Beginner's Guide for Astra Militarum
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Until recently the Astra Militarum were called the Imperial Guard. A variety of sources still refer to the Astra Militarum by that name, including older publications by Games Workshop, Fantasy Flight Games Role Playing Games, and video games. Officially, the lore says that Imperial Guard is the informal name for the organization.
Of all of the codices (plural of codex) in Warhammer 40,000, The Imperial Guard's is the most complicated. They are the only faction in the game with an HQ slot that is an infantry unit, they are the only codex that allows you to take up to 138 models spread over 14 units counting as a single troop choice, and almost every vehicle in the book can be taken in squadrons. The choices are overwhelming and to a new player of the Imperial Guard, it can be quite daunting. A lack of direction plagues new players and they rarely stick with the army until they begin to understand it. For this reason, I have decided to pen this beginner's guide.
The first thing that you are going to need (assuming you have the basics for the game: core rulebook, measuring tape, dice, templates, ect.) is the codex. Besides being a good read, it provides the rules for how the army is fielded. Also, print out the FAQ for the Astra Militarum from the Black Library website. The codex is from a previous edition and some of the rules have changed to bring the book into line with the current edition. Fortunately the edition change did not affect the Astra Militarum much.
Next, you'll need to plan your army. It may be tempting to rush out and buy any models that look pretty, but you'll find that you'll be unable to use most of those models for quite some time. The first order of business is usually to pick an HQ. The Astra Militarum have a few choices, but I would recommend starting with a Company Command Squad. It gives you five models for about the same price as a single Space Marine Commander, and it allows you to explore one of the Astra Militarum's greatest strengths: the Order system.
For troops, you really don't have any choice as to what to buy: Infantry squads. When considering which box to buy, the Cadians and the Catachans have more differences than simple aesthetics. The important aspect is their special weapons: Cadians come with two Grenade Launchers and two Flamers, where Catachans come with only two Flamers. In order to expand to other special weapons, you will need to buy extra boxes. For that reason, only buy Catachans if you're interested in running their special characters or consider the Flamer to be your weapon of choice. In most cases, the Cadian kit is the better buy due to its versatility. There are also four metal imperial guard armies: Tallarns, Mordians, Steel Legionnaires, and Valhallans . These armies are more expensive and more difficult to run, and I do not believe they are intended for beginners. I consider them to be outside of the scope of this article, and I will not discuss them further.
Building An Army
When planning any army, always look at what is the minimum requirements for you to field your army at all. Technically, you can plop any models on the board and call it your army, using the Unbound rules, but most players frown on that kind of thing. Since the Astra Militarum lacks an alternate Force Organization, the Combined Arms Force Organization in the Core rulebook is what you should be looking at. The list requires the army to have at least one HQ choice and two Troop Choices.
The Cadian Defense Force or the Catachan Defense Force are actually pretty good buys. They include 2 Infantry Squads, 1 Command Squad, 1 Heavy Weapons Squad, 1 Chimera and 1 Leman Russ for $165. All the units in that box would normally cost $209.25, and it gives you all you need to start playing, if you know how.
First, use the Command Squad as a Company Command squad rather than a Platoon Command, and you've got your one HQ choice taken care of. The Infantry Squads should be fielded as Veterans. This will give you your two troop choices, and you can share the Grenade Launchers and Flamers between them to fill out your special weapon choices. I would also recommend making one trooper in each squad a vox operator. The reroll will help offset the lousy leadership when issuing orders. Additionally, get in the habit of saving ALL of your spare parts. Any head, arm, or gun you hang on to could be a lifesaver when building or modifying another model.
The sneaky part comes in when you look at the Heavy Weapons Squad. Immediately you will notice you have to run a platoon to get a heavy weapon squad, and we did not use the Defense Force box that way. What you can do is assign the heavy weapons to each squad, replacing two of your models in them. What you have now is six loose troopers. If you build your heavy weapons with only one trooper manning the gun and give the loaders your spare lasguns from the other kits, you have three more loose troopers, for a total of nine. If you give one of those troopers a missile launcher (the easiest heavy weapon to have a model carry) you have another entire Infantry Squad, as a heavy weapon operator counts as two models in a squad. Basically, you got an entire $29 kit for the cost of a pack of bases (around $4.50)!
When building your Leman Russ, do not glue down the weapons, either the turret cannon, the sponsons or the hull weapons. They socket in very nicely and it will allow you to swap out the parts as you experiment with different configurations. Do not run plasma cannons or a lascannon with a leman russ that has an ordinance turret (like the battle cannon). The weapons are very expensive, and firing the main cannon makes the rest of the weapons fire at snap fire, rendering them practically or actually useless. Stick with economical heavy bolters, as the high volume of fire has a better chance of doing something. The pintle-mounted heavy stubber is also a nice investment, and you will want to run it on most leman russ variants.
As for the chimera, you will want to select one squad to be in it. In all likelihood this will be your Company Command, as it will keep your Warlord safe(ish) and he can still issue orders from inside.
All said and done, the Defense Force should get you around 600 points, perhaps as much as 700 depending on how you upgrade everything. You should have no trouble getting a game, as the force is not too small, and is entirely legal to play.
Expanding Your Army
When you're ready to move your army on to the next level, you'll find that you have a plethora of options. The first thing to ask yourself is: what do you want to do with your army? The good news is that you got a taste of the different dimensions of the Astra Militarum with the Defense Force. If you giggle maniacally when your Leman Russ blows up a squad, maybe you should look into additional armor components. If you cheer when your lasguns chop apart a unit that should have killed your guardsmen, perhaps you should get more infantry. If you smirk when your Chimera disrupts an enemy battle plan by dropping troops in exactly the wrong place, try mechanization.
Of these options, expanding your troops is the most expensive. The most economical way to expand your army is to buy a second battle force. To veteran Astra Militarum players, this is known as the “Platoon in a Box.” It comes with the start of a platoon: one command squad and two infantry squads. It also comes with a heavy weapon squad, which can only be fielded in platoons, and a sentinel. If you choose this option, this box will not go as far as the first one. If you're lucky, you'll get 300 points out of this box. The main reason for this is that the Infantry squads are cheaper and have less options than the veterans do. Alternately, you could field this box as exactly what you did the first time around for the time being, giving you six veteran squads, two Company Command Squads, two Leman Russes and two Chimeras.
You could also add some elite Infantry, like Militarum Tempestus Scions, Ogryn, or Ratlings. Each of these units is HIGHLY specialized, and using them outside of their role results in them getting all dead with no real payoff. In their role, however, they are very powerful. Scions make exceptional assassin units, dropping in an cutting a 3+ Save unit to shreds. Ogryn are premier tar pit units: durable, stubborn, and able to do damage to virtually anything that might engage them in close combat. They even launch a huge wall of shot at anyone who tries to assault them. Ratlings are very cheap and can threaten even the scariest monstrous creature. Their ability to pin units can also drive a Space Marine crazy when his Devastators keep failing their pinning check when one guy dies. There are also the Wyrdvane Psykers, but as they are both challenging to use well and very expensive to buy, I will skip over them.
Second is armor. A second Leman Russ will add additional firepower that will make even the most confident opponent uneasy. I recommend a Leman Russ Demolisher kit, as it will give you access to the variants you don't already have with the standard Leman Russ. The basilisk, hydra, wyvern and the manticore are all great artillery support. All are comparatively light on points and shore up particular weaknesses that your army might have, but each has fatal downfalls if used incorrectly. The basilisk is great at eliminating heavy infantry, and is a good tank killer as well, but is next to useless against things like Terminators or any Monstrous Creature. The Hydra is second to none at eliminating fliers and can do a good number on Hover vehicles and jetbikes, but is wildly inaccurate against anything not flying. The Wyvern is really good at shredding light infantry, especially when they are hiding in terrain and is passable at killing any kind of heavy infantry, even terminators. Unfortunately, almost any vehicle or monstrous creature will laugh off its shells. The last one is the Manticore, which can rip apart most vehicles, infantry and characters. It is decent at killing heavy infantry, but AP 4 means that most heavy infantry will get their save, as will monstrous creatures. There is also the Deathstrike, but its usage comes more from absorbing firepower than actually launching its missile. I would recommend against the Deathstrike until you're confident you know why you want to field it.
Finally, there is mechanization. Chimeras are excellent transports, offering great firepower and protection for their point value. One disembark point does mean that the opponent can exploit the emergency disembark rules, however. Valkyries are some of the most versatile fliers in the game, challenged only by the stormraven gunship for the Space Marines. It is durable, has a lot of firepower, a cool grav-chute rule, and is one of the few fliers that still looks cool when not on its flying stand. The big risk is that same as all flying transports: if it blows up in flight, you're losing whatever is inside. The other fast solution is the hellhound and its variants. All are close range brawlers that really move, but tend to be a big target before it can do any real damage. There are also rough riders, but I strongly recommend against them. They are fragile, do very little damage, and don't move fast enough to hit the support of an army. The models have also been discontinued.
Which Astra Militarium Tactic would you use?
Make It Your Own
One of the great things about the Astra Militarum is that they can be as complex or as simple as you want them to be. If you want diverse elements working in concert, you can do it. If you want to ultra-specialize and win one aspect of games at the expense of others, the army can adapt to that too.
This applies to hobbying as well. You can throw custom markings, paint tattoos, take nicks out of the armor, give them non-standard gear or anything else you can imagine. Or you can leave them as a standard regiment of disciplined soldiers. In either case, the army will inevitably be yours: no one will have an Astra Militarum army quite like yours.
Just... don't be too upset when you have to remove models from the tabletop by the fistful when the Orks hit your lines. After all, they are just regular people in a universe of daemons, super soldiers, aliens and traitors.