A brief history of Warhammer 40,000

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Warhammer 40,000. Whether you love or hate Games Workshop’s miniature based battle system, you can’t ignore the impact the grim future of the 41st millennium has had on gaming. So let’s have a look at the history of this wargaming behemoth.
The original Laserburn rulebook

The story of Warhammer 40K starts with Laserburn. Laserburn was a set of rules for skirmish battles using 15mm miniatures. Written by Bryan Ansell and released in 1980 it set the groundings for what would later become the 40k universe. It introduced the Imperium and the Inquisition as well as power armour and dreadnoughts. It was followed up in 1981 by Imperial Commander which gave rules for larger battles. Laserburn is still available and can be purchased here. At around the same time Games Workshop released their own sci-fi skirmish rules called Spacefarers. Apart from being a sci-fi wargame it shared little in common with the Warhammer rules.

The Rogue Trader rulebook
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader
Warhammer 40,000, Rogue Trader was released in 1987 as a sci-fi brother to Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles. The game was a sci-fi version of typical fantasy tropes such as knights, orcs and elves, transformed into the dark future’s Space Marines, Orks and Eldar. Occasionally they were still referred to by their fantasy names (e.g. Space Elves for Eldar). Included in the rulebook was a scenario for a battle on a farm. We’re used to seeing Space Marines protect the Imperium of man but it never struck me that a tractor was of strategic importance. The rules at this time where closer to that of a role playing game and even included the job of a games master to oversee the battle. Players had to roll up their forces in a similar way to creating a role playing game character and rules where included to design your own vehicles and weapons. Over the years extended rules and army lists where released and the game grew into a more recognisable version with a lot of the randomness reduced.

2nd Edition
The 2nd edition came in a big box full of miniatures, dice, templates and scenery.
The second edition of Warhammer 40,000 was written and marketed to appeal to a younger audience. Released in 1993, the second edition straightened out a lot of the rules and created a big box release that became Games Workshop’s main focus for years to come. The role-playing game aspects where removed and standardised army lists where produced. The games format and product release closely mirrored the previous year’s release of Warhammer Fantasy Battles; a boxed expansion included rules for psykers, wargear and vehicles. Army books, or codex, where released for each race expanding the choice of units even further. Not all of the original races survived the change; most notable was the exclusion of the squats (space dwarves) which still haven’t reappeared. The second edition received a lot of criticism because of its emphasis on heroes and characters rather than squads of troops. Many battles quickly devolved into a fight between a handful of extremely powerful heroes and the selection of equipment and psyker abilities often had a greater effect on the battle than tactics.
3rd edition was available as a standalone rulebook
3rd Edition
The third edition of Warhammer 40,000 was a complete overhaul of the rules. Released in 1998, the entire game was streamlined to try and remove the bloat that had built up over the 2nd version’s life and make a game that ran quicker and smoother. Every aspect of the rules was rewritten and the entire codex range re-released. Several new armies where added including the Tau, Necron and Sisters of Battle. The game gave more emphasis back to troops and the new force organisation charts helped to keep armies more balanced. The game was released in two formats; a boxed version, complete with a space marine and dark Eldar army, and a standalone rulebook. This release format became the template for future releases.

4th and 5th Editions
From this point onwards the up-issues of the game’s rules became backwards compatible with the previous version, meaning that when the 4th and 5th editions where released the previous codex books where still valid. The release format was the same as the third edition with a box set and standalone rulebook. The 4th edition box set included spacer marines and tyranids, while the 5th edition currently includes Orks and Games Workshops favourites the Space Marines.

The Future
There’s no denying that Games Workshop has some interesting times ahead. Warhammer 40,000’s dominance in the wargaming arena is being eaten away by some strong competition from games such as Warmachine and the perceived high cost of Games Workshop’s products. All rumours point to a sixth edition set of rules being released before 2012 is out and this will follow the incremental style of versions 3rd to 5th.
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