After a couple of months at the table, my Warhammer 40k record stands officially at 4 wins, 5 losses, and 5 draws.  A lot of people would be happy to have that kind of record stepping into such a complex game and competitive environment as this one, and sometimes I’m one of them.  Most of the time, however, I just wonder why I’m not very good at 40k.

It seems pretty simple at first, right?  I haven’t played very long and I’m up against people who have played many years more than I.  While this is essentially what it boils down to, I have years of experience playing other games that should at least translate into a small amount of tabletop ability.  The thing is, 40k is such a different animal that every new player should come to the table with no preconceived notions about what to expect or how to play, especially if you’re using other games as a basis.

I have played almost every major PC RTS release over the past 15 years.  I adapt to new games quickly and discover pretty early on whether or not I’m going to enjoy myself playing it.  Since RTS games are the most common and closest analog for tabletop wargaming, I went into 40k thinking that my RTS skills would help me on the table and give me a rough idea of what to expect from the game.  How wrong was I?  So damn wrong.

Let’s talk about the meltagun as a shining example of my naiveté.  In any RTS game, units are balanced out by role and resource cost.  I approached my early list building thinking that points were the resources I have to spend and each unit had an individual role to play.  Not entirely misguided, but a bit off in application. 

A meltagun is a 5 point weapon upgrade for most Space Marine chapters.  What would that translate to in RTS terms?  Well, considering that most lists are going to be in the 1-2,000 point range, I’d say “very little.”  It was my third game when a single meltagun popped my Land Raider Crusader wide open and killed a fair number of the heavily armed Terminators inside.  One shot, five points, and at least 332 of my own points down the drain.  If you look at that from a competitive RTS gaming standpoint, you’d be screaming “IMBA!” faster than the speed of light.

There’s also very little chance to save your horrible mistakes in 40k, at least as a new player.  In most RTS games, if you drive a tank towards an anti-tank unit, it will not die instantly, and you’ll have a chance to move it back out of danger before it explodes.  Not so in 40k.  If you get within melta range, chances are good that your tank is as good as dead.  There is no “fog of war” to protect you, and you have to play the ranges of weapons long before you get into combat. 

True, competitive RTS players do this already, but it’s doubly important to do it in 40k.  Unless you’re taking special units, there’s no repairing or rebuilding something that you’re fielding, and you have to pay very close attention to keep it alive and shooting.

Then there’s that pesky “turn five” thing.  When the game ends, the game ends, period.  This has been one of the most difficult rules for me to come to terms with.  I’m used to games that go on until there is a definite winner; if you have units in play, the game will continue.  I’ve never played a strategy game with a time limit before.

Unfortunately, unless you play your entire game focused on that time limit, you’re not going to play 40k very well.  Since I’ve never had such an arbitrary ending to any game I’ve played before, I really haven’t been playing for Turn 5/6/7.  This has turned out to be my downfall plenty of times, but more importantly it’s turned me into a bad sport at the end of a few games.

I’m not used to playing games for the end turn, and so when it comes up I’ve had a very hard time adjusting to it.  In a few of my games, the outcome was soundly decided before turn 5-7, and looking over my history, those were all the games that I had the most fun at.  Even taking into account the games I didn’t win, the better battles were decided earlier on.  Maybe this is because it was a more familiar picture to me than the turn 5-7 rush to contest objectives.

The point that I am lumbering toward is this:  New players are best served by coming to the table without expectation or comparison and playing 40k like the game it is not the games it looks like.  40k is unlike anything I’ve ever played before.  There’s a time limit (albeit a random one) and balance lies in the execution of your forces and not the composition.  Play 40k like 40k, and not like Dawn of War, and you’ll have a better time with it.

You can find me also at my blog Sweeping Advance

  1.  What non-tabletop game do you think has the most in common with 40k? 
  2. What are some of your more memorable new player mistakes/growing pains?
  3. What games (or sports, whatever) do you think draw favorable and useful comparisons for new players learning the ropes?