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What is Warhammer 40,000 (40K)?

Covered in this article: Warhammer 40,000, Warhammer 40K, and Games Workshop.

Warhammer 40000 40K Title Logo
Warhammer 40000 40K Title Logo

Warhammer 40,000 (4K)

Warhammer 40,000 (commonly known as “40K”), is one of the largest and most successful tabletop miniature wargames in the World, but it’s actually just one of 3 huge storylines and product ranges within the wider Warhammer ecosystem.

Games Workshop is the company behind Warhammer 40,000 (40K), and Games Workshop originally started creating the model range back in the 1980’s.

At that time, the super popular Dungeons & Dragons (“DnD”) roleplay game was the biggest thing on the tabletop for fantasy games enthusiasts, and the early Games Workshop models were actually designed to be played in games of DnD.

Over time, as things evolved, the model range grew and with it spawned a unique universe full of lore (context and historical content), and ultimately 3 stand-alone product ranges in the shape of Warhammer Age of Sigmar (AoS), Warhammer The Horus Heresy (30K), and Warhammer 40,000 (40K).

Warhammer 40000 40K Title Banner 3
Warhammer 40000 40K Title Banner 3

Games Workshop also produced a range of tabletop miniatures for the Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit) franchise, but you can read about that here.

Gameplay – How to play Warhammer 40,000 (40K)

Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop game which is set far into the future, around the year 40,000 to be more precise.

The 40K gaming system consists of a huge range of plastic and metal figurines which are collected, brought together on a tabletop, and arranged for the purposes of playing a simulated wargame.

A game of Warhammer 40,000 typically sees two or more players taking turns to move their models around the tabletop battlefield. They then “attack” each other by announcing actions such as weapons firing, missile hits, bombs exploding. The success of each ‘action’ is then based on each player’s dice rolls, and looking up the rules and charts to determine the outcome based on the score(s) across the dice.

Warhammer 40000 40K Prophecy of the Wolf Box Set
Warhammer 40000 40K – Prophecy of the Wolf Box Set

The gameplay in Warhammer 40,000 combines elements of both skill and chance. Skill – in the way of strategy and tactics deployed by each player, and Chance – in the form of outcomes determined by scores acquired by the rolling of dice.

Before any games of Warhammer 40,000 can start though, the models must first be built, and (ideally) painted.

Building and Painting your own Warhammer 40K models

Building, painting and collecting Warhammer 40,000 armies and model sets is a core part of the hobby, and is well-loved by an ever growing fan base of 40K enthusiasts.

Indeed, over the years as the Warhammer 40,000 hobby has established itself, it has also given birth to a thriving community of artists, professional-level painters, and content creators.

All new Warhammer 40,000 model sets arrive in a cardboard box, which contains the models attached to one or multiple plastic frames called a “sprue”.

Building Warhammer Model Kits 2
Building Warhammer Model Kits (Death Guard Plague Marines)

To make a start on building the models – all of the individual parts need to first be cut from the sprue(s), cleaned (to get rid of any debris and mould lines), and then glued together in place, according to the instructions guide.

The website focusses on helping both new and existing hobbyists with the build and assembly part of it all.

For all of it’s model sets, Games Workshop provides a set of “how to” construction guides to help any hobbyist build their Warhammer 40,000 models. These instruction booklets typically come printed, and enclosed in all new model sets bought direct from Games Workshop or an approved reseller. However it’s also very possible to buy second-hand model sets on secondary markets such as Ebay, and find that you don’t have the build instructions included.

Paper Warhammer Instruction Booklets 2
Paper Warhammer Instruction Booklets (Death Guard Plague Marines)

That’s where helps out. Our team are continually crowd-sourcing a growing library of instruction booklets in PDF digital format, which we then make available to the Warhammer community as free downloads. The team does this to help the community and ultimately get more Warhammer built, but we’d also like to see Games Workshop consider moving away from paper based booklets and provide just digital copies in the same way we do. There are “Green” benefits to this paperless approach too, and you can read more about it here.

Landscape Hand Holding iPhone with Warhammer Build Instructions 1
Hand Holding an iPhone showing Downloaded Warhammer Build Instructions

Games Workshop leads the way in Tabletop Wargames

Most Warhammer 40,000 model sets are produced in unexpanded Polystyrene.

Unexpanded Polystyrene is a recyclable plastic, and lends itself very well to the moulding and production processes which Games Workshop uses.

In years gone by, you could pick up Games Workshop model kits which were produced in metal and sold in “blister packs”, but the company has moved away from that now.

The transition to predominantly plastic based kits has followed improvements in the technology. The process of sculpting and then injection moulding with unexpanded Polystyrene has improved significantly in recent years and we now have plastic model kits that are of a higher quality and finer detail than were previously possible.

Forge World (a subsidiary of Games Workshop), still also produces its models in Resin.

Again, these are very high quality and detailed model sculpts, but the resin approach seems to be reserved for low quantity production runs or physically larger model sets.

The success of Games Workshop and the popularity of Warhammer 40,000 cannot be understated. At a global level, the Warhammer product range is the best selling and most popular fantasy miniatures game available today.

Ok, so what is Warhammer 40,000 (40K), and how does it differ from any other forms of Warhammer?

Warhammer 40,000 is a specific setting and timeline within the wider Warhammer ecosystem.

In many ways, Warhammer 40,000 could be likened to a Sci-Fi prediction of what our own future might look like, in 30,000 years time.

Indeed – Warhammer 40,000 (40K) is full of fictional races, advanced technology and war machines that look like they’ve rolled straight off a Hollywood Sci-Fi movie set (although it’s more likely that the inspiration followed the other way round!).

Armoury such as power-swords, invisibility cloaks, force fields and plasma cannons, are all commonplace in Warhammer 40,000. So too is a sprawling race of humans who have settled the stars and now find themselves at constant war with various other species.

Warhammer 40000 40K Title Banner 1
Warhammer 40000 40K Title Banner (Blod Angels Vs Tyranids)

The long-standing tag-line for Warhammer 40,000 (40K) is “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”, and indeed – the model ranges produced by Games Workshop certainly seem to suggest that in this fictional future, a whole plethora of species are pitted against one another in war.

Warhammer 40,000 has been around for decades, and in that time the lore and context written to accompany the tabletop game has grown vastly. The wealth of literature, and now video games and online content, all serves to build upon a very rich fantasy universe in which any hobbyist can immerse themselves.

Warhammer 40,000 (40K) differs from the other 2 main “Warhammer” products, Warhammer Age of Sigmar (AoS) and Warhammer – The Horus Heresy, mainly in that it falls much later in the assumed timeline.

The timeframe for Age of Sigmar can be likened to hundreds or thousands of years in our past (taken with a pinch of salt). Warhammer – The Horus Heresy is then set around the year 30,000, and Warhammer 40,000 is 10,000 years beyond that again.

So in that way, the Horus Heresy and Warhammer 40K worlds are very much set in a timeline which is assumed to be 10’s of thousands of years ahead of where we are now.

Warhammer 40000 40K Title Banner 4
Warhammer 40000 40K Title Banner (Astra Militarum)

Warhammer 40,000 sees super humans an alien species battle on new planets with futuristic weapons resembling supped-up guns, cannons, lasers, forcefields and the like. Turning the clock back by some 10,000 years – The Horus Heresy might look a bit like an out of date technological age which has past but is still very much superior to our own present. Finally, bringing up the rear is Warhammer Age of Sigmar, which sees heroes battle with swords, spears, magical incantations, dragons and other monstrous beasts.

Another neat aspect of how the timelines of the 3 main product ranges interact, are the common races which appear across all 3.

For example – long-loved fantasy stalwarts such as Elves and Dwarfs exist in the Warhammer Age of Sigmar universe, and then also make an appearance in 30K and again in Warhammer 40K.

Humans exist across all timeframes and product ranges, and indeed the evolution of the weapons and technology that we see them with seems to match up well with the previous analogy of likening Age of Sigmar to a medieval time period, and 40K to some far off Sci-Fi future.

What else exists in the Warhammer 40,000 timeline and product range?

Warhammer 40,000 (40K) is very much a standalone game system and the largest product line within the hobby, however there are also a small number of sub-brands and spin-offs within the Warhammer 40K ecosystem.

Kill Team, Aeronautica Imperialis, Adeptus Titanicus, Necromunda, and Warhammer Quest.

What is Kill Team?

Kill Team Title Logo
Kill Team Title Logo

Kill Team is a spin-off from the main Warhammer 40,000 product line. Set in the same universe, Kill Team takes small units from existing 40K armies and factions, and pitches them against one another in smaller skirmish based battles.

The Kill Team model sets are often very unique and offer a different spin on established squads and units, and the Kill Team setting and lore introduces a wealth of campaign settings and battle scenarios.

Kill Team models can be inserted directly into games of Warhammer 40,000 and indeed make great looking units alongside their mainline cousins.

What is Aeronautica Imperialis?

Aeronautica Imperialis Title Logo
Aeronautica Imperialis Title Logo

Aeronautica Imperialis is an offshoot from the larger Warhammer 40,000 universe and tabletop game. Whereas Warhammer 40,000 focusses on gameplay at the level of an individual soldier or warrior, Aeronautica Imperialis looks to the skies and provides battleground for futuristic airforces.

To capture the vast size of airspace warfare in the 41st Millenium, Aeronautica Imeperialis fields 10’s of units of aircraft, all at a smaller scale relative to the main Warhammer 40,000 product range.

Whilst it is possibly to purchase, build, paint and field a large number of “large scale” flying vehicles from the Warhammer 40,000 product line, to do so would be very expensive and take up a lot of time and table space. To really do justice to a battlefield in the skies which might consist of multiple squadrons of 10’s of flying aircraft, the models are scaled-down for Aeronautica Imperialis.

Aeronautica Imperialis Wrath of Angels Box Set
Aeronautica Imperialis Wrath of Angels Box Set

You will find many aircraft from the Warhammer 40,000 universe which are available in both the “main line scale” i.e. at full size, and in miniature size at Aeronautica Imperialis scale. A good example here would be the Aeldari Hemlock Wraithfighter for Warhammer 40,000, and it’s Aeronautica equivalent the Hemlock Wraithfighter Squadron.

This unfortunately makes the two model sets non-compatible, although it is always possible to run a campaign with the two side-by-side. In that scenario, you might have one tabletop representing the battle in the skies, and which is full of Aeronatica Imperialis models, and another tabletop where your “battle on the ground” is occurring with Warhammer 40,000 models.

What is Adeptus Titanicus?

Adeptus Titanicus Title Logo
Adeptus Titanicus Title Logo

Adeptus Titanicus is similar to Aeronautica Imperialis in that it also exists in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and it too looks at things on a bigger scale.

Whereas a normal game of Warhammer 40,000 pitches armies against each other on the ground and at the scale of an infantryman or Space Marine, Adeptus Titanicus focusses on the gigantic machines of war that are the Imperial Knights and Titans.

Adeptus Titanicus shares a similar trait to it’s cousin Aeronautic Imperialis, in that it’s models also exist at a smaller scale to those in Warhammer 40,000, making them non-compatible.

Models in Adeptus Titanicus are intended to represent things like Imperial Titans, which in real-life would be huge and vast constructs which swamp any battleground. If you wanted to field a full “army” of 40K size Knights and Titans, then it would take up a lot of table space (not to mention being very expensive!). For that reason, the Adeptus Mechanicus range are all scaled-down smaller, relative to the 40K main line.

What is Necromunda?

Necromunda Title Logo
Necromunda Title Logo

Necromunda is a skirmish based game set within the Warhammer 40,000 (40K) universe and timeline.

Necromunda is set on the fictional 40K hive world of Necromunda, focusses on a smaller model count and is somewhat more complex in terms of gameplay. It also introduces new characters and brings a new concept to the Warhammer 40,000 universe with ‘Houses’. In Necromunda (or rather “on Necromunda” the planet) small warbands have formed and created ‘Houses’ which skirmish and fight between one another for precious resources and survival.

Necromunda Ash Wastes Box Set
Necromunda Ash Wastes Box Set

All Necromunda model sets exist at the same scale and size as the Warhammer 40,000 mainline, which makes them compatible and interoperable. Indeed, Necromunda units and hero models often make for a great addition to any 40K battle force.

What is Warhammer Quest?

Warhammer Quest Title Logo
Warhammer Quest Title Logo

Warhammer Quest is another skirmish based variant of the Warhammer 40,000 product range, but with it’s own unique flavour.

Whereas both Kill Team and Necromunda focus on a wider range of interchangeable ‘teams’ or ‘houses’ of models, Warhammer Quest in 40K is intended to immerse the game players in a single environment and stand-alone tabletop experience.

Warhammer Quest Cursed City Box Set 1
Warhammer Quest Cursed City Box Set

Only a limited number of Warhammer Quest box sets have been produced over the years, and with each you get a stand-alone game within a box, and a full complement of immersive game lore, background context and campaign rules.

A box set from the Warhammer Quest range typically sets the scene for a specific battle, in a specific time and place, between two fixed opposing sides. This differs from Kill Team and Necromunda, where pretty much every race and faction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe can join the fight and has it’s own ‘skirmish team’ represented by either a Kill Team or Necromunda model set.

The Warhammer Quest range has produced discrete stand-alone box sets for both the Warhammer Age of Sigmar, and the Warhammer 40,000 settings. The most recent example for the Warhammer 40,000 universe is Warhammer Quest – Blackstone Fortress, and it’s various expansion packs.

Models in the Warhammer Quest range all match the size and scale of the main Warhammer 40,000 product line. Which means that you’re free to swap them in and use them to add something a bit different to your games, or bolster your army with enhanced firepower and new capabilities.

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