How to Have Fun Playing Warhammer 40K

(Artwork Credit: Clint Langley)

There’s a lot of “How to…” guides out there for all aspects of 40K. There are guides about how to pick secondary objectives. There are guides about how to edge highlight your miniatures. There are guides about how to write better lists. There are guides about how to create homebrew faction lore. There are guides about how to play every faction at a high level (including this very site if you’re interested in Chaos). There is a lifetime’s worth of information a quick google search away if you’re interested in playing 40K.

This post was inspired by those guides, and a simple question I had after hearing dozens of similar bad stories:

If there is so much information out there about playing 40K, why are so many people having un-fun games of 40K?

Where Things Go Wrong

When someone complains about an un-fun game of 40K, they’ll often give reasons like this:

  • “My opponent brought [X faction, such as Space Marines] and their rules are completely busted”
  • “My opponent brought [X unit they think is too strong, such as Mortarion, Eradicators, Knights]”
  • “My opponent gotcha’d me with some stratagem I didn’t know about”
  • “My opponent wouldn’t let me go back and cast my psychic powers when I remembered later during my shooting phase”

Here is the truth: None of those reasons are why that person had a bad game. Those are just symptoms of how that particular bad game played out. Here is the (almost universal) reason you or someone else has a bad game:

  • “I came into the game with lots of unspoken expectations, and a stranger didn’t match the expectations I didn’t tell them”

The responsibility falls on both players to ensure that both players are having fun. And yes, that includes you taking a proactive role in your own enjoyment.

Think back to the last bad game of 40K you had. What do you wish you had told your opponent to prevent the feelsbad moments in that game? Was it something that could have been improved by getting on the same page with your opponent before the game?

Before I move on and explain that statement, I want to make one thing clear: If you and your opponent made some boundary explicitly clear, and they violate it, that is no longer on you at all. If you say “I want a game without any Lords of War” and your opponent brings Mortarion anyway, you’ve done all you can. There will always be a fringe corner case of people who just don’t understand social interactions at all. But here’s the great news for you: the vast majority of people aren’t like that, and with a few sentences of communication, you can ensure you have consistently fun games.

Communicating Before The Game

The first step to having a fun game of 40K is knowing what type of game you want. Generally, games can be categorized into two categories:

  • Narrative: The focus is on telling a story and running cool units, and units should be chosen with little regards to the tabletop power
  • Competitive: The focus is on optimizing your army’s ability to win Matched Play missions

I’m biased as someone who is both a huge lore nut/Warhammer novel reader and also a tournament player, but I think both narrative play and competitive play are great aspects to the hobby. There is no wrong way to play if both people are having fun!

Where the usual un-fun moments come from is when a player seeking a narrative game doesn’t communicate their expectations to their opponent or expects their way of playing to be the “default”, and their opponent brings a semi-competitive or competitive list not knowing any better. The narrative player feels ambushed and often declares the opponent’s “power gaming” as the cause of the miserable game, when it’s really a case of two players just running what they want and the narrative player not requesting the opponent adjust to their playstyle. Narrative play is best with like-minded opponents, so actively make that goal clear and find your people. If I’ve got a fluffy casual list, I will quicker accept a game invite from someone saying that’s their playstyle too than a random person with unclear intentions.

And conversely, if you are a competitive player wanting to test a competitive list, that’s great. So communicate that is your intention when meeting someone for a game, rather than assuming they want to face your most powerful list. If you’re serious about improving as a player, you need to play opponents who have a chance of beating you. If your goal is “improve as a player” rather than “get a quick dopamine hit from winning”, which it should be, then you realize how absurd it is to try a competitive list without discussing it with your opponent first or against a new player.

Preventing Disputes Ahead of Time

There’s more to approaching a game than just what lists you bring, which is where additional pre-game discussion comes in.

Some of the biggest feels-bad moments disagreements over “takebacks”. Takebacks refer to when someone forgets to do something like a Litany with their Chaplain at the start of the battle round, remembers it later in the turn, and asks their opponent whether they can go back and do the forgotten action.

I personally am very lenient with takebacks. One of my favorite personal 40K moments is when I was playing an opponent a few years ago at NOVA, one of the biggest tournaments in the competitive scene. Turn 3 comes, and he starts his shooting phase and declares a target for his Calladius Grav Tank to shoot. I look over to the side of the table and see his 6 Terminators sitting there. By matched play rules, those Terminators were dead because they had to be placed on the board by the end of his third turn Movement phase. I speak up, “Hey man, it was hard to hear you, it sounded like you said you started your shooting phase but I know you really said you were about to place those Terminators down”. We had a laugh, he thanked me, and we moved on and kept having one of the friendliest games I’ve ever played.

Despite the impression you may get from that story, I also think it’s not fair to your opponent to ask for a ton of takebacks during the game, because often the game is often in a different state than when those decisions would have been made. Part of being a good sportsman is recognizing when asking for a favor would be imposing on your opponent’s enjoyment, and just letting it go. If your opponent just wants to keep the game moving and starts getting hesitant on giving you a takeback, just nod your head and move on. Being able to laugh at your own mistakes certainly makes wargaming much easier to handle.

The best thing to do is ask your opponent for their philosophy on takebacks (or similar issues) at the start of the game. Some opponents say they don’t care at all, some opponents will say something like “it’s fine in the next phase, but I don’t want to go too far back”, and some opponents will say they don’t like them for either player. None of those positions are wrong and people can have fun playing with all three styles, but you want to make sure you’re on the same page before you get to some crucial takeback late in the game.

In terms of “gotchas”, your opponent should be answering all your questions in good faith, but it’s simply not feasible to learn everything if you’re facing a new army. Part of having fun is accepting that you’ll see some cool new mechanic or rule for the first time when facing a new army. Even if both opponents act with the best intentions to prevent “gotcha” moments, everyone has different definitions of what qualifies and frankly you wouldn’t remember everything even if your opponent read the entire codex to you before the game. Losing because of incomplete knowledge of the enemy’s army is literally probably the most “realistic” thing that can happen in wargaming, so feel free to work that into your army’s narrative.

Be Friendly For Your Own Sake

First impressions are so important in any sort of human interaction, so make sure you come across as someone focused on having an enjoyable game.

Every time I approach a stranger at the start of the game, I immediately start out with a compliment (usually about a model of theirs that is particularly well painted). Their eyes light up when they feel someone is paying attention to something they’re proud of, and immediately they want to reciprocate positivity back to you. I can’t quantify the impact this has had on my opponents being open about their rules and preventing “gotcha” moments, but I’m certain that it hasn’t hurt.

And part of being friendly is not assuming the worst about your opponent when a bad situation comes up. If someone interprets a rule differently than you, many people often use derogatory terms like “rules lawyer” or “WAAC jerk” to refer to your opponents. You have to remember your opponent could genuinely interpret the rule the way they’re saying, and find you equally unsportsmanlike for pushing your interpretation on him or her. Rules are often written and applied inconsistently in 40K. Save yourself the headache and don’t get upset if a rules disagreement comes up. It’s perfectly okay to say “I don’t read the rule that same way you do, but let’s roll off to keep the game moving and look it up after the game”.

Handling Things Going Wrong

Sometimes your dice will fail you. Sometimes that strategy you planned falls apart on the tabletop. There have been lots of articles written by great players about mitigating these things on the tabletop. But how do you keep having fun when things are going completely wrong?

In 8th Edition, my friend Dan Paolini delivered an absolute beating to me on his way to winning a GT. I was steaming after the game, because his army combined many strong offensive units to deliver a brutal punch that knocked me out of the game turn one. I was sitting there thinking it was completely unfair, and I got frustrated that I had to face such a skewed list.

And I knew that I was going to say something hotheaded if I didn’t act soon… so I started complimenting him. I filled my mouth with positive things, and kept going until the feeling of bitterness had passed. “You really played great, it was really smart to play aggressively and not give my dangerous list a chance to get going”. “I love the idea of souping Guard and AdMech to double down on strong artillery, I’ll have to experiment with that idea sometime”. And before I knew it, saying positive things and forcing my brain to move on had improved my own mood. We walked away laughing by the time we had packed up. What was probably the most frustrating game I’ve played on the tabletop turned into a fun memory for both of us.

If you’re steaming, recognize that. Don’t feel ashamed, everyone gets frustrated at times and feeling ashamed helps no one. But do something to break the cycle of negative thoughts, and get your mind back into a place where you’re enjoying the game.

If you’re playing a narrative game, own the bad luck and make it part of your story. Your Basilisks fail to do any damage for a round? The artillery spotter was injured by a stray shot and your guns were firing blind for a while. Suffer Perils of the Warp several times during the game? The Dark Gods perceived your Psyker as a threat and were doing everything they could to stomp him or her.

If you’re playing competitively? Focus on the parts of the gameplan you could execute, and know that you put yourself in the best position to succeed. Failing a 4″ charge with a re-roll was unlucky, but maybe next time you will spend 1 CP to advance and charge for an additional d6″ of movement that practically guarantees you can’t fail the charge.

It’s not fair to mope and make your opponent feel bad for rolling a bunch of 6’s, and complaining about it doesn’t improve the game for either of you. If things are going poorly, try a combination of taking a break to clear your head and moving the conversation on to something else to get past the tilt and continue enjoying the game you’re playing.

Final Thoughts

I’ve never had a bad game of 40K, whether with my regular gaming friends, complete strangers at pick-up games or at tournaments, or even opponents across the globe on Tabletop Simulator. And that’s not because I’m some incredible human being, or because I keep rolling natural 20’s on my rolls for meeting people, but because I spend 30 seconds ahead of time to avoid the potential feels-bad moments that cause tension at the wargaming table.

Whether you’re playing in a narrative campaign with close friends or playing top table games at the most competitive tournaments, following these principles will lead to better games for both you and your opponent. And at the end of the day, having fun and connecting with other people is what this hobby is all about.

Interested in taking your Daemons game to the next level? Join the Warphammer Discord here!

(Published: February 26th, 2021. Last Updated: February 26th, 2021)

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