If you’ve gotten into Warhammer 40,000 in the last 25 years, you know that the Horus Heresy is one of most consequential events in the game’s future history. 10,000 years before the 40K era, fully half of the space marine legions rose in rebellion against the Imperium under the leadership of the Warmaster Horus. The galaxy wide civil war that followed was a brutal, shattering affair whose effects are still being felt in the 41st millennium. If you go back to Rogue Trader, the original Warhammer 40,000 game released in 1987, however, you won’t find it! The Horus Heresy, traitor legions, and Chaos Gods are nowhere to be found. There aren’t even demons, rather different Warp entities like astral hounds and enslavers. It wasn’t until the following year that the Horus Heresy was first mentioned, and that was only a single paragraph in Chapter Approved: Book of the Astronomicon. Things got more serious later in 1988. The first Realms of Chaos book, Slaves to Darkness, introduced the Chaos pantheon of Warhammer Fantasy Battle to 40K. A full overview of the war (by the late Mike Brunton IIRC) also appeared for the first time, as well as details on the traitor legions. At the end of the year, GW’s giant robot fighting game Adeptus Mechanicus was explicitly set during the Heresy, at least in part because then the same plastic Titan minis could be used for both sides, reducing production costs.
Over the ensuing three editions of 40K, the Heresy was fleshed out in various game books and White Dwarf articles. Then, in 2003, Sabertooth Games—a GW subsidiary based in the US—published the Horus Heresy collectible card game. You can’t make a CCG without card art, so for the first time there was a pile of Heresy-related illustrations. GW published four art books called Visions of Heresy, with text by longtime GW loremaster Alan Merrett—who we worked with roundabout that time on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2E–putting all the pieces together into a complete narrative. So, job done, eh? Well, no, not at all! In 2006 GW’s fiction division, Black Library, began a new series of novels that would tell the tale of the Horus Heresy. At the time, I seriously thought this was only going to be a trilogy, but I was wildly wrong about that. The series ultimately ran until 2019, with 54 novels and anthologies! So, surely now the story is finished, right? No again! The climax of the Heresy takes places when Horus brings a huge host to our own Solar System to destroy the Emperor and Imperium. To tell this final chapter of the story, Black Library began a new series called Siege of Terra and that’s still going on today. It’s announced size is 8 novels and Warhawk, the sixth book, came out last year.
With all this attention on the Horus Heresy and the wild success of the novels, it was only natural that 40K players wanted to game the era, colloquially known as 30K. Lots of folks made homebrew rules and army lists, but it wasn’t until that last decade that GW turned their attention to rules. In 2012, Forge World—a studio inside Games Workshop that makes specialist resin kits and rules for hardcore fans—began releasing a series of books that made the Horus Heresy gameable with the then current 40K rules (6th edition). These were big, beautiful hardbacks that includes all kinds of new lore from the late Alan Bligh, John French, and others, plus bespoke army lists in support. These big black books, as they were known, were over $100 each. For many years, my treat to myself at GenCon was another volume in this series. It currently stands at 9 volumes, though I’m not sure what the new game means for the series.
When 7th edition came around in 2014, it was easy enough to carry on the series with those rules. 8th edition was a big departure from previous editions, however, so what was going to happen with Horus Heresy was an open question. Many fans had spent over $1,000 just on the big black books and the smaller red books that consolidated the rules and army lists. If HH made the switch to 8th, some hardcore fans would be pretty salty. Ultimately, GW decided that Horus Heresy would keep on with the 7th edition rules. Since that edition had fallen out of print, they did a new iteration of 7th edition called The Horus Heresy: Age of Darkness Rulebook (AKA Horus Heresy 1st edition). It was tweaked to focus it on the period but by and large it was the same rules. Since 2017 then, 40K and 30K have been operating under different rules. 9th edition 40K came out in 2020 but it was a pretty straight forward iteration of 8th, so the situation remained the same. Again though, people wondered if HH was going to move forward to the latest edition.
Last year GW announced they were working on a new edition of the Age of Darkness Rulebook. This was no big surprise, as you can see from just what I’ve written above that GW releases new editions regularly. What was a surprise was the new status of the Horus Heresy line. Simply put, it was promoted to become one of GW’s top tier games alongside 40K and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. No longer would it be a specialist game with a smaller but dedicated fanbase. It would be getting a big, boxed game with a new line of plastic minis and regular support. The Horus Heresy 2nd edition boxed set came out two weeks ago and that’s what I’m going to be talking about in the rest this article.
I’m sure that 1988 Chris who started this journey with Rogue Trader would choke at the idea of a $299 boxed game being reasonably priced, but in 2022 that is exactly what I’m saying. Warhammer: The Horus Heresy – Age of Darkness boxed set is absolutely stuffed. You get the full and complete rulebook (a 336-page hardback), 54 miniatures (including two vehicles), and the usual templates and dice. Two people can split the minis and each get a small starting force, or one person can use everything as the solid core of a single army. All the minis except the 10 Terminators are new. The 40 tactical marines—your basic troops—are from a brand-new kit that features the classic beakie (Mark VI) armor. The biggest deal is a plastic Spartan Assault Tank. This thing packs a big punch and can transport up to 26 space marines. It has been a major feature of Horus Heresy play, though not among my friends. The resin version was like $150 on its own, and I chose to invest in a Typhon Siege Tank instead because it fit the theme and play style of my Iron Warriors better. Anyway, a plastic Spartan is one of the things that convinced me to get the boxed set instead of the rules alone (those came out this past weekend). Overall, the boxed set as a package is top drawer. Now let’s look at the rules.
The 2nd edition rulebook begins with a roughly 140-page overview of the Horus Heresy and a primer on the 18 space marine legions at the center of it. You don’t, in other words, need to read 62 novels to understand the story. The remaining 200 odd pages has the rules themselves and accompanying reference material. There is one thing to understand up front though. While the boxed set includes a booklet with stats for the minis inside, the rulebook itself does not include the army lists you need to play a larger force. For that, you will need one of two $70 books: Liber Astartes – Loyalist Legiones Astartes Army Book or Liber Hereticus – Traitor Legiones Astartes Army Book. The first third of each book is the same. It has all the core space marine units that loyalists and heretics share. Following that are legion specific rules, special units, and characters. Each book covers 9 of the 18 legions. Note, however, that all legions had loyal and heretical troops. You could, for example, build a loyalist Iron Warriors army like mine or a heretical White Scars army. Your first big decision then is what legion to play. Once you figure that out, get the appropriate army book, and then you’ll have what you need to get going in earnest.
Now—finally—I will get down to the nitty gritty of the rules. My thoughts are based on the core rulebook and Liber Hereticus. I don’t have Liber Astartes, though I may get it later to see what those legions can do. Overall, the rules are what you’d expect: another iteration of the 7th edition. While the 1st edition Horus Heresy rules stuck pretty closely, the 2nd edition makes more substantial changes and for the most part these are for the good. Note I spent the last couple of weeks studying the rules, but I haven’t gotten it onto the table yet. To the bullet points!
• If you played 3rd to 7th edition 40K, most of the Horus Heresy rules will feel familiar. AP (Armor Piercing), for example, indicates what level of armor protection a weapon can simply ignore. An AP 3 weapon can punch right through space marine armor. The upside of this is that you are more likely to make saves against common weapons because if your armor works, you get its full protection. A bolter in 8th edition has an AP of -1 and that’s always applies. Space marine armor starts at 3+ on a d6 but against a bolter is goes to 4+. In Horus Heresy and previous editions back to third, the bolter is AP5 and that has no effect on marine armor whatsoever. Marines will always save on a 3+ against bolters. This is good because one of the core units of the game is a 20-man tactical squad all armed with bolters. AP2 weapons do make terminators cry though.
• The big new thing is what are called reactions. These take the idea of Overwatch from older editions but broaden the options. Typically speaking, you can make 1 reaction per phase during your opponent’s turn. Each legion also has a bespoke reaction to help define its fighting style. 40K has traditionally been what’s known as an “I go, you go” game, meaning that one player takes their whole turn moving and attacking and so on, and then the second player does the same. This makes things clear but there isn’t as much interactivity as other styles of rules. With reactions, you must be alert for opportunities during your opponent’s turn. When they move forward, you can withdraw. When they shoot, you can shoot back. Remember the limitations though. You can’t use more than one reaction in a phase unless you have a special rule that allows it.
• A major change from 1st edition is that the psychic phase has been removed entirely. Now each psychic power is keyed to the most appropriate phase and used then. Aetheric Lightning, for example, happens in the shooting phase, while Pyromantic Desolation happens in the assault phase. Other good features here include trimmed down disciplines. Each one has two powers and if you have the discipline, you know them both. They also got rid of the random Perils of the Warp table, so there’s no chance of your psyker gettting sucked into the realm of chaos the first time they try to use a power. Instead, Perils simply causes d3 wounds. However, if the psyker is with a unit, those wounds can be put on troopers instead. This makes the marines meat shields that help you keep your psykers on the table longer, which I like.
• There is, of course, much that carries through from 1st edition HH but some things are missing or changed. While reading the army list, I was concerned because Reconnaissance Squads didn’t have the option for sniper rifles and that is how mine are armed. After some flipping around, I noticed that their sniping weapons were now called nemesis bolters. They are actually better than sniper rifles so yay for that, but these are the sorts of small changes existing players need to look for. In not so good news, one of my unique Iron Warriors units—Iron Havocs who specialize with missile launchers—is simply gone. This is not a huge deal, as a Legion Heavy Support Squad with missile launchers is still pretty good with the Iron Warriors’ Wrack & Ruin special rule, but I was surprised. Some of the characters from the big black books also didn’t make it, but we may seem them in supplements. UPDATE: the missing units and characters have been released in two free PDFs. As with other such legacy PDFs, I suspect they won’t be tournament legal but that is irrelevant to me. I also only rarely field special characters. As an RPG guy, I prefer to create my own.
• As with 1st edition, there are no data cards in Horus Heresy. These were an 8th edition innovation that put almost all the rules you need for a unit in its army list entry. Most special rules are right there, for example, and full weapon stats are included. This is basically impossible in Horus Heresy because the units and characters have so many weapon options. The ability to customize models with different weapons is certainly welcome (and a boon for kitbashers), but the unit presentation in Horus Heresy must needs remain in the older style. Hopefully, an online army builder will become available at some point because that would help.
• Since there are no data cards, you know what that means: a Special Rules chapter! This collects the various special rules that minis could have, so the unit entries don’t detail these special rules, just list out which apply. The Legion Destroyer Assault Squad entry, for example, simply notes its special rules: Legiones Astartes, Stubborn, Counter-attack, and Bitter Duty. I suggest you take the ribbon bookmark in the rulebook and just leave it at the start of the special rules chapter. You will be referencing it constantly. Now you’d hope that the rulebook would include all the special rules that apply to space marines because the lion’s share of Horus Heresy armies are legion based. You would be wrong! The army books have another TWELVE pages of them, which I have to say is a little annoying. I totally understand that this will be necessary in future army books like the Mechanicum and Solar Auxilia, but I think it would have made more sense to have those marine special rules incorporated in the core rulebook, so there would be one place you can find all the relevant special rules for a marine army in alphabetical order.
• In 8th edition 40K, vehicles are treated like any other model. They have Toughness, wounds, and a save and they are destroyed when they reach 0 Wounds. Vehicles can also fire all their weapons in any direction regardless of positioning. This has a nice simplicity, but it gets weird when you have an aircraft moving in one direction still able to fire its front-facing weapons at units behind them. If that bugs you, you’ll be pleased to know that Horus Heresy retains armor facings, firing arcs, glancing hits, penetrating hits, etc. A lascannon in the right sponson of a tank cannot shoot an enemy on the left side. It’s advantageous to shoot vehicles in the side and rear because they generally have weaker armor there (not Land Raiders or Spartans though!). Dreadnaughts are the exception. They work as they do in 8th now.
• I had hoped some of the more sensible changes of 8th edition would be incorporated here. It always drove me batty that combi weapons fired like bolters most of the time, but only once per battle they could get off a single melta or plasma shot. Happy to see that changed for 8th, sad to see it back here. Similarly, 8th lets you split fire units, but this retains the “every model must shoot at the same enemy” rule. This is often just so dumb, because half your unit might not have line of sight to the target, so they end up sitting there doing nothing instead shooting enemies that they can see. 2nd edition 40K made allowances for this and that was in 1993!
• There is one thing from 8th I’m very happy NOT to see here: stratagems. Now I like stratagems in concept. You have a pool of command points in the battle, and you can gain various situational advantages by paying these points to use stratagems in the right circumstances. The problem with stratagems is that there are simply too many of them. They require vigilance because you must notice the right situation and remember that you can use a stratagem that applies. They make cards for these, but I can’t tell you how many times I have laid out 30+ AdMech stratagems in front of me (grouped into themes or units affected, with unplayable cards left in the box) and still forgotten half of them I could have played during the battle. My great hope for 9th edition was that they’d get stratagems under control but that didn’t happen at all. They doubled down on them, and every book adds new ones. I like so many of the changes in 8th and 9th but that’s one aspect I’ve found more and more problematic. Reactions in Horus Heresy are limited in number and easier to deal with and I’m happy about that.
• My biggest complaint about 7th edition was the way wound allocation was handled and that survived into Horus Heresy 1st edition. When you shot at an enemy unit and inflicted wounds, there was a whole process where you picked the closest enemy model and it had to make saves one by one until it failed enough to die (typically once for troopers). Then it moved onto the next model and so on. If played as written, this was extremely tedious, though there was an optional way you could speed that up with simple attacks. The wound allocation rules were commonly abused though. You could have a sergeant in artificer armor (2+ save) leading a squad of marines in power armor (3+ save). If you kept sarge out in front, the wound allocation would start with him. He could use his superior save to tank for the unit, which is a little silly when a volley of fire crashes into the unit as a whole. But he’s risking his life, right, so bad dice rolling could produce consequences? Well, no, because there was also a rule called Look Out, Sir! that let troopers take the wounds instead of a character like the sergeant. So, wound allocation not only took longer but one set of artificer armor could magically attract all incoming fire. Did not like. The new rules have tweaked wound allocation (getting rid of Look Out, Sir! for example), but they still cling to the idea of starting wound allocation with a single model for reasons I don’t understand.
• My final note is about Mechanicum units. There are several ways to include some murder robots alongside your marines using Liber Astartes and Liber Hereticus. These are referenced as appropriate but the stats and rules for said murder robots will be in the forthcoming Mechanicum book, so you’ll need that if you want to use those options. I just wish I could use my 40K Mechanicus army in 30K but aside from tech-priests, the two forces are completely different.
I realize I went into the weeds there, so thank you if you’ve read this far. Between 40K and Horus Heresy, I have followed these rules for 11 editions over 34 years so I can’t help but compare and contrast. So, where did I land on Horus Heresy 2E? Overall, I like it and will be playing it with my friends, but to my brain’s chagrin I will also continue playing 9th edition 40K because the play experience of each game is different. I wish certain parts of 8E had been incorporated into HH, but none of those things are dealbreakers and there are always house rules to address bothersome issues. If you are interested in Horus Heresy gaming, I recommended getting the boxed set. It’s a great way to get started with a legion army. More than anything I’m pleased that Horus Heresy is finally a top tier GW game. That means it’s going to get much more support than it used to, where there might be up 2 years between books. We already know that Mechanicum and Solar Auxiliary books are up next, and it will be interesting to see how those factions are updated. There will be many more plastic kits for Heresy troops and vehicles. A brand-new heavy tank called the Kratos was released alongside boxed set and I expect there are many more plastic kits to come. This new edition is already getting friends of mine who weren’t previously interested in the Horus Heresy to start collecting armies, which means more people to play with. There’s also talk at my club of a narrative campaign later this year. All aboard the Heresy train!