How to Play 40K: Learning the Rules

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series How to Play Warhammer 40K

Now that you’ve chosen an army it’s time to learn the rules of Warhammer 40K so that you can in turn understand your army. Reading your army’s codex without a fundamental understanding of the game rules will be extremely confusing. I would also refrain from making any purchases for your army, except the codex, at this point as well. You want to make informed decisions when building up your army and spending money so get a grasp on the rules and your army’s rules (next article), before spending money.

Learning 40K Rules

Warhammer 40K 7th Edition Rulebook
Warhammer 40K 7th Edition Rulebook

I won’t lie, there are a lot of rules in 40K and it can be extremely overwhelming. Don’t expect to read through the rules the first time and get everything. You’re going to do a lot of re-reading in the process of learning to play the game so don’t worry if something doesn’t make perfect sense the first time. Some things become more clear after a few games.

I feel the best approach to learning the rules is focusing on the things that concern your army. Everyone should understand how line of sight works, movement, shooting, assault and morale. Those are things that every army will be doing generally speaking. Next, look at what your army has and work through those elements. If your army has tanks, walkers, etc., then be sure to read up on those things as well. On the other hand, if your army has no psykers, like Dark Eldar or Tau, then feel free to either skip that section for now or just give it a quick read through. Eventually you will want to know everything because even if you have no psykers, for example, your opponent may and so you will want to know what to expect.

Warhammer 40K makes use of some charts for things like rolling to hit and to wound. You do not need to memorize these charts because there is a method to them. Learn the method and you won’t ever need to reference those charts.

Note: 40K uses a D6 system. Meaning, all dice rolls mentioned (unless noted otherwise), are done on a single 6-sided die.

Shooting – To Hit

This relies on your ballistic skill (BS), stat. When you’re rolling to hit with shooting, the roll you need is always 7 – BS (ballistic skill). So, if you’re an Ork, and your BS is 2, then when rolling to hit you need: 7 – 2 = 5. Orks don’t shoot so well. If you’re a Space Marine with a BS4 then to hit you need: 7 – 4 = 3. Simple enough and the easiest one to learn.

To Wound

This applies to both shooting and close combat and is the one chart that seems to confuse most people. When rolling to wound you are comparing the strength of the hit to the toughness of the victim. If the strength of the hit is equal to the toughness of your opponent then you need a 4. Think of a 4 as the average chance to wound. So, you hit with a S5 (strength 5), weapon against a T5 (toughness 5), victim then you need a 4 to wound. Likewise, you hit with a S3 weapons against a T3 victim then it’s still a 4; things are equal.

For each 1pt of strength over the toughness it gets 1 lower/easier. You hit with a S5 weapon against a T4 victim so you will need a 3 to wound, it’s 1pt easier than average. If you were to hit with a S6 weapon against a T4 opponent then you will need a 2 to wound, it’s 2pts easier. Rolling a 1 to wound is always a failure so it never gets easier than a 2 to wound.

Going the other way, if your strength is lower than the model’s toughness then it gets harder but you follow the same method. Hitting with a S4 weapon against a T5 victim would require a 5 to wound, 1pt harder over the average of 4. So, hitting with a S4 weapon against T6 would mean you need a 6 to wound. Also, if you had a S4 weapon and were trying to wound a T7 victim then you also still need a 6. There are two times you need a 6 to wound, when the toughness is two or three points higher than your strength. It’s the one slight oddity in the formula.

Any toughness that’s more than 3pts higher than your strength you cannot wound. A S2 weapon can’t wound a T6 model, nor could a S4 weapon wound a T8 model because the toughness is more than 3pts higher than the strength.

There is a formula you could think of when working this out, if that works better for you.

(Toughness – Strength) + 4 = To Wound (noting the exceptions mentioned above)


(T4 – S6) + 4 = 2. Explained: 4 – 6 = -2 then +4 = 2.
(T6 – S5) + 4 = 5. Explained: 6 – 5 = 1 then +4 = 5.
(T4 – S4) + 4 = 4. Explained: 4 – 4 = 0 then +4 = 4.

So forth and so on.

Assault – To Hit

This chart doesn’t use math but instead a simple comparison. Any time you’re WS (weapon skill), is higher than your opponent’s then you need a 3 to hit. For example, your WS is 5 and your opponent’s is 4 so you will need a 3 to hit. Even if you were WS9 and your opponent was WS1, you still need a 3. It never gets any easier to hit than a 3.

If your WS is equal to, and up to twice as low, as your opponent’s then you need a 4 to hit. So, if you’re WS4 and the opponent is WS4 then you need a 4. If you’re WS4 and your opponent is WS6 you need a 4 to hit. Going up to WS4 to WS8 still needs a 4 to hit.

The breaking point is when the weapon skill of your opponent is more than twice your weapon skill. A WS4 model against a WS9 model would need a 5 to hit. A WS2 model against a WS 7 model would need a 5 to hit. It never gets any harder to hit a model than a 5; you will never need a 6 to hit.

40K Rules Reading Tips

Read the RulesThere is no substitute for reading the rules. The biggest mistake I see players make is relying on a friend to teach them the game. The problem that occurs is that their friend may not have the best grasp on the rules and in turn teaches the new player incorrect rules and because the new player isn’t reading the rules for him/herself, they never know. I’ve seen this go on for years and then when that player finally plays someone with a firm grasp on the rules there can be some rules debates and that player’s only defense is that’s how they were taught. Use your friends to help you understand rules and clarify things but not to teach the rules to you. There are no shortcuts here.

I recommend you try to tackle a section at a time. Read a section through then re-read it immediately after. It might not all make sense at the time but as long as you’ve read it then when it comes up in your first few games you will at least recall seeing it.

Know that the rules for 40K are considered permissive. Meaning, you can only do what the rules say you can do. If a rule says you can’t shoot, for example, than you can’t shoot, period. The intent is to remove grey areas with the rules and interpretation of the rules. I say intent because there are some things that fall between the cracks but admittedly 7th edition is the clearest set of rules we’ve had to date.

Learn What You Need

As you’re going through the rules for the first time, I would consider skipping over the Battlefield Terrain section and those sections that follow. Most of those rules involve setting up a game. There is also the Special Rules section that will be very confusing until you have a firm grasp on the core rules as special rules often override the core rules. Psychic powers can be found in the back of the book as well and I would only concern myself with them if you have a psyker you plan to use. As I said above, eventually you’ll want to learn all of this but for getting started you really just want to concern yourself with the core concepts.

Final Tips

I wrote an article on how to play 40K faster. There are some good concepts in there that will help you out as you learn the game. Some of it has already been said in this article but some of it hasn’t. If you learn those things early on then it will really help you out. I also have a quiz series on 40K 7th edition that you can take to test yourself as you go.

Series Navigation

<< How to Play 40K: Choosing the Right ArmyHow to Play 40K: Army Codex, First List & Buying Models >>
  • Berman

    Good article. Not a huge amount you can do with learning rules for a game but great advice to not rely on friends teaching the game.

    • Thanks.

      Yeah, not much you can say but figured I’d give it a shot for the sake of thoroughness.

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