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Zelda. Final Fantasy. Ultima. These names conjure images of epic games that span not only a range of digital worlds, but swaths of history as well. Another name that should be on this vaunted list is Warhammer.
Even if you’ve played a couple Warhammer video games, you might not realize how deep the universe’s history is. It stretches all the way back to the early 1980s.
Warhammer‘s roots in tabletop miniature wargaming are still evident — and that’s one of the aspects that sets these strategy games apart from their contemporaries.
To really understand Warhammer, you have to look back a few decades.
Where Warhammer Started
In the early and mid-1980s, tabletop wargames were popular. These games pit two players against each other in head-to-head combat. Games Workshop’s Warhammer: Fantasy Battle was a fantasy take on this popular type of game.
Medieval humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and a wide range of other fantasy beings, grouped into armies, fought out countless battles under the command of enthusiastic gamers all over the world. The newest version of the game, Age of Sigmar, features an array of armies, each represented by beautifully sculpted (and often exquisitely painted) miniatures.
In 1987, Games Workshop released Warhammer 40,000, usually shortened to 40k. It’s a far-future science-fiction take on the battle system (“40,000” refers to the 41st century, in which the game takes place). Much is the same: players form armies of miniatures and wage war against each other in epic tabletop battles. But the sci-fi theme was a drastic change.
Both games remain popular today, and the universe has expanded far beyond its original wargame purview. Board games (including Forbidden Stars, one of my personal favorites), card games, tabletop RPGs, and a wide range of Warhammer video games.
The Digital World of Warhammer
Warhammer 40k made the jump to the digital realm in 1992 with Space Crusade, a turn-based tactical game based on a board game of the same name. The next year saw the release of Space Hulk, another 40K title based on a tabletop game.
In 1995, the fantasy world of Warhammer got its first digital game with Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat. After 1998’s Dark Omen, the universe took an eight-year hiatus before returning to regular releases in the mid-2000s.
40k has been the more digitally voluble universe, with over 30 games released to date. They’ve received some critical acclaim and become mainstays of the tactical and strategic genres. Warhammer fantasy has seen far fewer releases, but seems to have hit its form lately, with some popular games over the past couple years.
Can You Jump Right In?
In some game universes, joining up in the middle is easy — and in some, it’s nearly impossible. Warhammer 40k has one of the most extensive universes of lore that you’ll find in a game. Just take a look at a timeline of the 40k universe from the Warhammer 40k wiki. It takes 24,000 words to “briefly summarize” the lore. The Warhammer fantasy summary timeline is similar.
To put that in perspective, this article has around 1,400 words.
Despite that, if you have a general idea of what’s going on, each game’s mostly-standalone story should be easy to understand. It might help to play the games in order (for example, if you want to play Dawn of War III, playing Dawn of War and its sequel first might help), but it’s not necessary.
In short, don’t worry too much about it. If you love getting lost in deep lore like I do, you can spend hours reading up on both universes. But if you’re just looking for tactical and strategic play, feel free to skip that part and start marshaling your army.
The Best Warhammer Games to Start With
Now that you have an idea of what Warhammer is and where it came from, it’s time to grab a game and start playing. But where to start? Here are five picks that span a few genres.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
The Dawn of War series is possibly the best in the Warhammer video game canon. There are three games in this tactical real-time strategy series (the latest was just released in 2017). If you start at the beginning, with 2004’s Dawn of War, you’ll get some dated graphics, but a great introduction to the world of 40k. The Space Marines, the forces of Chaos, the Eldar, the Imperial Guard, and other factions all feature in this game.
The campaign is short by today’s standards, and the 13 years since its release certainly haven’t been kind in raising our graphical and gameplay standards. But it’s still a fun game, with good squad-based combat and simple, straightforward base-building.
Interestingly, base-building was dropped from Dawn of War II, making it more like a tabletop wargame. This turns many people off from the game, but its enhanced tactical combat — including new cover mechanics — still makes it a favorite of RTS fans.
Dawn of War III brought back base-building, introduced some massive units, and sports gorgeous modern graphics. It hasn’t been as well-reviewed as Dawn of War II, but it’s still a fitting entry in the series.
Buy: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War on Steam ($12.99)
Total War: Warhammer
The Total War series is a popular line of strategy games that combine turn-based strategy with real-time tactics. There are Total War games set in feudal Japan, medieval times, the Napoleonic wars, and a variety of other timelines. (We reviewed Rome II: Total War a while back.)
The latest addition to the series is based in the Warhammer fantasy universe. The sandbox quality of the Total War: Warhammer campaign doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it certainly lets the Warhammer universe shine.
Total War: Warhammer II, released at the end of September 2017, has received excellent reviews. The scale of the game is epic, with massive battles and wide-ranging campaign missions.
Buy: Total War: Warhammer on Steam ($59.99)
Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch – Tyranid Invasion
Tyranid Invasion was originally released as a mobile game, so traditional strategy fans might scoff — but it’s a great little turn-based tactical game that you shouldn’t overlook. Unreal Engine 4, great graphics, and challenging turn-based battles make it absolutely worth playing. And the fact that you can buy it on Steam means you don’t have to play on a tiny screen.
There’s no base building or resource management. This game is all about managing your squad of Space Marines in combat. With a simple action point system, you tell your troops where to go, what to shoot at, and when to use their special attacks.
All in all, it’s rather simple. But it manages to infuse gameplay that’s challenging enough to be fun with the great story of the 40k universe.
This top-down dungeon crawler is based on the Warhammer Quest board game. Part RPG, part strategy game, this title has been hailed as one of the best tactical games available for iOS (it’s also now available on PC and PS4).
You lead a party of four adventurers through a series of dungeons to slay foes, collect loot, and level up. The turn-based exploration and combat will appeal to players of tabletop games, while the loot-collecting is sure to entice video gamers. It’s the best of both worlds.
There are a couple hangups, including in-app purchases and slightly dated graphics. But at the time of this writing, Warhammer Quest 2 is only a few weeks away, and it promises to be a really awesome game.
Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach
Dawn of War holds the 40k RTS crown. But Sanctus Reach gives fans of turn-based strategy games a great alternative and a more board game-like experience. Squad-level tactics appeal to your inner general, and the variety of units lets you craft a perfect army.
There are two campaigns that you can take on as the Space Wolves, but they’re a bit lackluster. However, the fact that units accrue experience and level up is nice touch.
Where this game shines is in the skirmish mode, where you can also command the Orks. (Presumably, additional factions will be offered in the future.)
Buy: Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach on Steam ($29.99)
The Wild World of Warhammer Video Games
Whether you’re a fan of the high-fantasy universe of Warhammer or you dig the grim darkness of the 41st century, there are plenty of games for you here. Real-time and turn-based strategy, tactical, role-playing, shooting… the Warhammer video game universe has it all.
We only scratched the surface here, and there’s plenty more to explore, both at the tabletop and on the screen.
What are your favorite Warhammer games? Where do you suggest newcomers start? Share your thoughts in the comments below!