ABSTRACT PRINCIPLES of 40k - What is 40k?

Click here to return to the Table of Contents.

So far, there has been a lot written about what 40k is not. It's not a game conducive to winning being your only criteria for success. It's not a strategy game, or a real test of player skill. It's not a game where the game experience of your opponent is irrelevant. It's not Chess, Go, or Rock Paper Scissors. So what, then, is 40k?

Faux Strategy

There is a class of games that 40k is similar to: the successor to book-end games. Avalon Hill made a lot of these in the 1980's and 1990's, and there's been a steady stream coming out of the Spiel Des Yahres for a couple of decades now. 40k is similar to games like Settlers of Catan, or Dominion on the one hand, or like Illuminati/Munchkin or anything Fantasy Flight is making on the other.

On the surface, these games look like strategy games because there is input for player choice, and a winner at the end. They're not really strategy games, of course, because there's no direct transmission between player choice and success or failure, and a person can make all the correct decisions and still lose, or make "bad" decisions and still win. Often what distinguishes players over the game is their mode of play. One tries the "chapel strategy" in Dominion, or plays an "aggro" deck in M:TG. It's the style of play and the way they attempt to win that's important, and is what really differentiates. Often these games (40k included) will have options that are incredibly strong, but also rely heavily on luck, so either win big or lose big.

In these games, it's the player input itself that is the purpose of the game. The way one sets up combos and links them together and tries to execute them. 40k is a clear example of this, what with its open-ended list building, and having different kinds of units that are of different power levels and play out in different ways. In a way, the only reason there is a winner, and that combinations have certain chances of success is to distinguish it from being a straight-up sandbox game.

There are some key benefits to this kind of game (which is one of the reasons they're becoming ever-increasingly popular). Probably the biggest benefit is that you don't know who is going to win straight away. If you put me up against Kasparov, for example, I'm going to lose 100 out of 100 chess games I play against him. If there was a skill discrepancy with my local gaming group, the game would quickly fizzle out once we all found out who would beat who and you knew the result of the game before you even played it. There are some people that are willing to put up with years of losing a game before they can finally start to win, but that's a pretty tiny minority of people. Most people will just stop playing a game where the only point is to win, and they only ever lose.

Games like 40k, where skill is improving odds of success, strike a nice middle ground. On the one hand, serious players can still try to make tiny improvements in their game, but on the other hand, those improvements cease to really matter as you get more skilled, so you don't become more and more likely to more comprehensively crush new players the longer you play. On the other hand, new players can start out and with a little bit of help can get to a place where they're winning some of their games instead of it being a lop-sided slaughter where they don't really even get to do anything because they're killed too quickly. They still get to access 40k's depth, even against better players than themselves. People who want to win become slightly more likely to win, and people who just want to play the game still get to actually play the game.

The ability to cement this diversity together is what prevents 40k from becoming a stale strategy game that eventually nobody plays because they can just play chess, and it makes it so that new players aren't driven away en-masse, while at the same time being an actual game to provide some formal structure and collective purpose for people who just want to screw around and have fun (because sandbox games can get boring without at least the pretense of an objective).

Role-Playing Game

For some reason, most 40k players seem to miss this comparison, but it's pretty obvious once you see it. Models in 40k represent individual, possibly unique characters. They play in a 2-D environment that helps determine what they can and cannot do. Each model has a statline, including things like strength, dexterity (weapon skill), constitution (toughness), and wisdom (leadership), and they will be called on frequently to make die rolls based on those numbers to see what the result of their actions is. They also have equipment, and some can upgrade to take better equipment for a cost. Some can even take extra feats, talents, and proficiencies (like Eldar exach abilities, or the entire special rules section), and some can even cast spells (psychic powers). As the game plays out, things happen that affect them, and they make decisions and roll dice to see what happens. If you take a step back, building a 40k army as a whole is sort of like building a character for an RPG.

Literally the only thing missing is a GM (which 40k doesn't prohibit you from including), but otherwise 40k can easily be seen as a multi-character-per-person up-scaled version of D&D. Or, well, Dark Heresy rather.

When people take this framework and use it to only fight a battle to see who killed who and who is left standing, it debases the game in a similar way to how a dungeon crawl in D&D does. You're just rolling dice and killing stuff - sometimes in interesting ways, certainly - but we all know that dungeon crawling is one of the worst ways to play an RPG. In a way, most 40k games actually played are little better than grinding or gold farming in an MMORPG.

There is one very important similarity between RPGs and 40k, that is that the combination of all the complexity combined with die rolling causes crazy stuff to happen. I've played many a game of 40k myself, and I have dozens of stories I could tell of zany things happening, and anyone who has played RPGs enough likewise has a big pile of memories of quirks, goofiness, and outright bizarre situations with crazy endings. No one has stories about playing Go ("...and then I put one little white pebble here, and then another one there"), or Blackjack, or Cribbage. 40k, on the other hand, has endless stories of artillery accidentally landing where it shouldn't, or a lone guardsman bayoneting a whole squad of chaos marines, or an aircraft exploding in mid-air and everyone miraculously surviving unhurt.

The 40k rulebook itself heavily stresses that one of the main points of playing 40k is to "forge a narrative", which clearly its rules are designed to promote. The more that players treat the game like an RPG, the more like an RPG the game itself becomes, with all the attending benefits.

Beer & Pretzels

40k notoriously describes itself as being a "beer and pretzels" game. That is, it's a game designed to facilitate having a fun time with friends. A social activity.

Put another way, 40k is designed to be a conduit through which adults can play. Graduate theses, books, and endless articles have been written about the importance of play to adults. Semi-structured, fun, social activities are a necessary component to a healthy brain and a happy life. We all need time to let our creativity out, and to engage in problem solving, and exploring, and building relationships by doing activities with others. Time to learn and just have fun. One could say that this is the entire point of playing games with others in the first place, but it certainly is the overarching purpose for 40k.

Everything from poor game balance letting us explore "what works" and "what doesn't" in an ever-changing set of circumstances, to wonky die rolls forcing us to be clever and use problem solving skills, to talking with other players to determine what kind of game you want to play and getting things set up. It's all for the purpose of getting in some adult play time.

It's not to say you can't get this from other games, of course. Other games are also full, rich, and deep, and you can even get a social experience from a shallow game like Chess, but 40k seems to accept this task with gusto. Not only the game itself, but all of the things surrounding the game. There is the whole hobby aspect of the game that encourages us to hone skills and to be creative, and then to show off our work to everyone else. There is the fluff and literature side as well, and you're encouraged to make up a backstory to your army, and write battle reports that tell the story of the game to others, make fan art and fan fiction. Really get immersed in it all. Play.

Playing 40k

And from this profound understanding of 40k, we can make the final step to the mystical tautology. 40k is a game, and the purpose of game is play. 40k is different from other games, so you're looking to 40k for all of those things that make the play experience the way it is (different from other games). In the end, the reason that a person plays 40k is to play 40k.

So, how do you play (problem solve, explore, be creative, etc.) while you're playing (moving pieces and rolling dice) 40k? Most of this is pretty intuitive. Open-ended list building and showing up with painted models before the game is a big part, as is sharing the experience afterward, but the play that happens in the game should come about with the playing of the game, which it largely does in 40k. If something of yours gets blown up, then you're given a challenge for how to achieve what you want without that killed unit (assuming, of course, you still can solve the problem and haven't, say, been nearly tabled). The differences in lists presents challenges, as does the discrepancy of power level between units and combinations of units. Probably the biggest inducer to play is the randomness of the die rolls themselves, causing players to think about new things in different ways than they had planned, and causing strange things to happen that pique our creativity.

Bringing a list that makes all of this more likely to happen helps, as does the way you move things on the table and the choices you make about the dice you're going to roll. You can play the game to take more advantage of its depth.

But the other side, as mentioned in the previous section, is also true. It is possible for you to bring a list and play it in such a way where it shuts down your opponent's options. It shuts down your opponent's ability to explore and create. To do things differently and to problem solve in interesting ways. It is possible to reduce the amount of play that your opponent gets from the game to little more than putting models down and then being forced to pick them back up again. To reduce their options to just rolling a few dice and watching as they game progresses along an easily-predictable route. It is possible for you to make a game of 40k the opposite of play for the person that you're playing with. It is possible to make 40k boring.

Which is exactly the opposite of the entire point of unpacking your minis and throwing down a game of 40k in the first place. Trying to prevent your opponent from getting to play the game (do stuff) while they're playing the game is the worst possible kind of behavior you can express, and the more you do it, the worse of a 40k player you are.

This explains a lot of the anger and annoyance that some players can get towards others, and why WAAC ("win at all costs") is considered a dirty word and an insult. It turns out that in a competitive game, it becomes easier to win the more you prevent your opponent from being able to do anything. It becomes easier to win when you show up with a gunline and remove half your opponent's army on the first turn before they even get to use it, and then much of the rest on turn 2, as it does when you just try and pick the strongest army possible. It becomes easier to win when you move-shoot-move by moving out from behind line of sight, shoot a bunch of weapons, and then disappear again, leaving your opponent not able to do anything. It becomes easier to win when you run a mech gunline and when your opponent closes towards you, you form up in a C-shape and annihilate your opponent while slowly backing up. It becomes the easiest to win when you use the fewest rules as possible (so you're not playing the game as much by not taking advantage of as many rules), and when you prevent your opponent from getting to play (stop him from doing much of anything, if possible).

It is not impossible to play the game for the purpose of winning while also refusing to shut down your opponent's ability to play while playing 40k. Challenger personalities do it all the time. Without having a certain ethic, though, the desire to win fundamentally encourages you to stop playing the game and to affront the person you're playing with with the same.

If a person needs to stop trying to win in order to start playing 40k, then they need to stop trying to win, or stop playing (or, rather trying and failing to play) 40k.

Everything else, from talking about list power and player skill, to talking about game balance and die rolls is subservient to this basic principle. The whole point of talking about these things in the context of 40k is to talk about them in the context of 40k, not in the context of a debased 40k-like game that doesn't have the purpose of playing 40k as the purpose of playing 40k. There is no point in trying to make 40k into a game that it's not, or at least don't pretend that you're not making a new, slightly different game from the one you're purporting to talk about.

Good 40k Players

And so we come to the end of what this entire essay is about. In the section on luck and skill, we learned that the purpose of player skill is to play the odds as accurately as you can. In the section on game balance, the conclusion was that imbalance is good because it gives you tools to play things in a specific way, and allows you to, as explained in the list building section, play an army with exactly the power level you want, which helps you play odds exactly the way you want. Along this whole set of ideas, there has been the idea that bringing weak or strong lists, or playing long or short odds is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Strength in this case is what gives you the power to do exactly what you want to do.

The power is there, but the responsibility ultimately rests in the player. The player can choose to prevent their opponents from ever getting into close combat, as best as he is able. The player can make choices in favor of making it more likely that they will win, even if it sacrifices both player's ability to have fun and play the game. This power only more or less clearly demonstrates the quality of a player's character, nothing less.

As such, what separates a good player from a bad player in the context of 40k isn't who wins the most games. Indeed, if a person is winning a big majority of the games they play, it's very likely that they're a very bad 40k player. No, a good player is a person who plays 40k the best, as it's intended to be played, and for its own sake, or for the sake of improving the lives of the people playing. Bad players, in turn, progressively have other, different priorities than playing 40k. Something other than making 40k a play experience in the particular way 40k creates a playing experience.

Most 40k players, of course, will be somewhere in between these two, having a sense of playing 40k, rather than some other game on the one hand, and bringing in foreign ideas of the value of the game (like winning, being a test of player skill, etc.) on the other. That does not abscond personal responsibility for making a worse gaming experience, nor does it imply that only some people are "worthy" to play the game. It just is. It can also, though, be an inspiration for us to be better players, and, as such, to be a source for good in action.