Warhammer the Smart Way: How to Play the Game Without Emptying Your Wallet

Ork ArmyThe most common complaint associated with Games Workshop games is that they are too expensive.  Warhammer and its futuristic cousin Warhammer 40,000 are wonderful games for many reasons, but their ability to drain money from bank accounts is legendary.  But fear not friends!  This is an expensive hobby, but there are ways to stretch your money and keep some of it in your wallet.

That’s what this article is about.  My 12-years of experience with Games Workshop games has taught me a lot about ways to save money (and ways to not save money!) while still getting a lot of enjoyment out of the games.  Hopefully this article will provide some helpful advice that will allow you – a Warhammer player (or Warhammer 40k player) – to get the most bang for your buck and keep your wallet fat.

To do that, you are going to want to follow these simple pointers:

  1. Play for the Long Term
  2. Use Old Models
  3. Stick to ONE Army
  4. Stick to the Main Armies
  5. Beware of Special Characters
  6. Collect a Variety of Units

Each point will be discussed in detail below.

Play for the Long Term

First of all, you have to play for the long term.  This is the most important point and the one that all of the others revolve around.  You see, Warhammer is an expensive hobby to start, but the money you spend will go a long way if you are willing to keep using your initial investment over the long haul.  If you are willing to keep up with the hobby for many years, the initial investment will pay off.  Secondly, you must be willing to accept the fact that the units, weapons and models that you own will rise and fall in their effectiveness over the course of many editions.  This is a fact of playing the game.  Play the game long enough though, and you will learn to appreciate the times when your units are good.

The initial investment is, however, undeniably steep.  You have to buy a rulebook, an army book, an army, paints, superglue, modeling knife, dice, tape measurer, templates, and probably some terrain.  Even with a small army (say 500 points), that will still cost you at least $200 – $300.  To add another 500 points to your army, you will have to spend at least another $100 – $200, and probably more than that.  In short, the costs add up quickly.

But unlike Collectible Card Games, which come out with new expansion sets every 3 months (requiring the purchase of around $100 worth of cards), a Warhammer army will be updated with new rules and units only once every few years.  This allows you to enjoy your ‘investment’ over a period of many years, slowly expanding your collection at a rate that you can afford.

Eventually, new editions will be released, and with them, new army books.  This is often a frustrating time for many players, as they realize that the units or combos that they previously used in their armies are now obsolete – rendering many dollars worth of models “wasted”.  Such thinking is usually short-sighted.  I have been through enough edition changes to know that today’s killer unit is tomorrow’s bottom-feeder, and vice versa.  As editions change, units rise and fall in power and utility.  When you play for the long term, you can place your nerfed unit on the shelf, knowing that there is a good chance that in the next edition it will once again become useful.  Similarly, if you purchased a unit that turns out to be worse than you thought, you can put that unit aside until the next edition makes it a little better.

Terminator ArtLet me give an example.  In 2nd edition 40k, the Assault Cannon was one of the best shooting weapons in the game.  It had the potential to get 9 shots per turn, at a range of 32”, with each shot being as powerful as a krak missile.  Yeah, it was pretty good.  Then 3rd edition came along, and Games Workshop decided to nerf the poor weapon.  The 24” range, strength 6 AP 4 weapon was nothing resembling the monstrosity it had been in 2nd edition.  But to add insult to injury, the Heavy Bolter was a very similar and (in my opinion) ultimately superior weapon – rendering the Assault Cannon all but useless.  Now, I could have sold or traded my models that were armed with Assault Cannons, but I didn’t.  I would be rewarded for such patience when 4th edition came out.  In typical Games Workshop over-correcting fashion, the Assault Cannon was made to be one of the best weapons in the game in 4th edition.  Thus, the Assault Cannon goes full circle.

And the Assault Cannon is but one of many, many examples of units/weapons/armies that rise and fall in their effectiveness over the course of many years and many editions.  When you learn this, you realize that models and units that have been “nerfed” by the latest edition have probably only been temporarily downgraded.  In due course, those units that you paid good money for will become useful again.

Use Old Models

Of course, as new editions and army books come out, you will have to purchase new models to update your army.  Certain units that you avoided in past editions (due to being bad units, for instance) are now viable.  Simultaneously, units that you relied on in previous editions (due to being very powerful) are no longer sufficient to get the job done.  So you will need to update your army with some new models and units every time a new edition or army book comes out.

But most of the time, you will only need to purchase a handful of new models or units.  Usually, at least 75% of your old army will be quite useful in the new edition.  Here is where the allure of new models will try to ensnare you: just because you need to purchase some of the new models, does NOT mean that you have to replace your entire army with new models!  Your old models are (with few exceptions) totally legal under the new rules, and the majority of them will continue to remain effective under the new rules.  While occasionally a unit is no longer legal in a subsequent edition (because it no longer appears in the army book, or it’s equipment options have changed, etc.), most old units receive new rules in the new edition.  So don’t throw away the old models!  Use them!  They are just as legal, and just as effective rules wise as the shiny new models that are inevitably released along with the new army book.  They don’t look the same, but a plain looking boltgun held by an old Space Marine from 2nd edition is just as effective as a fancy boltgun held by a Space Marine from 5th edition.

Continuing to use old models when new models (of the same type) are released is one of the best ways to save money with Warhammer.  Yes, it is tempting to “upgrade” your army and purchase new models.  Try to resist the temptation to do that.  While it is necessary to “augment” or “adjust” your forces by purchasing “additional” units, you should avoid at all costs the temptation to “upgrade” your forces by “replacing” units.

Along the same lines, try to purchase old models off of other gamers who don’t want them.  This is a cost-effective way of getting a lot of points worth of models for a fraction of the dollar cost it would take to buy the newer models.  Yes, the new models look nicer.  But on the battlefield, the old models are just as effective.

Bretonnia Lance FormationOne more thing: sometimes you can avoid the purchase of a new unit by doing some re-modeling of an old unit.  This can be as simple as removing a weapon and replacing it with a different weapon – e.g. removing a power sword and replacing it with a chain sword.  This little maneuver would have saved the owner of a 2nd edition Space Marine Assault Squad from buying a whole new box of Assault Marines when 3rd edition came out.  In other instances the re-modeling will be a little more involved.  For instance, when Warhammer Fantasy switched from 5th to 6th edition, and the Bretonnian Army book was released, the rules for the lance formation changed – the knights were now required to form up into a column rather than a wedge-shaped triangle.  Unfortunately, the older knight models were designed to fit into the wedge-shaped lance formation, and were unable to fit together in the new lance formation.  Many players simply used this as an excuse to purchase the new knight models; others threw up their hands in frustration.  I decided to go back to the modeling bench.  I found that by altering the tails of the horses to point sideways, I was able to get all of the knights to fit together in the new lance formation.  Ta-da!  Problem solved, and money saved.

Stick with ONE Army

This may seem like blasphemy to some, but it is painfully obvious that sticking with ONE army per game (Warhammer, 40k, Lord of the Rings, etc.) will save you a lot of money.  Of course, Games Workshop encourages collecting multiple armies, and while there is no doubt that this can be fun, there is also no doubt that this is considerably more expensive than just collecting one army.

The problem with collecting multiple armies – aside from the obvious initial expense of buying a whole second army – is that it greatly increases the new models that you are required to purchase whenever a new edition or army book comes out.  If you have two armies, then you will have to upgrade each army at least once during every edition – twice as often as if you only had one army.  For players with a limited income, this may force them to choose between which army they wish to upgrade, and which they allow to lag behind, like some forgotten step-child.

This may seem elementary to some, but I am always astounded at how few players take edition changes into account when they are deciding whether or not to collect a second (or third [or fourth!]) army.  They count the initial cost of buying the second army, and then give nary a thought to the possibility (nay, inevitability) that a new edition will be released – bringing with it the need to adjust the second army by purchasing some additional units.  If they had taken into account the future cost of collecting another army, they may have decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Now, I am not saying that you cannot collect a second army.  But I am saying that before doing so, you should count the costs.  Be ready when the edition changes, because you will have twice as much to buy than if you had stuck with only one army.

Stick to the Main Armies

The only thing worse than having one of those armies that gets a serious re-write with a new edition change, is having one that doesn’t even get a rules update at all – rendering the army unusable.  Alas, this is often the fate of ‘variant’ or ‘niche’ armies.  You can save yourself a lot of money (not to mention aggravation) by steering clear of these armies and sticking to the main armies.

Now, by “main armies” I am not trying to divide existing armies into different camps.  The term is not easy to define, but it is one of those things that you know it when you see it.  The Empire is a main army.  Bretonnia is a main army.  Chaos Space Marines are a main army.  Tau are a main army.  Raven Guard Space Marines, are not.  High Elf Sea Patrol is not.  Feral Orks are not.  Adeptus Mechanicus are not.  Hopefully you get the idea.

Storm of ChaosBasically, armies that have an army book or a codex, and have had an army book or codex for the past few editions, can safely be considered a “main army”.  Armies that appear in the appendix to another army book or codex, armies that appear in White Dwarf, or armies that accompany campaigns (like those from Storm of Chaos or the Battle for Armageddon) are generally not “main armies”.  The latter type are “variant” or “niche” armies.  The sad truth is that often these armies end up not getting official support in subsequent editions, rendering them unusable.

Don’t be one of those people who spends a lot of money and time building a niche or variant army, only to have all of it wasted when the edition changes and your army is no longer usable.  No matter how cool the army looks in that White Dwarf article, steer clear.  Stick to the main armies and you will ensure that your models won’t become useless when the new edition rolls around.

Beware of Special Characters

The same logic applies to special characters.  Beware!  Many of them will appear in an army book, only to disappear when the next version of that army book is released.  Sometimes these forgotten characters will appear in a White Dwarf, with rules.  Unfortunately, that is usually the last time they are seen.  Once the character is downgraded from army book to White Dwarf, there is usually no going back.

Nagash02Obviously there are exceptions.  Some special characters will stay with an army for many editions, like an heirloom passed from generation to generation.  Typically these are the “main” special characters for an army (e.g. King Louen Leoncoeur for Bretonnia, Marneus Calgar for the Ultramarines, etc.).  These characters will often (or at least more often) be retained when an edition change comes and the army book is re-released.  But even these “main” special characters are sometimes omitted from the new army book (e.g. Emperor Karl Franz not appearing in the 6th edition Empire army book, or Nagash disappearing in 6th edition after having rules in the 5th edition Undead army book).

The best practice is to purchase special characters only sparingly.  You should be especially careful of those that have strange or unique models that can’t be used to represent anything else in the army (e.g. Fabius Bile, Lord Kroak, etc.).  If these characters disappear, your model is useless.  At least with more mundane special characters, they can be used to represent another model in the army.  Not so with special characters that have unique items, weapons, mounts, or vehicles.  This is not to say that you can’t collect special characters.  But if you do, beware the pitfalls.

Collect a Variety of Units

I am not urging you to collect a variety of units so that you can have an army that is “balanced” in the traditional sense.  No, you should collect a variety of units because it will better prepare you for edition changes, resulting in fewer adjustments and augmentations to your army.  This translates to you having to buy fewer units, and therefore saving money.

As described earlier, when editions change and new army books are released, units and models rise and fall in power and effectiveness.  If you have a variety of units, you are better able to weather the changing tides than if you had collected a min-maxed army that relied on multiples of the same unit/weapon/model.  In the latter case, if your min-maxed army finds itself aided by the change in rules, then kudos to you for your gamble paying off.  More likely, you will find that having all of those multiples of the same model or unit is no longer beneficial under the new edition.

Now, I am not talking about multiple High Elf spearmen or Chaos Warriors, or other such run-of-the-mill “regular” troops.  What I am talking about is multiple Rare units of the same type, for instance multiple Stegadons, Hellblaster Volley Guns, etc., or multiple squads of really elite troops (e.g. Terminator Assault Squads, Necron Immortals) or tanks (e.g. Land Raiders, Basilisks, etc.).  Often times it is quite beneficial under the current rules to take multiple versions of these types of ‘elite’ units.  But when those rules change with the new edition, it is often no longer a good idea to take multiple versions of that unit, or even any versions at all.  If you purchased two (or three!) of one of those types of unit, you might find that you won’t be using all of them in the next edition.

VindicatorI am not, however, suggesting that you should avoid more elite or specialist units in favor of more basic troops.  Instead, I am suggesting that you invest in a variety of elite and specialist units rather than multiple “copies” of the same one.  For instance, if you play space marines, instead of collecting three Predators, collect one Predator, one Devastator Squad, and one Vindicator (or Whirlwind).  Or if you collect Dwarves, instead of buying that second unit of Ironbreakers, why don’t you consider a unit of Hammerers?  Once you have built up a variety of elite and specialist units (in addition to your ‘core’ of basic units) you will be able to react to any changes in the rules by being able to field a unit that works well with them.  If you invest in the same unit, you might be left without a lot of options when the rules change.

Of course, this logic has its limits.  For basic units, acquiring multiple “copies” of the same unit is not only mandatory for many armies, it is actually recommended for many others.  Even still, it is wise to invest in different types of basic units if they are available, as they too will benefit and suffer from the changing rules over multiple editions (though perhaps not as much as elite or specialized units).  Also, in some situations you may find that it is worth the possible loss of utility in the future in order to take advantage of a current imbalance in the rules.  That is a choice you have to make.  But the truth remains that if you collect a variety of units, it will probably mean fewer adjustments and new purchases when the next edition comes out.

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it, six strategies for playing Warhammer that will allow you to collect a sizeable army without breaking the bank.  Good luck, and may the dice (and dollars) be with you!


  1. There’s also my tactic, “Have friends who get lose interest in playing or who’s SO ‘doesn’t want that crap around her house anymore’ and give you all their miniatures and paint.” Of course not everyone can benefit from that particular strategy.

  2. a big one: magnets are your friend. Have a specialist soldier or a vehicle that could be configured with different weapons? Put a magnet on it, and swap around freely!

  3. Great write up!

  4. Allandaros says:

    Solid article!

    The one thing I’d add: eBay. Wonderful bargains there. (Also a lot of dross, but if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find good stuff eventually.)

  5. OriginalSultan says:

    @ macseann: like you said, not everyone can do that. But if you get the opportunity, take it!

    @ Sian: while the magnets strategy does have its perks, it has some drawbacks. 1) earth magnets (the kind you need for this type of work) are not free, 2) it takes considerable skill to use them properly, and 3) for the time and effort it takes to install the magnets, you could probably assemble and paint another soldier armed with a different weapon – undermining the purpose of using the magnets to begin with. Still, the point is valid, and for expert modelers this can be a way to save money.

    @ QUilt City Ogres: thanks!

    @ Allandaros: this is a good point, especially in regards to old models. As you said, you have to be selective and keep checking, but if you look long enough a good bargain will surface. Hoping to find a well-painted new model of the exact kind you are looking for, for a reasonable price, is probably wishful thinking. But if you are willing to buy a collection of models, particularly old models, you can find some good deals.

  6. CaptCamping says:

    You are right man, I will follow your advice on variety of armies.


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