Designing Warhammer 40K 10th edition: "The right answer was something new"

Ultramarines and Tyranids clash on the battlefield in Warhammer 40,000 Leviathan
(Image credit: Games Workshop)

The more I think about it, the more Warhammer 40K 10th edition reminds me of that rhyme for weddings. You know the one - it's got something old, something new, something borrowed, and something (Ultramarine) blue. And even though lascannons may not have much in common with bridesmaids or bouquets, the metaphor works better than it has any right to. For Warhammer 40,000 Studio Manager Stu Black, this new version - arriving soon in the massive Leviathan box set - is the perfect marriage of past and present.

"I think we all fondly remember the editions when we started in the hobby – which for me started with Rogue Trader but really took off with 3rd Edition in the late '90s – but often with rose-tinted glasses," he tells me over email when we catch up about all things Warhammer 40K 10th edition. "Honestly, the new edition is my favourite yet."

Leading the charge

Warhammer 40,000 Studio Manager Stu Black

(Image credit: Warhammer)

As Warhammer 40,000 Studio Manager, Stu Black is responsible for overseeing the 40K ship. He's worked in everything from publishing to design for Warhammer.

While a degree of positive spin is understandable (this is the team's baby, after all), everything Black tells me about the new and improved 40K makes me just as optimistic. Although it's respectful of the past, it doesn't pander. As Black says, "it was more a case of the team looking at how to achieve the various goals we had set ourselves and then finding the best mechanics or tools to achieve them. Sometimes that turned out to be something from a previous incarnation of 40K, sometimes another team working on a different game had a great solution, and often the right answer was something new."

Old, new, and borrowed

Warhammer Tyranid model looms over Space Marines

(Image credit: Games Workshop)

When Warhammer 40K 10th edition was announced in March, a lot of emphasis was put on its more accessible rules. These apparently make the game approachable without losing the tactical complexity that's kept it on tabletops for well over 30 years. Trimming back an overabundance of Stratagems - special abilities that can help turn the tide of battle, but have gotten a little convoluted - was key to regaining that focus.

"Throughout the whole design process we looked at every element and carefully weighed whether it needs to be there or not," Black says. "This is where the clarity of these design goals and our design system really came into play. With Stratagems we wanted to make sure they were either reactive things that players could use in response to their opponent (often in their opponent's turn) to keep both players engaged, or super exciting cinematic moments that would be highlights of the game."

Creating a new grim darkness of the far future

Old-school Space Marine Terminators stand ready for battle in the new Warhammer 40,000 10th Edition

(Image credit: Warhammer)

What's it like behind the scenes creating an all-new edition of Warhammer 40K? According to Black, "the first thing we do is create a set of design goals for an edition. These outline what we are trying to achieve and also sketch out some of the constraints and design space we want to explore. Once we have those goals clear in our minds, we can start work on the Core Rules to rough out the core play experience. Next we can start to work on mission design and any faction-based elements we need to work on. Then it becomes an iterative process where each of those elements feeds into each other as we go through many development cycles getting closer to our final game. Parallel to that is the Miniatures Design team's process of deciding which factions and new miniatures should be in the launch box, which is a development process spanning several years." 

Pruning over-complicated mechanics isn't the only trick up the team's sleeve, though. It's also deploying Combat Patrol for Warhammer 40K 10th edition, a newcomer-friendly way to play using box sets of the same name. Despite not being starter sets in a traditional sense (or the kind you'd see with the best board games), each one contains a pre-balanced army that can take to the field as soon as you've put them together - there's no need to worry about points cost or whether you've chosen the 'right' unit for the job. Black feels that this removes barriers for entry, allowing players to focus more on the game's cinematic feel.

"Combat Patrol was designed to be accessible by helping players make a few big decisions (e.g. which faction to play) rather than lots of smaller ones," he explains. "Having essentially pre-written army lists help players get straight into the action without worrying if they have written a good list, got the best configuration of models, and so on. We made sure it was thematic and balanced through lots and lots of testing – then some more testing!"

The team is always balancing doing something brand new and revisiting a classic idea in a fresh way

Stu Black

That isn't to say 10th edition jettisons the old game's complexity, though. Much like the setting's Chaos God, Khorne, it sits on the bones of what's come before. For example, there are still Stratagems… but the fat has been removed until we're left with the best ones. In addition, classic army-building is present and correct. Although the system's been streamlined to provide greater flexibility, you're able (and very much encouraged) to create your own force. As a case in point, Crusades - missions in a grand, inter-connected campaign where you 'level up' your troops - are returning too. Black says that these remain a "thematic, immersive gameplay experience that is much more focused on storytelling and giving players tools to tell the story of 'their dudes'." 

In other words? Plenty of inspiration has come from the ghost of Warhammers past. 

Something blue

Warhammer 40,000 Leviathan boxset contents arrayed on a battlefield

(Image credit: Games Workshop)

Nowhere is this more apparent than the 10th edition Indomitus pattern Space Marine Terminator. Seeing as it's based on a model first seen in 1989's Space Hulk, this unit (both literally and figuratively) is about as classic as you can get.

"The Miniatures Design team felt like the time was right to revisit the mighty Tactical Dreadnought Armor," Black says. "It had been a core Space Marine image since the days of the first boxed set of Space Hulk, and they felt they could really now do them justice. The team is always balancing doing something brand new and revisiting a classic idea in a fresh way – both of those are really important to creating fantastic ranges of miniatures."

Naturally, a force of Ultramarines in Tactical Dreadnought Armor needs a worthy adversary - something that can let them stretch their legs. And seeing as these OG Terminators were returning, it was only right for their opponents from Space Hulk - the Alien-esque Tyranids - to come scuttling back as well. As is only right for a game that's mastered the 'take my money' wow-factor in terms of miniature reveals, the rule of cool played a big part in that decision.

New favorites

A Von Ryan's Leaper model in the darkness, from the Warhammer 40,000 Leviathan box set

(Image credit: Games Workshop)

There are plenty of new units making their first appearance in Leviathan, and they've caused quite a stir. But does Black have a particularly favorite? So far as he's concerned, it's all about a new Tyranid unit that looks like it's taken notes from a Cthulhu.

"The new Terminators are amazing miniatures and I have loved Tactical Dreadnought Armor since the '80s, but they aren't really a new unit so I get to pick another! I really like Von Ryan's Leapers, they're a great exploration of the Lictor strain of Tyranid creatures, and quite creepy looking!"

"The Warhammer Studio is led by the miniatures we make. The first part of a years-long process is the Miniatures Design team looking at what factions to include in a new edition launch box. We know that 40K's flagship defining image is a Space Marine, so it is a safe bet that they'll feature! The Miniatures team will consider a great many factors when deciding on which other faction to feature, but essentially it comes down to what would be the coolest thing! A similar process then goes into the actual miniatures content: factors such as how the two forces will look as a set, is there a good amount of texture and variety in the box – some bigger things, some infantry, etc. – how can the two sides be differentiated, and so on."

Of course, this is all moot if you can't get your hands on said models. And considering how difficult it's been to buy certain Warhammer releases before now (the likes of Cursed City and even Leviathan's predecessor, Indomitus, sold out instantly), some cynicism about how many of us will actually be able to enjoy them is warranted. Fortunately, the team has a plan for that - and it's making an absolute, metric crap ton of them. Indeed, more 'Leviathan' sets have been created than any other Warhammer box to date.

We're expecting 'Leviathan' to be popular, and so we have made absolutely loads

Stu Black

"The popularity of Warhammer 40,000 continues to grow, and sometimes demand for certain items takes us by surprise," he says when I ask about availability. "We're expecting 'Leviathan' to be popular, and so we have made absolutely loads - more than any other Warhammer box, ever. We're going to have a queue system on our website for pre-orders and will be limiting the number per order - but this box isn't designed to last forever. The stuff that's in this box - models and rules - will feature in other formats soon after launch, so even if anyone does miss out on Leviathan, they won't have to wait long."

We'll have to see whether the wait is worth it, but from everything I've been told so far, signs are looking good regardless of whether you're a Warhammer 40,000 greenhorn or a storied veteran. Circling back to torture our wedding analogy yet further, Warhammer 40K 10th edition seems like it has all the makings of a happy marriage.

For more tabletop coverage, check out these must-have board games for 2 players, essential cooperative board games, and the best tabletop RPGs.

Benjamin Abbott
Tabletop & Merch Editor

As the site's Tabletop & Merch Editor, you'll find my grubby paws on everything from board game reviews to the latest Lego news. I've been writing about games in one form or another since 2012, and can normally be found cackling over some evil plan I've cooked up for my group's next Dungeons & Dragons campaign.