Warhammer 40,000, Games Workshop’s flagship offering, has been through many different iterations in the twenty-plus years it has existed. From its humble beginnings as a small scale skirmish game (with a completely different name) Warhammer 40,000 (or 40k, as many of its players refer to it for the sake of speed) is a behemoth in the tabletop miniatures scene.
Games Workshop, as a company, has soared in recent times, making it to the FTSE 250 for the first time. Players who are familiar with the mess of 7th edition may appreciate that this is quite the achievement and it has happened, in large part, due to the new direction the 8th edition of the game took back in 2017. Providing comparative simplicity of rules, but still with plenty of depth, 8th edition was a ruleset that had mass appeal in spades. With the model range for 40k being so broad, and gorgeous, that was all it took to propel the game, and the company, to the next level it seems. Having said all that, the release of the 9th edition of the game is both a great opportunity, as well as a big risk.
This is a review of the new edition of the game for those who are familiar with 8th edition. If you’re new to the hobby read our overall introduction to the game and review from a newcomer’s perspective.
Changes from 8th to 9th edition
If you’re no stranger to Warhammer 40k then your primary interest will be in what’s changed between editions, and what’s new to 9th. It’s best to think of the new edition as an evolution of 8th rather than a reinvention. If you did read the newcomer’s review then you’ll see that the core fundamentals of the game are unchanged. What Games Workshop have done with 9th edition is to take the opportunity to really tighten up an already solid ruleset. It feels like there are fewer gaps between rules and grey areas open to interpretation; which you would expect after three years of feedback and FAQs. There has also been an effort to make some rules more universal, reducing the instances of units having the same rule with slightly different wording. My feeling is that, as 9th edition codices come out, we’ll see those tightened up even more.
In terms of the gameplay changes there are some small, but significant changes. The new blast keyword is probably one of the largest. Applying to many weapons in the game (there’s an awkward list of every weapon that gains the keyword in the back of the rulebook) this rule means weapons with a variable number of attacks will have a guaranteed minimum if targeting units of a certain size. That minimum is three for targets of 6+ models or maximum shots versus targets of 11+ models. This is a pretty big ding for horde armies and for large size units in general and the game is being pushed more towards MSU (multiple small units) for now. As with all the analysis of these changes there is the caveat that we haven’t seen any 9th edition codices yet so we only have part of the picture.
Flying units can no longer fall back from combat and shoot by default, making tagging units with the Fly keyword in combat much more effective than in 8th edition. Be careful charging those repulsors and wave serpents though because vehicles have also now seen a change that means they can shoot their guns at units they are in combat with. This doesn’t apply to blast weapons, however, so there is still something to be said for neutering tanks by getting into combat with them. The worst case scenario is that they are forced to shoot the unit they are in combat with and the best case scenario sees them losing the ability to fire their blast weapons completely.
Another boost to vehicles is that they now no longer suffer the -1 to hit penalty for moving and firing heavy weapons. This is such a welcome change. The idea that tanks and aircraft, which are literally built to be mobile platforms for heavy weapons, couldn’t fire those weapons without suffering an accuracy penalty was always problematic. In game terms, this change combined with those already mentioned sees a big boost to dreadnoughts and other walkers with a mixture of heavy weapons and combat capability. Previously you would have to choose between firing at full accuracy or closing the distance to make use of your combat potential. Now, not only can you hunt down the enemy you want to crack over the skull without impacting shooting, you can also shoot your weapons at anything that manages to survive your initial attacks in combat.
The next change is the addition of a command phase to the game. Apart from the God-send this is from an administrative perspective (having a phase to put all those start-of-turn abilities in is much tidier) it also comes with the ability to regenerate one Command Point per phase. CP are, in general, up in 9th edition. Due to the new detachments, most armies will start the game with 12CP at their disposal which is a big boost over 8th edition. Add to that the fact you will be getting 1CP at the start of each turn now and players will be able to use many more stratagems in-game than before. This is a bigger boost for some armies than others. Elite armies like Adeptus Custodes and Harlequins will be like Scrooge McDuck, bathing in command points, whereas armies like Imperial Guard or Genestealer Cults were already used to having plenty of CP so will see a smaller change. The fact that those elite armies also play the nicest with the blast keyword combines to see them pushed up quite far in 9th edition.
The other phase to have seen a big change is the Morale Phase. This is now split into two, with the second part being a Coherency Check. For units of five or fewer figures, coherency is largely the same (2” horizontally and 5” vertically) but for units of six or more there is a change here that sees each model having to be in range of two others to remain in coherency. This is another welcome change that stops big units of cultists or tzaangors being able to string across the whole board, screening entire armies and holding multiple objectives. Then there is also the simple fact that, like the Command Phase, putting coherency checks into their own step in the turn is just nice from an organisation perspective.
Coherency isn’t the only change to the Morale Phase though; morale checks themselves are now different, and less punishing. Instead of losing a number of models equal to the result of your morale check minus your leadership, now only one model flees by default. A combat attrition check must now be taken for every other model in the unit that sees them flee on a one on 1d6 (or a one or a two if the unit is below half strength). This makes morale less punishing in 9th edition, although it is likely to be failed more often as the Insane Bravery stratagem to auto-pass morale is now limited to once per battle.
There are dozens of other changes to the rules that affect the game in various ways but the biggest remaining change isn’t even in the core rules themselves but in mission design. Games Workshop have taken a more ITC approach to missions. Each now features a variation on the hold one, hold some and hold more triple threat to primary objectives, placing a lot of emphasis on objective holding. Secondary objectives are also changed; players choose three from a list in the book. Some of these will be pretty familiar to ITC veterans (kill more units than your opponent, destroy vehicles or characters) or to those who played 8th edition (first strike and slay the warlord are now optional secondary objectives).
There is also the addition of actions. A unit can give up its turn to perform actions and the effect of each, and the circumstances under which it can be performed, are different for each objective. They add a strong tactical element to the game now, moving away from a competition to see who can kill the other army the fastest and towards something more strategically interesting. Having said that, the implementation of the actions feels a little off to me at the moment as they seem pretty hard to do compared to how rewarding they are in some cases. In fact, secondary objectives, in general, need some tweaking. In all the 9th edition battle reports I have seen, Engage on All Fronts has been taken nearly every time. No secondary objective should be so much stronger than the others that it becomes a ubiquitous choice. Similarly, there are other objectives I have never seen taken. All of this is to be expected to an extent with a new edition though.
If all of this sounds pretty good so far then that’s because 9th edition of Warhammer 40,000 is, in terms of everything in the core rulebook, a definite improvement. 8th edition was already considered to be, arguably, the best version of the game ever and 9th is an improvement on that. None of the changes to the rules or to the mission play are bad and most are good. There are, of course, some imbalances at the moment that will remain until the 9th edition codices come out and, unfortunately, the only thing Games Workshop have got wrong about this change feeds into that.
The reason I had to caveat the first sentence in the last paragraph with “everything in the core rulebook” is that the points costs for units were not in the core rulebook, they were in the Munitorum Field Guide, a small supplement released at the same time. Across the board, all the points costs for units and wargear in the game were revised for 9th edition. So far, so what. Well, Games Workshop have dropped a bit of a clanger here. Many column inches have already been dedicated to exactly what is so wrong about the points updates, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that, even if these changes have been made with the upcoming codices in mind, they have left the game in a weird state in the meantime. The last few Chapter Approved releases saw a lot of balance tweaks to points that gradually saw most armies and units get to the point of, at least, being viable. That is all out of the window now. Pray for the poor Genestealer Cult players whose army, already pretty low tier, is not more or less unplayable. Pray for the humble flamer, now expected to provide the same punch as a plasma gun or a meltagun. The Munitorum Field Guide is rife with examples of pretty nonsensical changes that make the whole thing feel rushed and under-resourced.
Despite the histrionics of some in the community, this isn’t the end of the world though. Codices will be released that change the entire landscape anyway and this gap between editions is always pretty wonky. It sucks if you’re the proud owner of an army that just took a hit but you can rest pretty safe in the knowledge that your time will come and there are many battles to be fought. This give and take with the game and the community is to be expected. After all, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium there is only war.
You can find a physical copy of the 9th Edition rulebook over on Amazon, or, of course, at various other outlets.
Photos provided by Ben Archer.