Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review - Warhammer 40,000 (First Strike)

Published by Games Workshop
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

Warhammer 40,000: First Strike cover art

Back in 1989, I was walking through a local branch of WH Smith when a magazine caught my eye. It was called White Dwarf, and the cover featured some kind of astronaut in white armour, desperately fending off four-armed aliens in the wreck of a spaceship. I couldn't count out my pocket money quick enough.

I must have read that magazine a hundred times. I studied every piece of artwork. I marvelled over every painted miniature. I wrote my own stories about the unusual characters you could order by post from the catalogue section in the back.

I was nine years old. And I was instantly hooked.

However, although it was the space marine on the magazine cover that first attracted my attention, it was a thing called Warhammer Fantasy Battle that truly captured my imagination.

Later that year I got a copy of HeroQuest. Shortly afterwards, I got Advanced HeroQuest. Games Workshop's Old World was fascinating to me, and while I did pick up copies of Space Crusade, Advanced Space Crusade, and various other space-themed offerings, I always returned to the Old World.

Because it was my world.

For the first few years of my involvement with Games Workshop, I was only playing the board games; but by the time the fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle came out in 1992, I had already made a decision I didn't realise I was making.

The same decision everybody had to make back then:

Warhammer Fantasy Battle or Warhammer 40,000?

I purchased the Fantasy Battle boxed set on day one, and the ranks of goblin figures in the box formed the backbone of my first ever army. I subsequently built an undead army, and then a dwarf army.

I spent my evenings painting. I spent my weekends engaged in epic battles with my best friend Dale.

I still purchased White Dwarf every month, and I still read about all the latest space marine and genestealer releases, but I never actually took the plunge. I never ventured onto the battlefields of the Warhammer 40,000 universe...

Until now.

The box for Warhammer 40,000: First Strike, showing Ultramarines fighting Death Guard.

Regulars to my blog will know that when I eventually went to university I sold every board game, tabletop game, and army that I owned; and when I returned from university, Games Workshop seemed like a very different company to the one I'd left behind. It was a long time before the company started to release products I wanted to buy again, and I welcomed the resurgence of their board games with open arms.

I even recently started playing a bit of Age of Sigmar at a skirmish level.

But still, Warhammer 40,000 was something I never had a great interest in trying out. That changed when Games Workshop released the shiny new Eighth Edition. And the reason it changed is because Games Workshop changed.

For the first time ever, it felt like they were really trying to make it as easy as possible for new players to get started; and they were doing that by providing three distinct products, all aimed at slightly different markets.

The main product, for people who want to dive right in, is Dark Imperium, an exciting £95 boxed set containing 53 miniatures in classic Games Workshop grey plastic, and the full rules in glorious hardback.

The secondary product is Know No Fear, a set designed entirely to make my brain have a little hiccup every time I type the name. It's £50, contains 31 of the miniatures from the Dark Imperium set, and has a bunch of stuff to help out new players, such as a box that converts into terrain, a paper mat, and a 96-page book with the core rules and introductory missions.

I'll be talking about Know No Fear in more detail another day, because today is all about First Strike, one of the most exciting little products Games Workshop has offered in a very long time. And I don't mean exciting because it has the most models, or the best models, or the most inventive game system. I mean exciting because of what it represents: A solid, strong move by Games Workshop to put their products in the hands of a new generation of gamers.

First Strike costs £25 (or £20 with online discount), so it's clearly pitched at "pocket money" level. It's around the price mark that your nan might be willing to spend on you for your birthday, or the amount your mum might spend as a reward for you sodding off out the house every day of the summer holidays so she can have more quality time with the pool cleaner. It includes 15 push-fit, colour-coded models, dice, a plastic ruler, a paper mat, stat cards for four units, a book containing an introduction to the hobby, the core rules, plus a box insert that doubles as a piece of scenery.

And I have to say, it's pretty good value.

Data cards from Warhammer 40,000: First Strike, showing the statistics for the various units.

The most obvious way to evaluate the product is by the number of miniatures. These are all from a special range of "easy build" products, designed especially for beginners. They are made in coloured plastic (blue and green), and they go together without glue. Some are even single-piece models. You get a unit of three Primaris Intercessors (shooty space marines), a unit of three Primaris Reivers (stabby space marines), a unit of 6 poxwalkers (scabby zombies), and a unit of three Death Guard (shitty plague marines that just won't f**king die already). These units are available from Games Workshop for £10 each, making buying the First Strike starter set good value even before you factor in the dice, range ruler, and printed materials.

What I find particularly interesting is the way Games Workshop has very cleverly ensured that none of the models in this set are available in Know No Fear or Dark Imperium. So, even though this product is aimed squarely at new players, people who buy the bigger sets or who already play 40K may still pick up First Strike as a way of getting some cheap models to create more diversity for their armies.

Suddenly, this starter set isn't just a starter set.

It's a cheap "army builder" box.

An Intercessor Space Marine Sergeant from Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

In terms of the amount of plastic goodness in the box, it's hard to feel disappointed... seriously, when has anyone ever been disappointed with their new Games Workshop toy soldiers? But the main way to evaluate any game isn't by the weight of it's box, but by how much fun it provides. This is where First Strike is on slightly shaky ground.

The set is very much an introduction to the game system, and the four scenarios included are specifically intended to hold your hand as they show you the sights. You need to accept, up front, this box isn't going to give you everything the game system has to offer. It's just going to give you an idea of the potential.

To get started with the first mission, all you need to do is clip out the six poxwalkers, and the three space marine intercessors. As some of the poxwalkers are single-piece figures, I reckon you'll be playing your first game in about half an hour.

That first game introduces the concept of walking.

Not even kidding.

One player controls the poxwalkers, who don't have any guns and aren't allowed to fight in melee. The other player controls the space marines, who are allowed to shoot, but aren't allowed to fight in melee.

A unit of Intercessor Space Marines take aim.

So, the poxwalkers start, and they trudge towards the edges of the paper mat designated as escape points. There's no real tactics here. You just move them the full movement allowance, as printed on their data cards. There's a special rule called "advance" that allows you to forego shooting and charging later in the round in order to roll a D6 and add the total to your movement. There's absolutely no reason not to do this, so you will.

When the space marines activate, they get to shoot, and you get your first taste of a really pretty exciting and streamlined combat system. You roll at least one dice for each gun you're shooting with (some guns have special rules like rapid firing over half range), and on each dice you're looking to roll equal to or greater than the ballistic skill (BS) listed on the shooter's data card. The intercessors are badasses, and they hit on a 3+, so any dice rolling three or higher is a hit.

After hitting, you need to roll to wound (and this bit I really liked). You compare the strength of the gun to the toughness of the target. If the gun's strength is at least half the toughness value, you wound on a 6+, if it's less than the toughness you wound on a 5+, if it's equal to the toughness you wound on a 4+, if it's greater than the toughness you wound on a 3+, and if it's at least twice as great as the toughness you wound on a 2+.

The wound chart from the rules for Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

It's so simple; so clean and elegant. There's no cross-referencing in charts or anything like that. Every time you roll the dice, as long as you know the strength and toughness values, you know exactly what you need to succeed. Only very rarely does it even matter what the exact figures are. All that matters is whether the strength of the gun is less than, equal to, or greater than the target's toughness.

And that's just really good design.

Finally, the target may get an armour save, which involves rolling a dice and matching or exceeding the target's save value.

Poxwalkers don't get armour, because they're rubbish.

A unit of Poxwalkers bears down on a Space Marine Sergeant in Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

So anyway, that's how the first mission plays out. The poxwalkers shamble along, the space marines shoot them. The poxwalkers leave the map (because the map is really small), and nobody really has much fun.

I very much understand why the scenario exists. I understand what it's trying to do. I understand that if you want to introduce someone new to a potentially complex system, you have to start at the very beginning and do some leg work (in this case, quite literally). But damn, is it a dull way to spend five minutes of your day; and it really does come very close to putting the game system in a poor light and giving the impression it's all a bit boring.

Moving on...

The second mission is almost as dull as the first. It involves one sergeant charging into battle against the six poxwalkers. The scenario aims to introduce the concepts of charging and melee, which are so slick and simple, they don't really need a scenario geared around them at all. To charge, you just roll two dice and add the values. If the total would bring you within one inch of the enemy, you can charge; otherwise, you just stand there. The only wrinkle in the rules is the introduction of overwatch, when the targets of a charge get to make a free shooting action against the chargers, but need to roll a six to hit regardless of their ballistic skill.

An Intercessor Sergeant charges a unit of Poxwalkers in Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

Close combat is very similar to shooting. You roll against the attackers weapon skill (WS), then you roll to wound, comparing the attacker's strength to the defender's toughness. Finally, the target's get to take armour saves.

By this stage, you're going to know how to move, charge, shoot, and fight. And those really are the core concepts to get nailed down. From this point onwards, things start to get a lot more interesting. The final two scenarios in the box bring together everything you've learned so far, and then they sprinkle on just a few more fine details, such as armour-penetrating bullets, cover, terrain, splitting attacks, and throwing grenades.

And while you may have been sleepwalking (or sleep advancing, or sleep charging) through the first two missions, these second two missions are going to wake you right up, because suddenly things start to click. You start to see how all those basic concepts hinge together to create a super-slick and really rather cool gaming system.

A Reiver Space Marine attacks a Death Guard Marine in Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

By the time you're done, you're going to have a good idea about how Warhammer 40,000 functions. Unfortunately, you're also going to be done.

There's nowhere else to go with this boxed set. Sure, you can replay the scenarios, but with only two small units per side, you're very quickly going to realise that you need a lot more miniatures to get a truly exciting experience. You'll have spent an enjoyable afternoon learning all the rules, but you won't have any way of putting those rules into practice on a grander scale. This is, after all, only a starter set.

And so... Is this box really good value? Is a single afternoon of quite basic gameplay that's clearly intended to serve only as a primer worth your £25?

I guess that depends entirely on what you were expecting. If you evaluate First Strike as a game in a box, it absolutely falls short of the mark. There's little reason to replay the scenarios, and insufficient models to invent your own narrative games. Furthermore, the starter is really only introducing you to the game in the most basic of ways. It omits so much (vehicles, heroes, matched play, psychic attacks, transports, reinforcements, objectives) that even after playing, I can't really tell you if Eighth Edition is a good system. I just haven't seen enough of the game to know. And that's why this isn't a review of Eighth Edition; it's only a review of the First Strike starter set (which I feel is a very important distinction).

But there's another way to evaluate First Strike, and that's as a stepping stone. Here, I have to say that it excels in every possible way.

Games Workshop have balanced the set perfectly to tell you about the hobby, and to tease the possibilities, without adding so much information that new players decide it's all far too complicated to deal with.

For example:

The set contains colour-coded models that don't need painting or gluing, there's a paper mat, and the box turns into terrain. The whole thing is designed to get you playing fast, but it also gives you a taste of things to come. When it's all set up... if you squint a bit... it's like you're already playing on a beautiful board, with scratch-built terrain and painted miniatures. Furthermore, assembling the miniatures prepares you for more challenging builds in the future by getting you used to clipping out pieces and removing any rough bits.

For example:

The "Read This First" book has some basic painting guides. It tells you about more advanced techniques, but it doesn't go into any detail on them, focusing instead on priming, basecoating, and shading. New players can see how they only need a few pots of paint and a single brush to dramatically improve the appearance of their game pieces, without suddenly feeling inadequate because they don't know how to drybrush, or because Games Workshop sells a line of technical paints with odd names they don't understand.

The "Read This First" book from Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

For example:

You get a small amount of background fluff on the universe in general, and the two factions in the box. It's enough to understand the conflict, but not so much that you feel like you've walked into a cinema halfway through the movie.

For example:

You get all of the core rules... everything you need to play the game... but you don't get all the whistles and bells and complications that might make the system seem obtuse, overblown, or difficult to learn.

For example:

You get chump blockers, marksmen, close combat specialists, and plague marines armed with a variety of special weapons. But you don't get heroes or psychic users. You can literally skip the psychic phase every turn, which streamlines what you need to know to play without actually having a noticeable impact on the game.

And I could go on like this. But I won't.

A Death Guard Plague Marine from Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

Ultimately, First Strike gives you just enough to play some very quick games and feel like you've actually got something for your money, while still being quite obviously a starter set that only hints at the possibilities should you wish to buy a lot more stuff.

Most importantly, it really does teach you how to play. It starts with the most basic concept imaginable (moving miniatures) and gradually layers on the good stuff until you're having a cute little skirmish game with two units per side.

But you have to take the set for what it is. You can't purchase it thinking you're going to get endless enjoyment out of it (you won't). You can't purchase it thinking you've got many hours of gameplay in the four included missions (you haven't). You can't purchase it thinking this is all you'll ever need (it isn't).

The clue's in the title. This is a First Strike.

If you want a complete package, the £95 Dark Imperium boxed set has your name on it. But if you just want to dip a toe in 40K's murky waters, First Strike is a really wonderful, cost-effective way of getting your feet wet.

I had fun building the miniatures, and I had fun playing through the missions with my friend Dale (and not just because of the massive hit of nostalgia associated with sitting across a table from my old Warhammer Fantasy Battle sparring partner).

And I guess that's good enough.

An Intercessor Space Marine with auspex from Warhammer 40,000: First Strike.

When all's said and done, First Strike has done exactly what it intended to do. After playing through the missions, I wanted to see what else the system had to offer, so I ordered a copy of Know No Fear. If I continue to enjoy that, I'll purchase the hardback rules book.

And then they've got me...

The bastards have got their hooks in, and I'll be looking at new units, and vehicles, and other factions.

Finally, after decades of dodging the bullet and avoiding the allure of Warhammer 40,000, Games Workshop has finally landed the First Strike.

Well played, Games Workshop. Well played.

Warhammer 40,000 First Strike is available from Games Workshop directly, as well as all good hobby stores and online retailers.

Oh, and if you're interested in seeing a lot more about this starter set, please check out my five-part video series on YouTube, which includes an unboxing, a look at the miniatures, turn-by-turn playthroughs of all four missions, and some of my initial impressions.


  1. For what it's worth, the core rules document for 40K8 is tiny and free. I don't know what the rulebook is like that's getting put in this and Know No Fear but I'd be very surprised if it's not identical to the free rulebook.

    The best thing is that the fifteen-page booklet is the whole game, and you don't need anything else to play. The big hardback rulebook has extra missions and variant play styles, but no actual extra rules. The new edition is a super lean system, and that caught me by surprise; I was expecting the free rules to be a basic version of the game and the actual rulebook to be an "advanced" version with lots of fiddly exceptions, but they are both the same.

    The army books aren't free, of course. I'm a little disappointed that GW didn't put out free transitional army books like it did when Age of Sigmar launched, but the books it did release are good value at least.

    1. It's all different actually (although the rules are identical).

      First Strike has two books. The first is the core rules, which is 24 pages with a nice limpback cover. It has all the same rules as the free core rules download, but it doesn't include any examples, and because it's not A4, the page layout is different. The second book is a "Read This First" book, which is 54 pages long. It has some background fluff, painting guides, and the four learning missions (which is why there aren't any examples in the rules book).

      In Know No Fear, there is only a single 96 page A4 book. It has a lot more fluff in it, six learning scenarios, then the core rules (which again, are the same as the download), and then all the data cards for the included units.

      Dark Imperium has the full hardback rules, plus a little "cheat sheet" of the core rules, which appears to be identical to the download.

      I'm doing a lot of video coverage for these boxed sets on YouTube at the moment. My unboxing of Know No Fear will be published soon(ish).

    2. Ah yes, the rules is what I meant, rather than the format.

      It's interesting that DI has both the core rules and the full rulebook, as the core rules are in the rulebook and in the exact same format! It's always useful to have multiple copies of the rules, so perhaps it's deliberate.

    3. Yeah, in all versions the core rules are identical.

      This starter set is really neat, because like I said in the review, they haven't cut out rules (they are complete), but they have avoided including anything that needs certain rules. So, you don't get heroes, you don't get psychic users, you don't get flyers or vehicles... It means that even though you have the complete rules set, you can actually ignore whole chunks of it.

      If you go to Know No Fear, you get the exact same rules set, but now you also get models for vehicles, heroes, and flyers. But still no psychic users or transports. It really does feel like a well thought-out incremental process for getting people in.

      I think the theory with the Dark Imperium boxed set was that they wanted to include a little copy of the rules you could take to clubs, or have out on the table without having to lug the massive hardback around.

      At the moment, my only complaint is with Know No Fear, where the unit datacards are printed in the back of a 96-page A4 book. It's not very convenient.

      Thanks for reading!


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