat and movement are resolved by rolling dice.

The 10th edition core rules can be found here.

Key Takeaways

  • Warhammer 40K is a detailed tabletop miniatures game produced by Games Workshop.
  • Players collect, assemble, and paint miniatures representing different factions for gameplay or display.
  • Warhammer 40K is famous for it’s gritty story and incredibly high quality miniatures.

Story, Game and Miniatures

The core of Warhammer 40k is down to three things:  The story, the game and the miniatures.

Just to be clear, I got into Warhammer exclusively for the miniatures. They look cool and I love the satisfaction I get from painting the miniatures. Once I was into miniature painting, I started to learn more about the story and the game behind it.

The Story:

Here’s a quote that really gives you an idea of the world you’re in: 

Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.”  

Not particularly upbeat huh? That’s the backdrop for the WH40k universe. It’s savage, chaotic, dark. There is only war.

Warhammer 40k’s story revolves around the Emperor of Mankind, and his actions to fight vast enemies of humanity. 

We’re talking Xenos (aliens) and all forms of cults, demons, and other monsters.  The Emperor created his protectors, the Space Marines, to defend humanity.  However don’t misunderstand, there are no traditional “good guys” in the Warhammer world. 

Everything revolves around the fight to survive. Actually more than just survive, the Imperium of Man want’s to extinguish any threat to them. They want their enemies dead, and because there are so many hazards, they are quick to label you a heretic if you step even a little out of line.

Grim Dark World of Warhammer 40k

The Miniatures and Models:

Some people, like me for instance, tend to just enjoy assembling and painting the miniatures for display rather than playing the actual game.  Painting the models is sometimes called “hobbying” or simply miniature painting.  

When it comes to the quality, detail and diversity of miniatures, Games Workshop miniatures are the gold standard.  Their plastic, injection molded miniatures are exceptional.  Still much better than any mass produced resin or plastic miniatures you might have seen from other manufacturers.  

Ultramarines by Littlepeoplepainter

The Game of Warhammer 40k:

I want to keep this pretty basic for you, just so you have an idea of how the game is played.

It’s played on a 6×4 table officially, but of course if you’re playing with friends you can use whatever.

As I mentioned above it’s 2 players, each picks an army. Each army is made up of units that cost points.

So you would choose your army, buy, build, and paint them. Then you’re ready to play.

Warhammer is a dice based tabletop game. You roll a number of 6 sided dice to determine everything from movement to combat.

Win conditions can be things like eliminate the other team, capture objectives, or score

So that’s my quick summary of what Warhammer is.  Yes it’s a tabletop wargame, but you’ve heard of it because it has a compelling story, a vast setting, crazy deep lore, and the best miniatures in the world.

Getting Started with Warhammer 40k

The first thing you’ll want to do is pick an army. Most players that I know advise you to go with what you are drawn too. The best faction is the group that speaks to you. Go with the rule of cool.

Here’s a few images to consider:

Some Imperium Forces

We have Sisters of Battle, Astra Militarum and some Space Marine factions above. Or maybe you want to be the Xenos? Here’s some to look at:

Some Xenos (Aliens) in the 40k Universe

Have a look through the various options, and then you can start to choose your army.

My suggestion for getting started is an introductory set by GW. For under 60 dollars you get everything you need to play a small scale game of Warhammer. Once you get the hang of building, painting and playing you can expand from there.

If you’re not especially into those factions, there are a lot of combat patrol boxes available. These give you what amounts to a very strong starting army for the group you like. For example I love the Death Guard box set. Here’s some of mine:

3 of my Death Guard miniatures

Assembling and Painting Miniature Models and Armies

For this article I’m keeping things nice and short for you, I will link to more in depth articles for anything you feel you need more information on.

Simply put, all you need to assemble and paint the miniatures are clippers, a paint brush, some paint, and the models themselves. All of these items are included in the introductory set.

When you’re ready, you can look at my various gear guides to expand your paint collection, get a nice paintbrush, or even get an airbrush.

Painting Techniques

For your first miniature, don’t stress too much. A basic paint job is very simple. In fact Space Marines in particular are made to be easy to paint well.

They have large surfaces and sharp edges to make them work well with Games Workshops painting methods. All you need to worry about is looking at the box art, seeing what colors go where, and paint it.

Here are my first 3 Space Marines:

The First Space Marines I ever painted!

So what you see there is most of the miniature is blue. Gold on the chest aquila and gold on the shoulder pad trim. Black weapons, and a bit of red in the eye lenses. Done!

Once you’ve got a few under your belt, check out my article on some of the more popular miniature painting techniques. These are more advanced but still very achievable.

Important Factions in Warhammer 40k

Here is a quick list of the factions you’ll find in WH40k. For a more in depth look at them, feel free to see our article on it.

  • Imperium of Man: This is humanity in the 40k universe. Lead by the Emperor of Mankind, who currently is near dead and sits on a throne. It includes:
    • Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines): Evolved human warriors created by the Emperor to protect the Imperium.
    • Astra Militarum (Imperial Guard): The vast armies of regular human soldiers. If you lived in the 40k world you’d likely be in this group.
    • Adeptus Mechanicus: Cult of the Machine God, responsible for technology and machines.
    • Imperial Knights: Big mechs with big guns.
    • Adepta Sororitas (Sisters of Battle): Zealous female warriors of the Ecclesiarchy. Armed to the teeth and fully committed to the Emperor.
    • Inquisition: Secretive agents who protect the Imperium from heretics and daemons. Dan Abnett has a popular book series with the character Eisenhorn, who is an inquisitor.
  • Chaos: Enemies of the Imperium, dedicated to the Chaos Gods. Includes:
    • Chaos Space Marines: Space Marines who have turned to worship Chaos.
    • Daemons of Chaos: Otherworldly entities from the Warp.
    • Chaos Cultists: Humans who worship Chaos gods and seek to overthrow the Imperium.
  • Eldar (Aeldari): An ancient and highly advanced alien race, divided into:
    • Craftworld Eldar: Nomadic survivors of their race’s fall, living on massive spacecraft.
    • Drukhari (Dark Eldar): Sadistic raiders who prey on other beings for pleasure and sustenance. These are similar to Starcraft Protoss, if you know that game.
    • Harlequins: Mysterious warriors dedicated to the Eldar god of mischief.
    • Ynnari: Followers of the god of the dead, seeking to unite the Eldar factions.
  • Orks: A warlike, green-skinned race of aliens known for their love of fighting and anarchic technology. They come from spores, and have bizarre magical properties.
  • Tyranids: A hive-minded alien race of bio-engineered monsters that consume all life in their path. Again, if you played Starcraft, they are the Zerg.
  • Necrons: Ancient, skeletal robots seeking to reclaim the galaxy and restore their lost dynasties.
  • Tau Empire: Possibly the only “good guys” in the Warhammer universe. A relatively young race known for their advanced technology and belief in the “Greater Good”.
  • Genestealer Cults: Subversive organizations that worship the Tyranids, seeking to undermine societies from within.

A Short Summary of Warhammer 40,000 Lore

Ok so I wanted to give a very basic summary here, but I’ll go into it more in this article. Let’s just do the major components:

The Emperor of Mankind: He is THE guy in WH40k. An immortal god-emperor that was born 40,000 years before the current setting. He is enormously powerful but is now almost dead.

He sits on the Golden Throne, where thousands are sacrificed to keep him barely alive. His survival is the only thing allowing humanity to continue to navigate the Warp.

The Warp: The warp is a dimension of psychic energy that is central to the Warhammer universe. It is the home of the Chaos gods and all kinds of wild demons and monsters. It doesn’t follow the rules of our reality.

Traveling through the Warp, while very dangerous, is only possible via the Emperor powering the Astronomicon. Navigating the Warp is now essential for humanity to reach all the worlds that humans now populate.

Horus Heresy: This is one of, if not the biggest events in Warhammer lore. The civil war of the Imperium of Man. Horus Lupercal, one of the Emperors sons, was corrupted by the Chaos gods and betrayed his father.

The Imperium split, and the side that betrayed the Emperor are now known as the traitor legions. Legions like the Death Guard, Thousand Suns, Alpha Legion and others are now aligned with Chaos.

History of Warhammer 40k

Here’s the basics of how this game came to be and where it’s at now:

  • 1987: Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, the first edition of the game, is released by Games Workshop. It’s a sci-fi spin off of Warhammer Fantasy Battle.
  • 1993: The second edition of Warhammer 40,000 is launched, streamlining the rules and shifting the focus towards larger battles. This had box sets that included miniatures and everything you needed to start playing.
  • 1998: The third edition is released, making it a faster, more streamlined game.
  • 2004: The fourth edition is published More rules changes and the start of “Codex Creep,” where new army codexes contained more powerful units and rules, encouraging you to buy new models.
  • 2008: The fifth edition. This focused on game balance, more terrain rules, and more tactical gameplay. It also expanded the background stories and campaigns.
  • 2012: Sixth edition is released. Things like dynamic mission objectives and Allies are added. Allies allowed players to add units from other factions into their armies. Sweet.
  • 2014: Seventh edition is launched. More detailed narratives and bringing in the Unbound Army system, which lets you use any models you want. A bit chaotic.
  • 2017: The eighth edition, branded as Warhammer 40,000’s biggest overhaul ever. They simplify the game’s ruleset to make it more accessible to new players while retaining depth for veterans. It reset the storyline, advancing the universe’s narrative significantly. This is when i got into it.
  • 2020: Ninth Edition releases. It refined the mechanics, improved game balance (or tried to anyway), and added new narrative-driven gameplay elements.
  • 2023: 10th Edition Released in June of 2023. This is very new obviously and I’ll give you Game’s Workshops take on it:

Warhammer 10th Edition: This is a “complete revision of the game you know and love

The biggest takeaways for me is the simplification of rules and the Combat Patrol boxes to use to get started.

Since this article is aimed at new players, I would just mention here to buy your Warhammer stuff from either a local game shop or another 3rd party site online like Amazon. Games Workshop gives a flat discount to 3rd party sellers, so they are almost always cheaper than buying from GW directly!

You can download the rules of the game and the Combat Patrol datasheets here for free. Then you just need a table and some terrain.

Check your local game store to see if they have any WH game nights. Or if you have a Warhammer store near you, even better.

Other Major Games Workshop Miniature Games

Let’s end this with the other Games Workshop properties. I personally love to paint all different types of miniatures, and you might as well.

We have four to look at: Age of Sigmar, Horus Heresy, Necromunda, and Warhammer the Old World (which is ironically new as of 2024). I’ve painted a ton of Age of Sigmar minis, a lot of Horus Heresy as well. I haven’t tried much Necromunda as it’s just not my aesthetic. I’m very excited for Warhammer the Old World!

Age of Sigmar

So there was drama with this, since AoS replaced Warhammer Fantasy Battle. I personally love Age of Sigmar, but I get it that people were upset their game was discontinued.

ANYWAY…. Warhammer Age of Sigmar is much more of a fantasy universe. Key highlights include:

  • Lightning-forged Stormcast Eternals (similar to knights and paladins) and the necrotic Nighthaunt (ghosts and ghouls).
  • Lore: Tons of really cool characters and lore, way to much to get into here but I’ll do articles on them soon!

These guys are some of my many Age of Sigmar miniatures, Stormcast Eternals:

Some of my Stormcast Eternals from Age of Sigmar

Horus Heresy Series

I mentioned this up in the lore section, but basically it’s Warhammer civil war:

  • Legions: Loyalist and traitor legions, each mighty Primarch leaders. Primarchs are basically SUPER Space Marines. The Emperors sons.
  • New: This is a very new range for GW so there are not as many options yet.

Here’s some of my Horus Heresy miniatures. You can see they’re basically older versions of the current Space Marines. I think of it as kind of like Iron Man’s armor versions:

My Horus Heresy Miniatures – Imperial Fists!

Warhammer the Old World

Warhammer The Old World. I know this is confusing but…. Age of Sigmar replaced Warhammer Fantasy. People were upset at losing Warhammer Fantasy. So NOW, Games Workshop is introducing Warhammer the Old World, which is basically rebooting Warhammer Fantasy.

Hope that makes sense…

Anyway, Old World is only very very very recently starting to come out. We’re just now getting models and info in 2024. I do not have anything from them but here’s an example:

Warhammer Old World reveal – Bretonnian
Warhammer Old World reveal – Tomb King


I know very little about Necromunda, but here’s the basics. It’s a skirmish game in the crime-ridden underhive, where gangs rule.

  • Gangs: Choose from Houses Orlock, Escher, and more.
  • Narrative: Each gang has a back-story enriched by Black Library novels and detailed miniatures.

And a representative miniature:

Some Necromunda units

Ok and that wraps it up! I’ll update this with more information as we go. My goal is to create easy to find and use information to get you started and keep you engaged along the way.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *