Wargaming Tradecraft: Warmachine & Hordes Newbie Primer


Warmachine & Hordes Newbie Primer

It's no secret that while I started out playing Games Workshop's line of games like Epic and Warhammer 40,000, I've become a Privateer Press fan-boy over the last few years. However, every time someone asks about Warmachine and Hordes, I (and others) end up repeating the same thing. I'm writing this guide in hopes to create a single resource people can link to when they get the question "So what's Warmachine all about, anyways?"

Thanks to TheWife and Grubnatz and Moe for assisting with editing this.

It's all one World

The setting of Warmachine and Hordes is actually one continent and the two systems are designed to be 100% compatible. Your Warmachine army can face your friend's Hordes army without anyone gaining an advantage over the other. I make a point of telling this to people used to Games Workshop's systems because we were used to their Fantasy and Sci-Fi systems being different. Not so here.

Warmachine can be described as the "Civilized" world during a "Steam Punk" age. Their Warcasters wield strong magics, control powerful robotic Warjacks and troops are often armed with guns. In the fringes and forests of the world is where the races of Hordes call home. Hordes armies are often Druidic, Tribal or War-like nations with a "Fantasy" flare. Great Warbeasts find themselves under the influence of Warcasters that are tapped in to the natural magics of the world and these armies are often stronger at close-combat rather than long-range fighting. (However, Warmachine armies have plenty of close combat options, just like Hordes have lots of shooting solutions. Your hands won't be tied one way or the other.)

So why are there 2 different systems?

For the most part, both Warmachine and Hordes use the exact same rules and are therefore totally compatible. You'll never run into an opponent who says "I only play against Warmachine." The only difference is how the Army Leaders (Warcasters / Warlocks) regain their Mana (Focus / Fury) and interact with their Warjacks and Warbeasts.

In Warmachine, a Warcaster begins every round with full Focus. Think "mana pool". Focus is used to cast spells and strengthen attacks and casters with more will have a larger zone of influence around them. Warcasters must assign their own Focus to their Warjacks every round to fuel stronger attacks. There are some situations where water or electricity will cause Warjacks to shut down.

In Hordes, Warlocks have Fury instead of Focus. A Warlock must replenish their Fury by pulling it off of their Warbeasts every turn. Warbeasts gain it by making strong attacks and using their powers. It's possible in Hordes to "run hot" and do a lot of damage in one turn with your beasts, but risk losing control of them the next turn.

This means that as a game progresses, Warcasters stay as strong as they were when the game started, but a Warlock will get weaker if their Warbeasts have been killed off. You could say that Warmachine armies have a certain amount of reliability and Hordes armies have more potential for chaos.

Otherwise, all the other rules are the same. Sometimes you'll see a model that only gets bonus' against Warjacks or only against Beasts, but not that often. Privateer Press could probably release a single rulebook with a minimal number of extra pages to cover each Caster type to avoid A LOT of confusion and improve adoption in new players.

What Faction should I choose?

I've written a Beginners Guide to Choosing an Army before, and it applies just as well to Warmachine and Hordes. There are a few factions that could limit your options... Convergence of Cyriss is newer and less-supported and while Minion / Mercenary factions can be played stand-alone, they're mainly designed to augment the primary factions. All the primary factions in the two systems are well balanced compared to each other, so you don't have to worry about ending up with a poor choice. They've all got shooting and close combat options though some certainly lean one way or the other.

I'll make a note on "Feats" here too. Casters have an ability called a "Feat" that they can use only once per game. These are all very powerful (Some would say unbalanced) and when used right can tip the scales of a game. But everyone's got one. This is stuff like bringing units and beasts back from the dead, making your Caster really strong, allowing your infantry a free move and attack every time they kill something, or causing every enemy model that moves closer to you to burst into flames.

If you can find an army that looks awesome and excites you to paint or play, go for it.

At the end of this primer I'll touch on more specific information about the armies.

How easy is it to learn?

I like to use the comparison to Magic: the Gathering. (For those of you familiar.) The game itself is easy to learn and rules are really straight forward. Going from 40k to Warmachine was like going from THAC0 to D20. You don't have to roll many dice and comparisons are simple math instead of chart comparisons.

A better question would be, "How Easy is it to Master?" That's more complicated. Like Magic, each of your units usually has a bunch of special properties and requires synergies with other units to play your best. You'll eventually learn it all, but it will take a while to get used to how best to utilize everything. The Feats I talked about above have to be used at the right time. Don't even try to learn your opponent's armies until you're confident with your own. (Though it's usually a good idea to ask what your opponent's Feat is before a game starts.)

Some notes for Gamers

Warjacks and Beasts have some semi-complicated "Power Attacks". They take a bit to learn and many players don't make the effort and get by fine. But knowing them will definitely give you an edge. For example, picture a nimble 'jack running up to an important enemy and head-butting it to knock it down. Once on the ground, all your other models don't have to roll to hit it in melee. (And are easy to hit from ranged.) How about a battle taking place on top of a hill and a huge troll with a mountain growing out of its back slams his opponent with a tree, tossing him off the hill, bowling over models in the way and dealing extra falling damage. Then there's my favorite: a muscled towering beast walking up to a lumbering steam-powered warjack, it picks up the 'jack with two hands and throws it across the battlefield, on to the enemy warcaster, squishing him dead.

Things like cover and templates have been streamlined too. Is the target within 1" of cover and can you draw a line from any part of the shooter's base to any part of the target's base through that cover? Then they're in cover. Does the template touch any amount of the target's base? They're hit. Walking through difficult terrain like a forest? Get cover and movement speed is halved. When you're charging into close combat, add 3", none of this random rolling. Line of Sight is easy too - you're aiming for the base, not for the model and different sizes of bases are considered to have different heights. (So if you're firing at a medium based model, it's considered to be a cylinder 2.25" high.)

Privateer Press has some great free options if you'd like to know more about their rules. First off, they've got Warmachine Starter Rules as well as Hordes Starter Rules available as a free download. Second, they have an app called "War Room". It's free and contains all the rules to play the game! Even some of the basic units are included free. Once you've chosen an army, you can buy it in the app to get access to all the rules for that army, including free updates as more models are released. This also make a great reference during a game.

Actually, good timing here because yesterday, Privateer Press posted a video teaching How to play Warmachine. There's also a lot more information on their All New War website.

What do I need to get started?

  • Rule Book (Optional)
    • This is optional if you have people to teach you the game, but a good idea.
  • An army
    • Single and Two player starter sets are available. With the single sets, you can choose from any army though the two player sets are only specific armies that are a little easier to learn. These sets have an army leader and a couple beasts / warjacks, which are enough to for small games.
  • Army Book (Optional)
    • Every miniature you buy comes with a card containing all its rules.
    • The army book is totally optional, but it's nice to learn the story about your army and models.
  • Some 6-sided dice. (Also known as a D6)
    • It's recommended that you have 5 or 6 dice, one a different colour.
      (This speeds up rolling damage against Warjacks/Beasts because the different coloured die can be rolled for the damage column with the damage... trust me.)
  • Tape Measure
  • Card Protectors and a Dry-Erase Pen
    • Damage is marked on the rule cards. Use these to do so. Either single card protectors or binder sheets work.
  • Templates (Optional)
    • For explosions and sprays like flamethrowers.
    • You don't actually need these until you're using models that need them.
  • Tokens (Optional)
    • To mark spells, buffs, debuffs and such.
    • You can always write these things down on a piece of paper.

What's it going to cost me?

Typical armies aren't too big and sizes can average between 10 and 30 figures. This helps games run fast and reduces the amount of stuff for you to worry about. Besides a Caster, there are no rules on minimum army choices. A starter Battlebox comes with a Caster and a few Jacks / Beasts, allowing you to play right away. Smaller games then might add 2-4 units, solos and Jacks / Beasts. Twice that as you get in to larger games.

  • $50 / 100 - One / Two Player Starter
  • $10 - 25 - Single Models
  • $30 - 60 - Units
  • $20 - 60 - Beasts / Jacks
  • $20 - Dice, Tape Measure, Card Protectors, Pen, etc.

So, you can get started for $50, then $200 - 300 will give you a decent sized army. Add another $30 for tokens, dice and a tape measure. Many stores with host "Slow Grow" leagues through the year, spreading this cost across a couple months and offering incentives to paint as well.

Because your army leader has such a large impact on the game, you can actually change how your army works just by buying a new leader.

"Wait, what about rule books?"

The core rule book will run you about $30, or you can be taught by local players. When you buy a model or a unit, it comes with a card that has all their rules printed on it. You never have to buy an army book ($20) unless you're interested in the backstory. Since all models come with their rules, Privateer Press releases surprising new models from time to time, that aren't in their rule books. (And remember, if you bought the army, $7, in War Room, you get all newly released models for free.)

How long does a game last?

Warmachine and Hordes is a skirmish game. As such, battles are relatively short. Small games (35pts) can take 60-75 minutes while larger ones (50pts) run up to 90-105 minutes. If you're newer or playing more casually with a bunch of table talk, expect longer. This translates to 3-5 game rounds on a standard 4' x 4' table. Many tournaments are timed to keep games moving quick and army sizes allow for it.

Games can also be cut short early due to the Assassination mechanic, which is an awesome addition. Every game you play, a Warcaster or Warlock leads your army, controls the larger Warjacks and Warbeasts and must survive. If your opponent kills your army leader: Game Over. (Some leaders are even "front-line" casters, excelling at close combat, but harder to keep alive.)

Why do you prefer it to other systems?

Something I really enjoy is how the game keeps both players engaged at all times. Units do their entire round one at a time. So when you activate a squad, they move, attack, cast spells, etc.. then they're done and you move on to your next unit. This pacing involves your opponent throughout a turn as you're attacking their models instead of someone getting bored waiting for 100 models to finish moving. (I don't think I've ever heard the words, "Tell me when you're done.")

Attacking is done between two models instead of one squad against another. This means models in a unit can attack different targets and there's never confusion over which models your opponent is supposed to remove or "taking up" special weapons. This also means that there's a ton less dice to roll. In fact, most rolls only involve 2 dice, sometimes 3. On rare occasions, 4 or 5 dice will be rolled, but that'll be due to magic or specialist troops.

The alpha-strike is also a thing of the past. You don't have to worry about whoever wins the dice roll to go first shooting everything they've got and crippling the other army before they've had a chance to go. This is achieved because shooting ranges average 8-14". Close combat troops also tend to charge between 8-10", putting them on par with those shooting at them.

Some notes for Artists

Models themselves look fantastic. Their resin plastics aren't as nice quality as their metals, but all the sculpts are done really well. Where other company's models have a very "stoic" look, stiff upper lip and all that, these figures look alive. They look like they're actually engaged in the battle swirling around them. They're attacking, swinging weapons, lining up a shot, they look angry, gatormen are snapping at their foes and casters are preparing powerful spells. "Dramatically posed" is how Privateer Press just described these minis.

The galleries for Warmachine and Hordes display all the models for each army with list price and often a rotatable 3D view. You can take a look for yourself to see how dynamic these models look. Better yet, hang out at your local gaming store to watch some games and you'll see how each army actually looks like they're engaged in a real battle.

Do you miss anything from other games you've played?

Sometimes I miss terrain. It plays a factor to slow down troops and offer a little cover, but nothing like it did in my years playing 40k. It was nice to have to rely on terrain for cover from deadly ranged attacks, crawling through cityscapes and setting up fire teams in multiple story buildings.

I also miss shooting sometimes. I played a very shooty Footdar in 40k and sometimes it was just fun to mow down mass amounts of Tyranids. Heh. Similarly, TheWife says every now and then she misses the satisfaction of tossing a "dramatic" amount of dice on the table.

Tell me about the armies I can choose from?


Cygnar is the largest "civilized" nation and where much of the plot revolves. They're militaristic and excel at longer range and speed. They wield strong electrical weapons and magics and quick, well armed Warjacks. Defensively, troops and Jacks are weaker. They've got kind of an American WW2 "trench" vibe.

Near the nation of Cygnar, The Protectorate of Menoth is one of the many enemies stirring up rebellion and converting citizens. They're religious zealots and use a lot of fire to purge their enemies. Their powers help make their units stronger and Casters have strong magics. Warjacks aren't that fast, but are well armoured and hit HARD.

To the north of the land is the nation of Khador, who have a real Russian feel. Their Warjacks offer an intense amount of armour and while their weapons aren't always accurate, do a lot of damage. Infantry has a mix, but tend to be survivable and can hit strongly as well.

Invading the lands of the living are the undead forces of Cryx. They're not too speedy or defensively strong, but they have very powerful Warcasters and many strong offensive options. They can even gain power from the souls of the dying and return troops back to life. Their Warjacks are relatively fast and quite scary.

Humanity also faces the Retribution of Scyrah, an advanced race of elves who rely on powerful magics with a sci-fi appearance. Their armies are a little smaller because their troops are balanced well and jacks are quite powerful. Their magics are used not only as spells, but to energize their weapons. They've got decent armour and defense and sometimes even shields.

Another fringe group is the Convergence of Cyriss, who are basically a machine cult trying to evolve beyond flesh. There is a lot of synergy in this army, Warjacks changing depending on the Caster you choose and troops who can adapt to different situations on the battlefield. They're a tricky army to play because the order you do things in becomes very important.

Finally, there are the Mercenary factions. They can be taken as extras in one of the above armies or played as a standalone. This includes dwarves, pirates and sadistic torturers.


Outside of the civilized realms, we have forces like the scattered Trollbloods. Divided tribes of a proud, but abused people as factions like Cygnar push them from their lands. They have strong ties to the earth and rely on buffs to shift the tide of battle depending on where they're needed. While they have some ranged weapons stolen from Cygnar, Trolls excel at close combat. They're slow and not difficult to hit, but both troops and Beasts have lots of armour and health.

Also tied to the natural world is the Circle of Orboros, an ancient sect of Druids. The ranks of their troops are filled with humans, tribal beastmen and some forest creatures. The beasts under the control of their Casters are werewolves and other beasts as well as stone golems. Troops are fast, often hard to hit, but crumble when you do. Beasts are almost exclusively close combat, but otherwise well rounded.

Ruled by a powerful dragon comes the Legion of Everblight from the north. These dragon-spawn, mutants, elves and ogres offer a dangerous mix of offensive and defensive abilities. Some of their beasts tend to do a lot of damage and either have lots of armour or speed.  Troops also have this mix of strength, agility and damage as well as having some unique powers and abilities to throw surprises at their enemies.

From the desert wasteland comes the Skorne Empire. Cruel creatures undeterred by death, torturing their strong Beasts to push them beyond their limits. These beasts are slow, hit hard, are difficult to kill and their troops mainly focus on melee. Their appearance has a Persian Empire sort of feel.

Like in Warmachine, there's a Minion faction that the others can pull allies from or operate on their own. Gator, fish and pig-men mostly as well as people from the other factions who prefer to live on the fringes.

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