How to Play 40K: Choosing the Right Army

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series How to Play Warhammer 40K

Now that I’ve covered the overview of the game of 40K, it’s time to dive into choosing an army. Choosing the right army is quite obviously the most critical choice you’re going to make. You’ll be spending money on the army, time building and painting it, and of course time playing with the army. Choosing the wrong army for yourself could not only cost you time and money, but also your enjoyment of the game.

Where to Start with Choosing an Army

At the time of writing this, Warhammer 40K has 24 armies to choose from. That’s just the core armies and doesn’t include things like supplements or Imperial Armor. To someone looking at 40K for the first time, that can be an overwhelming amount of choices.

When I got into the game in 2006 there were around 14 choices. Still a lot, but a far more manageable amount to look through. I know if I were getting into it now and saw that list of armies, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Hopefully I can guide you a bit.

Ork Boy
I’ve always been a sucker for the big dumb brutes of a game.

How Cool Does it Look?

My biggest piece of advice to anyone looking to get into the game of 40K is to find an army you like the look of. Seriously. Unlike other smaller gaming systems out there, Warhammer 40K requires you to buy the models, assemble them, and paint them. The game has a hobby element, and if you don’t care for the aesthetics of the army then you won’t be very motivated to put them together and get the army painted.

Warhammer 40K is not a skirmish game, so you will be putting together a lot of models and doing a lot of painting. Definitely start by looking at armies you think are visually appealing.

Play Style

Once you have found some armies you like the looks of, start refining the process by looking at armies that seem to fit your play style. If you’ve never played a game then that might not be so cut and dry, but I find most of us have a general preference. I always like close combat in any game I play, and will always lean towards more brutish and aggressive types.

When I was getting into 40K, my play style preference meant starting with Orks. They’re primitive brutes who love to charge headlong at the enemy with choppas (axes), held high. By looking at the army that’s a pretty easy visual cue. Orks are big and bulky, and most are carrying a close combat weapon of some sort. Most Ork vehicles look fast and fragile, a means to reach the enemy.

Tau Crisis Suits
Tau sure love to shoot things.

That’s the thing with 40K, even without knowing a lot about the game mechanics, you can still get a good gauge on an army by looking at it; like I was saying with Orks. If you were to look at Tau then you would notice that almost every model is carrying a ranged weapon, so they like to shoot. Glancing at Astra Militarum would quickly tell you that they use a lot of tanks and infantry. Some armies, like Space Marines, have a good mix of everything as they are the generalists of the game. The models give a pretty clear indication of what an army does on the field.

What’s the Best Army for 40K?

There is no best army for Warhammer 40K. Each army’s power level changes with the release of a new codex and rules editions. What was once a very weak army can become the strongest, and the previously strongest shuffle to the bottom. This is yet another reason to choose an army you like the looks of, and one that suits your style. At least that way you still have an army you enjoy regardless of whether it’s the best army for Warhammer 40K or not.

40K Army Descriptions

Here’s a quick and dirty breakdown of the armies. It’s not conclusive and is just an overview. There are a lot of mechanics at play with all the armies, and describing each in detail would take a very long time.

Note: All Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines), have many similarities featuring power armor (3+ save), and many of the same units and weapons. Space Marines are generalists by nature, good at everything but seldom great at anything. As a general rule they have a good mix of infantry and armored support vehicles (tanks, transports, etc). Below I will focus on their unique flavor.

Any army names will take you to iTunes if you’re interested in buying the digital version of the codex.

Adepta Sororitas (Sisters of Battle) – The only female army in 40K. They are like Space Marines (power armor and bolters), but physically weaker. Adepta Sororitas have some unique tanks and work using a faith system to gain bonuses for the army. Sisters are weak in close combat and prefer to shoot. I will say this army is very outdated, expensive to buy and the weakest army of them all.

Adeptus Astartes: Blood Angels – They have a focus on speed with some fast tanks and Assault Marines. Death Company is a unique type of unit to Blood Angels that’s extremely good at close combat.

Adeptus Astartes: Dark Angels – Deathwing (all Terminators), and Ravenwing (fast units), set them a part from other Marines. Fluff-wise they are the mysterious chapter of Marines if you like that dark secretive element.

Adeptus Astartes: Grey Knights – These are the elite of the Space Marines. This army focuses on smaller more elite units and everyone in the army is a psyker. Generally Grey Knights are a close combat army but they do have some shooting.

Adeptus Astartes: Space Marines – The great generalists of the game, as noted above. You can mix up the flavor of the army with different chapter tactics.

Adeptus Astartes: Space Wolves – These guys lean more towards close combat than general Space Marines. They have the Viking thing going on so some unique units include wolves and Marines riding wolves.

Adeptus Mechanicus: Cult Mechanicus – An elite army able to shoot and handle close combat but very fragile. It is a small army with very few units to choose from. The background is these guys make all the Imperial military gear (armor, weapons, vehicles, etc).

Adeptus Mechanicus: Skitarii – An elite army able to shoot and handle close combat but very fragile. It is a small army with very few units to choose from. In fluff they are they military component of the Cult Mechanicus. The Skitarii and Cult Mechanicus are intended to be played together as a single force.

Astra Militarum (Imperial Guard) – The anvil of the Imperium. These guys are your modern day military equivalent. They focus on large infantry squads with a TON of tank options for support and fire power. Astra Militarum is a weak close combat army who prefers to pound the enemy with fire power at range.

Chaos Daemons – A very diverse army in terms of unit choices but generally aimed at close combat. Daemons make thorough use of psykers as well. Most units rely on their daemonic invulnerable save (5++), instead of armor. Quite capable of putting down a lot of units, though not a horde army.

Chaos Space Marines – The evil Space Marines. Mostly generalists like their loyal counterparts but with some daemonic flavor giving them some very unique units. Chaos Space Marines are usually a mid to short ranged army.

Dark Eldar – Lightly armored fast vehicles and poisoned weaponry are the mainstay of Dark Eldar. Very much a finesse army.

Eldar – These guys can shoot a ton and are also very fast. Eldar have some great psykers to top it all off.

Genestealer Cults – This is a new army, but based on information gleamed so far it appears to be an army that focuses on ambushing your opponent. They have access to some elements of the Astra Militarum as well.

Harlequins – Yet another new army to 40K 7th edition and also another very small army. They’re fast but I have not faced them so my knowledge is lacking here; sorry. I do know they are really intended for inclusion in an Eldar or Dark Eldar army. (If anyone has a good brief overview of these guys it would be appreciated)

Imperial Knights – If you like big giant robots then look no further. Imperial Knights are a small army in terms of how many models you’ll use because they eat up a lot of points. Great fire power, great in close combat and fast.

Inquisition – There isn’t much to this army these days. The Inquisition is mostly a handful of models and units that are intended to play alongside other Imperial armies.

Khorne Daemonkin – If you know anything of Khorne then you know that this army is focused on close combat. It’s a mix of Chaos Space Marines and Daemons with a unique system for summoning more Daemons and gaining army-wide benefits.

Militarum Tempestus – The elite element of the Astra Militarum. It’s a small army with a few core units. Militarum Tempestus just wants to shoot things dead and I feel is best when included with another Imperial army.

Necrons – Slow moving robotic zombies who shoot a lot. They do have some good close combat units as well and the army works on a reanimation protocol system where they just keep getting back up.

Officio Assassinorum – This army only consists of four models. The assasins are meant to be played alongside other Imperial armies. The assassins have some great unique abilities, each one focusing on one particular element.

Orks – Quantity over quality is how Orks operate. Barely armored brutes who love close combat. Orks can also do well with shooting if taken in enough quantity to compensate for their terrible ballistic skill.

Tau Empire – These guys feature a lot of high powered long ranged fire power. Tau prefer to kill their enemy at range and they do it well.

Tyranids – Lots and lots of bugs to swarm the enemy with. Tyranids have a good mix of shooting and close combat, be it with hordes of bugs or utilizing large monstrous creatures. They also have a fair amount of psykers and the army relies on synapse to keep the army focused.

Nothing I’ve said here is black and white. The beauty of 40K is that you can play an army any way you like really. An army that focuses on shooting doesn’t mean it’s incapable of being built for close combat. Horde armies can be played in a more elite manner, not just swarming the enemy. Do some research because very little is cut-and-dry.

Talk with 40K Players & Research

This might have been your first step, usually is, talking to other players. Most of us get into Warhammer 40K because we have friends who play and talk about the game, and that’s where the interest begins. From there we start looking at armies, often armed with some knowledge. Regardless of which order you go through, the below is useful information.

Adeptus Mechanicus
These guys do a lot of research.

Once you have a general idea of the armies you enjoy then talking with other 40K players will help you cement your choice. The game has a lot of fine details, and an experienced 40K player can help guide you to an army.

For example, there are a handful of armies in the game that really do well with close combat, but how each army approaches it will vary. Orks will often try to drown the enemy in numbers and swarm forward where Khorne Daemonkin will have fewer models to start with, but be able to later summon more units to the field. Some armies will favor certain tactics, like stealth and speed, where others are more direct. There is no better way to get all this information than experienced players.

Gaming Stores & Community

If you don’t know anyone who plays 40K then most employees at gaming stores are more than happy to chat about the game and answer questions. If all else fails, hit up the internet. You can find some great communities that are friendly to new players. I don’t really participate in forums these days but the only forum community I can safely recommend is The Bolter & Chainsword. B&C is a forum focused on Space Marines, but it does also cover all other armies and the game in general. You can also try your luck with groups on Facebook, though I find they move to fast to be of much use.

40K Blogs

There are a lot of blogs dedicated to one particular army, or a few armies. Some of those blogs will have some great information, and some authors will be kind enough to help you out if you post a comment.

For example, I would gladly help anyone out interested in Chaos Space Marines or Khorne Daemonkin. Greggles is a very friendly guy who I’m sure would help an aspiring Ork player out. If you like Space Wolves then there’s Adam who is an avid Space Wolves player. His blog is dedicated entirely to Space Wolves. NafNaf recommends the Dark City forum for Dark Eldar players.

With a little luck you can find some awesome blogs that might already have answers to your questions.

Want to be listed as a resource? Let me know and I’ll gladly add you.

Bear in mind that everyone has their preferences and their own personal experiences when giving advice on armies. We don’t all see each army the same way. Eldar can be seen as overpowered but one person, but someone else will say how balanced the army is. Experiences and perception will impact advice given, so do not rely on a single source of information for this reason.


Choosing the right army for yourself will make a huge difference in how you perceive the game. Choosing an army based on how powerful it is isn’t a good idea. Power level is in a constant state of flux. A new codex, or rules release, can move a strong army from the top to the bottom. If you start with an army you like the looks of, and it fits your play style, then you will find the game far more enjoyable and rewarding. There are ebbs and flows in the game of 40K, and having an army that fits you will make riding those waves easier and less noticeable.








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  • That is a pretty good break down, bravo. I find that while I am loving my Thousand Sons and I am less thrilled about the idea of doing anymore power armour. If I ever get to start another army then it won’t be marines. For starters they make up too much of the armies around as is.
    Thanks for the article though. Food for thought. OH and sadly Adam is taking a break from his Space Wolves blog, per his latest post.

    • Painting Marines eventually becomes an exercise in patience. I love them but it get monotonous pretty quickly. It’s another reason I like Khorne Daemonkin, getting to work in non-Marine units.

      I saw that with Adam. Still, it’s a great resource and eventually he’ll return to his normal schedule.

      • I will be adding some Tzeentch Daemons to my force eventually to help even out the non-marine models.

        • You may have a Tzeentch Daemonkin book out soon enough.

          • I am rather hopeful on that but GW hav burned me on it before :(

            • Haven’t we all be burned by GW? ;)

              • I think by now it is part of the process. Veterans display scars from different editions.

    • Knight_of_Infinite_Resignation

      How the army is to paint should be a factor. Chaos Marines in particular are the one of the fiddliest armies with all that trim, but can at least look good with a fairly dark low contrast effect. I suspect Tau are the least forgiving to paint, though quicker than Chaos Marines.

      • Good points.
        I suppose depending on the style you are going for and the look any army can be quick or slow. Apart from Harlequins. That way lies madness.

      • I see it as a consideration but only of value in a few situations. I mean, I wouldn’t just outright pick my army based on how easy it seems to paint. However, if I’m looking at two armies I like and one seems easier to paint, and I’m not super interested in painting, then I definitely take it into account.

  • +1 a billion on “pick an army that you like the look of”. That way, even if your army gets throttled in an update, at least you have an awesome collection of models to look at!

    • Hence I picked an army that was throttled when I started collecting it :P

    • So very true. At the same time though it can make you very sad to see your favorite models get killed. I mean, Blood for the Blood God!

    • That’s the first thing I tell people when they want to start 40k or any other miniature game. Painting an army that doesn’t appeal visually to you gets old very fast.

      • Yep and in turn effects all aspects of the game. A lack of interest in any one thing will impact how you feel about the hobby, your army and the game.

        • That’s very true. I think guides like this really can help new players to minimize the risk of choosing an army that they later realize that they don’t like.

  • Great stuff. I started all my armies by going on what I loved the look of, and do that still to this day with other gaming systems.

    The dark city is a great resource for any dark eldar player. A very friendly forum with lots of good tactical advice and hobby stuff tok :)

    • Thanks.

      I do it with ever game too, pick what I think looks cool. It would be a PC game, board game, it doesn’t matter. I have to enjoy looking at what I’m playing no matter what.

      Mind tossing a link for Dark City?

  • Berman

    As for the mechanicus and skitarii. A semi elite army that can excel at both shooting and assault for a limited time each game. They are glass cannons like dark elder and require finesse as most the models are not tough, the army tends to be static as it lacks transports. It is not the best first army due to huge Stat line variety and huge differentiation in unit rules. That said the army is very internally balanced, and most units have few options, so any unit you buy and field because it looks cool will be useful.

    • Great, thanks. I’ll update the post with this.

  • Berman

    as for the topic in general, if you have friends that play or a good club to play at that will help you learn the game I suggest a slightly different method.

    Skip picking an army for the first 6 months. Just play the vanilla space marine codex. Don’t plan to paint this first army. Borrow from a friend or buy cheap messed up models off eBay. Learn to play the game. Space marines are forgiving to new players due to the 3+ save. They are redably available off eBay or friends for very cheap. Especially those coated to death in primer. 40k as a game takes months to learn. I didn’t even come close to winning or having any idea what I was doing for about 5 months of playing every week.

    Once you start to really grasp how the game is played you can use the above method to pick a cool looking army that can build a force to match how you like to play. You can resell the space marines for reasonably close to what you paid for them and move onto building your army without wasting time and money on goose egg units that don’t work with your play style.

    • While a very practical approach, and I don’t disagree, it may not be for everyone. It requires a lot of time and patience.

      • Berman

        It’s probably more of an approach if you want to hedge your bets and see if your going to like 40k as you can recover most your buy in this way. Especially if you can spend some time using a loaner army.

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