Saturday, August 4, 2012

Reviewing Sixth Edition Warhammer 40,000

Full disclosure:

I played GW games for ten years. During that time 40k was my largest gaming investment. I put down the Games-Workshop stick in 2011 after the company drove out all the local venues and closed out their regional presence. The game became too expensive to justify given the limited chances I had to play. So the following isn’t coming from someone who especially loves GW products. I fully admit my bias.


I think everyone goes into a revised rules set with the hope that the designers will fix all the problems with the previous edition while implementing their personal bucket list. I was happy with fifth edition. It wasn’t kind to my favorite armies, but game play was relatively straightforward. So when R and I started reading through the new rules I had a very small wish list. It went something like this:

1. Balance shooting and close combat to where shooting is viable without taking mechanized guard.

2. Reduce the availability of cover saves.

I simply wanted a clean system that would let me play with toy soldiers in the grim dark future. Out of all probability, my LGS has started running 40k again. Depending on how the rules played out, I was willing to start a modest army. So, I didn’t have high hopes, but I entered the process with an open mind.

That said, sixth edition delivers in some departments and fails in others. Long-time players will recognize the basic turn sequence, model statistics, and the attack-wound-save mechanics that have been GW’s hallmark since the 90s. Well rounded players will also recognize the not-so-subtle insinuation of warhammer fantasy elements into the bargain. The game has moved from a core of flawed but dependable rules to a less dependable framework to play narrative games. Many of the changes and errata are specifically aimed at fostering a beer and pretzels style of story gaming. In that respect, I think the designers accomplished their objective. Whether that was the best way to go is another question entirely.

Core Mechanics:

I competed for years in every 40k tournament I could find. I also built themed armies and played in fluffy campaigns. I firmly believe you can have a tight rule set that leverages random dice roles without destroying the fun-factor of the adventure. From that point of view I don’t think the following changes helped the game, though that’s more a result of the combined effect than the byproduct of any single alteration.

1. Charge distances are now randomized at 2d6 inches. The potential to assault anywhere from 2 to 12 inches may increase suspense, but it takes away from the skill of running assault based armies IMHO. Part of playing well in any game is understanding what you and your opponent are capable of and acting accordingly. This rule makes that process more difficult without proportionally increasing the available range of tactics. It places more emphasis on luck than skill; and in a game which already depends heavily on good luck I don’t count that as a good thing.

2. All distances may be premeasured at all times. This is nothing but win, and not just because we ended up house ruling it for most of my games. I can’t tell you how many times I sat across from someone who was 14 inches away before they started movement and ended up in assault range because somehow the guys in front moved that little bit extra. Likewise, it’s nice to be able to check range before designating shooting targets. Ultimately it takes some of the guessing out of the game, which I like.

3. Vehicles now have hull points. Glancing hits remove one hull point. Penetrating hits take off a point and generate a roll on the usual table. I see this as a decent compromise between bringing mechanized forces in line and still leaving vehicles some durability. The mechanic itself is fine; however, the additional level of book keeping this creates is going to make certain forces really annoying.

4. Fliers are officially in the game now. This is one of those changes that makes my little forge world loving heart go pitter patter while simultaneously cringing. I love big, heavily armed, dynamic models. It’s in my blood. Unfortunately, the very things that draw me to the more complex models are what makes them a less than desirable choice. Fliers were already in the game as high performance skimmer analogs like the storm raven and Valkerie. They had huge footprints, almost never fit well on the table, and when taken in quantity tended to stretch the credibility index. Adding actual fliers into the game with multiple operational modes does not meaningfully increase fun. It does increase complexity though. One of the advantages apocalypse had over general issue 40k was that you could sit down for 4+hours and play with your ridiculous aircraft and titans. There were lots of rules and the game tended to drag, but that was fine every once in a while. Big models to clutter up the board with complex rules and questionable utility? No thanks. I love my big daka more than most, but I like it in larger games where the scale of the model fits the conflict.

5. Psychic powers have gone over to the fantasy dark side. Under the new psychic system a player with a sorcerer picks a group of like powers from the 4 core lores. At the beginning of each game they roll to determine which random power their psycher wields. They can opt to take the signature power of that group and forgo rolling. Any enemy unit targeted by a psychic power gets a 1d6 chance to nullify the power’s affects (6 for most units, less for psychically protected models.) You’ll get this theme a lot in this review; this change adds needless complexity and uncertainty to a game that had plenty to begin with. I’m all for a larger selection of psychic powers. What I am not for is the unpredictability that random rolls create. Add to that the fact that everyone now has a 1 in 6 chance of nullifying the randomly rolled power and psychers look more flexible but much less dependable. Sure, you can pick powers that target friendly units instead of the enemy. You can also just take the default power in any given list for consistency. But these options mean that you are trading off options and tactical flexibility so that you can make an already expensive model perform the same job in every game. Sorcerers were a dicey investment in the previous edition due to the prevalence of psychic hoods and perils of the warp. But, the ability to tailor your psychic powers to your army’s needs somewhat mitigated those drawbacks. Judicious unit selection and forethought when looking at powers like lash of submission and the summoning could pay dividends to a skillful commander. I just don’t see that as being the case any more.

6. Each army can buy a single set of fortifications as part of its list. I like big fortifications almost as much as I love giant rampaging vehicles. That said, this enhancement makes no sense to me. If you want a story driven game, why does every battle field have the option of presenting an imperial bastion let alone a 220 point imperial “fortress? I get it; the company has to sell models. I also understand that fortifications are really really awesome. I also understand that you can take the stats of an imperial fortification and convert it over for elder or tau and the like. All that said, WTF GW? Battles in the forty first millennium were cluttered before this enhancement. Say it with me folks, this adds needless complexity. I want choices in my miniature war games. But, there’s a question of scale and suspension of belief at play here. If I wanted fortifications before, I worked with my friends to build a table with fortifications. I didn’t set up the terrain and then add my imperial landing pad to counter the other guy’s siege lines. I don’t see how this benefits the game.

7. Certain kinds of terrain have fantasy-esk randomly generated features. On the face of it, I don’t have an issue with this option. Unexpected danger and benefit is what puts the “alien” into fighting on alien worlds. But taken in combination with other “random” play elements this is just another vote on the side of more rules=less fun. The farther I got into the terrain section the more complicated the whole undertaking got. Buildings now are essentially immobile vehicles with armor and hull points, but when they are destroyed they become ruins, which sort of act like buildings, but not really. Bugger.

8. Casualties are now taken from those closest to the enemy in both shooting and assault. This is one of those rules that makes complete sense in theory but tends to cause problems in practice. Sure, logically the guys closest to the fighting are the ones who will be taken out first. The larger issue here is that deciding who is closest is not only more complicated than it sounds in the skirmish deployment of 40k, but also places a fiddly amount of focus on model placement shenanigans. There will be a level of skill associated with proper model placement for maximum benefit, but in order to capitalize on that skill, one will have to focus over much on what models are “closest” at any given time. Tactical nuance at the cost of further complexity is not a trade I value, though your mileage may very.

9. Moving models can now either shoot rapid fire weapons once at maximum range or twice at half range. This is one of several changes I love. Tau fire warriors got a huge leg up with this rule, as did every race that has troops better armed than a guardsman. It takes some of the starch out of orc and gray knight shooting by comparison, but the tactical and strategic benefits this provides are well worth the losses. That rule alone makes me look at Tau as a viable infantry force.

10. Allies are in the game for everyone. You can now take a detachment of units from a second codex to supplement your forces. You’re still limited to a single force organization chart, and there are some compulsory requirements to be filled, but you can have some very unlikely pairings. Depending on how fictionally compatible your ally is to your main codex, there are also restrictions placed on their ability to claim objectives and benefit from “friendly” powers and spells. I really wanted to take commander farsight and build an army of tau tainted by Khornate demons through the dawn blade or a tau battle suit army tainted by the obliterator cult. In that sense, I really like this new option. That said, I’m not sure I really want to face an elder army backed up by a unit of orc lootas on a landing pad lead by a certain independent character that gives them feel no pain. The degree to which one likes or dislikes this change will depend on how munchkiny and un-fluffy one’s opponents decide to make the experience. For my part, I like the idea, but it remains to see if the execution bares that out.

Note: Some readers will notice that I have simplified these changes and not mentioned a host of others, such as the addition of close combat character challenges. My intent is to simply provide a bird’s eye view, and not a tutorial of the new edition. These are the big ten changes, but there are many others, some barely noticeable, some with profound but less critical impact on game play.


This rule set provides an excellent platform for telling stories in the forty first millennium. The mechanics and unit types are such that a variety of models can be used, making previous apocalypse selections available for common play. Indeed, forge world has marked many of its list 40k or apocalypse. If this is to be believed, anything marked 40k is now legal for general use. White dwarf updates and forge world irata now make some of my favorite elder models like the hornet and the jump pack fire prism gunner dudes legal. I love more choices and I’m glad that forge world and the main line are being tentatively merged.

As you may have guessed from my mechanical break down, those choices came at the cost of precision, simplicity, and consistency. Many of the rules (such as the casualty removal section) are comprehensive enough. But that totality is achieved through a convoluted and needlessly fiddly block of text. I could tell that the writers really tried to cover all their bases. The explanations actually answered all my questions and hypothetical exceptions. The writing is internally consistent (which believe me is an achievement.) Taken individually, the different sections are very well put together. However, in total they represent a much more bulky and fiddly body of rules for a system that wasn’t exactly a svelte edition before this.

Many more charts and random rolls are required to play the game now. So, in addition to the dense rules mechanics, games often rely on references to charts and randomization which further pushes the data bloat of this 400 page book.

The book itself is also worth commenting on. There isn’t a pocket rules version of this edition right now. So, unless you’ve got a smart phone you feel like scrolling through all the time, you have to tote a massive tome with you to every game or memorize the intimidating collection of charts and tables. I have a great memory, especially where game material is concerned. This book stretches my limits.

I get the feeling that the writers wanted to put the last nail in the coffin of tournaments. You can still run competitive games with this system. But the rules are initially unwieldy and not what I would call friendly to a time limited venue. I wasn’t kidding when I said warhammer fantasy has crept into the mechanics. The increased random rolls coupled with the fiddly and often obsessively detailed unit rules makes this feel more like fantasy skirmish in the far future than 40k the gritty reboot. Tournaments are in part a way to measure relative skill levels within a sample group. There is so much random rolling here that I feel that the associated impact of that skill has been lessened in favor of the battle narrative. As I said, you can still fight competitive games with this system, but a major part of that skill is playing the probabilities of a charge hitting home or not, as opposed to determent whether a unit’s move is likely to place them in line for a chain of assault moves in the first place. It’s a subtle but important difference and represents why I’m not as taken with this edition as previous offerings.


If you were hoping, like me, for a cleaner simpler rule set out of sixth edition 40k, than I fear your doomed to disappointment. Part of how I rank miniature gaming systems is by how easily and seamlessly the game runs. Sixth edition games do not look like they will run smoothly unless you spend a lot of time memorizing an extensive body of material. This edition looks to be better for the league campaign style of contest but not so much for those of us who don’t need the rules to do the work of telling the story for us. Combined with the ever rising cost of GW products I am intellectually curious but not tempted enough to commit any cash to the project.

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