There are many ways to go about deciding which army you want to play, whether it’s because the rules are good and they’re particularly effective in the game, or the models are fantastic and you really want to paint some, or the lore really speaks to you and you’re inspired by what you’ve read in the backstory. I think the first is a little problematic, as the rules change a lot and, unless you picture yourself ending up with a lot of armies on the shelf, or you pick a faction such as Space Marines, which will always be up there because GW loves them. The second and third reasons are much safer bets, as it won’t matter too much whether the army is top-tier if you’re really invested in the models you’re painting, or the story behind them. At least, in theory!
To help with this, I thought it might be handy to give a brief, broad-strokes overview of the factions available!
Space Marines are the warrior-monks of the God Emperor of Mankind, and while there are no good guys in the 40k universe, I think a lot of people would put them on the side of “good” as far as such a concept could be taken. They fight for the survival of humanity, and hold back the threat of the xenos and the heretic, but as with everything in 40k, this is taken to the extreme! There are a number of different Chapters, giving rise to a number of different paint schemes and some opportunity for personalisation, as well as having a lot of character quirks. There is also an entire chapter of Psyker marines (the Grey Knights). The model line appears to be going through a major upgrade to Primaris Marines. If you like elite super-soldiers with all the best wargear, these are for you!
The Astra Militarum (or Imperial Guard) are the normal, human footsoldiers who fight the majority of the battles of the Imperium, the countless billions who fight and die for the God Emperor. There are many regiments from across the galaxy, some with very distinctive looks and lore. Many of the units are decades old now, but some updated plastic models have been trickled out. If you like tanks, or if you like the feel of a horde of infantry going up against the enemy, these are for you!
The Adeptus Mechanicus is the weapons manufacturer for the Imperium, with their own armies of lobotomised cyborgs who fight in the name of the Machine God, or Omnissiah, who they equate to the God Emperor in some respect. A fairly new army which has recently had a lot more new units added. If you like robots, and you like cyborg weapons engineers, these are for you!
The Adepta Sororitas (or Sisters of Battle) are the militant arm of the Ecclesiarchy, the religious organisation that leads the cult of the God Emperor. Warrior-nuns with zeal pretty much sums them up! They were one of the oldest armies still on the books until a major update to plastic in 2019, they now have a large array of new models. If you like nuns with guns and tanks, these are for you!
The Adeptus Custodes are the personal guards of the God Emperor himself, and are the elite of the elite. Very tough models leads to a very small model count, so there isn’t much to paint (and everything is gold!) These are pretty new as well, and are entirely in plastic. If you like small model count armies, these are for you!
Imperial Knights are a bit of a weird one. There are Knightly Houses dotted around the worlds of the Imperium, and each one has a cohort of war-engines of varying massive stature. The Adeptus Custodes have a small model count, but these things are looking at an army of 3 models for some games. If you like massive war machines the size of a small cathedral, these are for you!
The Inquisition is the shadowy organisation in charge of the moral compass of the Imperium. But as with all things in 40k, such an undertaking is conducted with extreme prejudice to say the least. The army, such as it is, is very much a hodge-podge of different characterful models and requires a fair bit of kit-bashing, so isn’t for the faint hearted! If you like the idea of a highly customisable, small-scale force with a terrific narrative behind it, these are for you!
Chaos Space Marines are the dark mirror to their Imperial brothers. Following the Horus Heresy, half of the Legions fell to Chaos and have been causing havoc across the galaxy since. Often “blessed” with mutations that reflect one of the Chaos gods whom they follow, they are “the baddies” if such a thing can be said to exist in this universe! There has been a recent range refresh of the faction, meaning a lot of the models are of the newer plastics, and they do look superb. If you like snarling with tentacles coming out of the side of your head, these are for you!
Chaos Daemons are the truly weird and wonderful made manifest. Grouped into each of the four Chaos gods – Khorne, Nurgle, Tzeentch and Slaanesh – there are daemons of varying size and shape that twist reality in a variety of ways. The models have seen a few big plastic kits come out in recent years, giving us Greater Daemons to act as a glorious centrepiece to the army. If you like the idea of monsters from another dimension, these are for you!
The Aeldari (Eldar) are a bit like space elves – their race is long and ancient, but lost itself along the way and is now in decline. Technologically superior, often gifted with psykers, they can often feel like the last scions of nobility in the 40k universe. Their range is definitely due a refresh though, as a lot of the line troops are very old and dated, while some of the vehicles are newer sculpts and do look very nice. If you like fast armies, with some potent weaponry at their disposal, these are for you!
The Drukhari (Dark Eldar) are the “evil” cousins of the Eldar, prolonging their lives through inflicting pain and torment on others. Again, a fast army that can be split into three distinct sub-factions, recent editions have done well by them, and they have something of a reputation for being strong, with ability in close combat that is bolstered by strong shooting and agility. If you like your fast armies with more spikes and drugs, with a healthy dose of body modification, these are for you!
The Harlequins are a distinct sub-set of the Aeldari, a bit like space clowns. Previously always within the Aeldari army book, they’re now their own thing with a very small model range, but you’ll need a lot of them to have a viable force. That said, they do synergise really well and can be quite lethal when used correctly. If you like painting tiny, tiny diamonds, or gaudy schemes in general, these are for you!
The T’au are the youngest of the xenos races, who are technologically advanced and determined to extend their influence throughout the galaxy. In the lore, they preach a kind of space communism (The Greater Good), and happily envelop alien cultures – including humanity – into their own. They have a reliance on battle suits of varying size, some of them are truly enormous in stature. If you like the idea of a solid gunline with some very powerful weaponry at your disposal, these are for you!
The Necrons are, by contrast, one of the oldest races in the galaxy, with a tragic backstory where they gave up their mortal bodies in exchange for a kind of immortality. They now exist as metallic exosteletons with the kind of weaponry that can destroy solar systems, with an army of soulless robotic drones at their disposal. The antagonist force for 9th edition, Necrons have recently had a slew of new models to add to their range, including some big centrepieces. If you like painting silver, yelling “get off my lawn!” and rolling 6s, these are for you!
Orks are another old menace, fungoid creatures who exist for the joy of combat. Inspired by British football hooligans, there is a slightly crazy aesthetic to the models, particularly in their habit of “looting” vehicles, and the idea of taking massive knives and clubs to a fight. An army that lends itself perfectly to the horde mentality, gaining bonuses when there are more models in a unit, Orks have been getting a lot of new kits in recent years. If you like painting green, and thing red goes faster, these are for you!
Tyranids are an extragalactic menace, an alien race whose singular purpose is to devour all life they come across. Their hive fleets move through the galaxy, breeding different organisms for specific tasks to overcome a planetary population and devour the biomass, before moving on. Leaning heavily into the xenomorph look, they also tend towards the swarm mentality. If you like bugs, and like the idea of endless droves of the things, these are for you!
The Genestealer Cults are closely tied to the Tyranids, forming something of a vanguard for the bigger bugs, softening up a planet’s defences before their alien overlords arrive. They have a fairly new model range that recently had a slew of new models added, all with a mining aesthetic that perfectly captures the grim-dark feel of the 40k universe. If you like mutant miners and lots of them, these are for you!
This has been a very quick overview of the playable factions in Warhammer 40k. It’s entirely possible that there will be more – the Genestealer Cults, while being an old idea, burst onto the scene in 2016 as a new playable army, for instance, and there are always rumours of new factions or expanded side-factions such as the often talked-about Traitor Guard coming in 2022.
Hopefully, though, this gives you some idea of how to at least start your journey with choosing an army. I would definitely recommend taking more of a deep dive into whichever of the factions interests you, and looking more at the models available. YouTube is your friend for painting guides, which often give the added bonus for showing how big some of these things can be – it can be difficult, at times, to appreciate how big something like a T’au Riptide Battlesuit actually is (I know I was very surprised to see how big it ended up when I built my first one!)
When you’ve decided, the most important advice is not to buy the whole force in one go! I’ve been guilty of this before now, when I bought a T’au army and ended up drowning in plastic. I built the entire army, played a few games, even painted a couple of units, but ended up selling the whole lot as I’d just lost my interest in them. The best way, I feel, is to buy one of the basic troops units for the army you’ve picked, as this will give you a good feel for how the more straightforward models go together and stuff. You’ll also be able to practice your colour scheme before getting to the fancier models. But it’s also good to get one of those leader/HQ types, as they will often have elements from across the army that you can get a feel for. For example, the Drukhari Archon has a cloak made of skin, which will be good practice for painting the Haemonculus Covens aspect of that army, while wearing the same armour as the Kabalite Warriors. There’s also something to be said for having one of the fancier models to motivate you to do well!
One HQ and one troops unit is often enough to get an idea for how the army plays, which is what I’ll be covering next!