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A Tyrannid Screamer-Killer faces down a detachment of Ultramarines in key photography by the Games Workshop studio team ahead of the launch of Leviathan. Image: Games Workshop

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Warhammer 40K studio manager Stu Black reflects on the launch of 10th edition

A rare interview with Stu Black, veteran of both the Indomitus and the Leviathan conflicts

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Warhammer 40,000: Leviathan will soon go up for pre-order, beginning the churn that will, in a number of weeks or months, lead to the formal launch of the tabletop wargame’s 10th edition. There are a number of changes in store for longtime Warhammer 40K fans, including a streamlined rule set and updates for several classic miniatures.

Against a backdrop of Games Workshop’s marquee franchise experiencing a huge upswing in popularity, and with an Amazon streaming series in the works (with none other than Henry Cavill), Polygon spoke to 40K studio manager Stu Black via email about what’s next for the iconic franchise.

[Ed. note: Polygon’s questions have been lightly edited for clarity.]

Polygon: I think the most clever bit of the announcement of 10th edition — and of the Warhammer 40,000: Leviathan boxed set — was the reveal of the new Combat Patrol format. It uses existing products already on store shelves around the world as a kind of preconstructed style of play, minimizing the effort needed to paint up a new army and keep pace with the competitive meta layer of the game.

It really does feel like y’all have quietly stocked shelves around the world with dozens of Trojan horses, though. How did the concept of using this line of boxed product as the core of a new format come about? What were your design goals for the Combat Patrol format? And how did you and your team go about balancing all of these different factions that had already been living in their cardboard boxes for some time now?

Stu Black: Combat Patrol builds on the smaller missions from the previous edition and the Combat Patrol boxes were designed with that smaller-sized game in mind, so it was natural for us to take that one step further in the new edition and make it so players could simply play one Combat Patrol box against another. One of the design goals for the new edition was to make it as accessible as possible, whilst keeping the right level of depth and complexity that players enjoy. Combat Patrol forms a core part of that approach — making it simple and easy for newer players to get straight into the action on the tabletop. Balancing the various Combat Patrols was an exciting challenge and the team have done an amazing job, with hundreds of test games to ensure a fun, fair experience.

The full complement of miniatures in the Warhammer 40K: Leviathan boxed set in the foreground, and unrelated terrain and additional units in the background. Ultramarines, including many large Terminator Units and a mech, stand against a purple and bone group of Tyrranids, claws outstretched in fury. Image: Games Workshop

The Leviathan box miniatures feel very, very retro. But the box also very cleverly blends the old with the new — Primaris standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Terminators that date back nearly to the beginning of the 40K line, a massive Ballistus whose silhouette looks ripped from the pages of a 1990s White Dwarf magazine. After the quiet furor that surrounded the embiggening of mainline Marines for 8th edition, what is the makeup of this particular Space Marine force meant to tell the community about where this popular faction is headed, design-wise?

I think the core image of a Space Marine has stayed pretty consistent for 40-odd years now; it has evolved and changed as the design team has been able to make even better miniatures, but the core image remains. Who knows exactly what the future holds for Space Marine fans, but it will always be true to those core concepts — power armour, bolt weapon, chainsword, big pauldrons and a touch of gothic space knight!

While it feels like we get a new Primaris Lieutenant every other month or so, I think it’s easy for fans to feel like many of the game’s other factions don’t quite get the same kind of attention. How long is the design and production pipeline for something like the new Tyranids that come inside Leviathan? What role do other product lines such as Kill Team play in exploring new miniature and faction designs? And what do you say to fans of factions such as the Elder, Orks, and other Xenos that want to see their own Screamer-Killer analogs get a similar kind of glow-up?

Stu Black against a white backdrop.
Warhammer 40,000 studio manager Stu Black.
Image: Games Workshop

Miniatures design and production pipeline is a multi-year process, often three-to-five years from concept to launch for something like the Tyranids in Leviathan. Hobbyists will have seen Kill Team bring some fantastic miniatures to the 40K arena and it’s a great space to explore things that are maybe a little more niche (Beastmen, for example). Everyone has their favourite faction and we all wish ours was the next one to have a big release or feature in a new edition launch box — I was super excited by the Necrons in the last edition, as I’d been considering a Necron army since they were released at the turn of the millennium and Indomitus pushed me over the edge. I’m now eyeing up the Tyranids from Leviathan in a similar way! We have great plans for all the factions in the coming years, including a fair few surprises along the way.

Detachment rules — two pages that players will swap out depending on what army they want to play at the table — feel like a breath of fresh air compared to the 9th edition. Folks have been lugging around two or three books at a time for years now, and this should free up a lot of brain space, if not bag space, for players heading into casual or competitive play. But how is the internal team adapting to these new design constraints? As a writer, I’m always killing off my darlings in favor of making things simpler and leaner on the page. But I imagine that it’s a fair bit harder to do that sort of thing in your line of work.

Actually I think the designers see constraints as a challenge and a lever — they give us a fixed point to lean against as we work towards the design goals. It has been a fascinating experience as we’ve continually pared things back to the minimum we think we need to achieve the play experience we want to create for players. For every rule or mechanic we have carefully evaluated them and asked, “Do we need this? Is there a simpler way?” And many times there is — maybe a particular outcome can be achieved by a change in a stat rather than an extra rule. Of course there is a balance here — we still want flavour and depth to help the game reflect the grim darkness of the far future.

Finally, even as 40K appears to be on the upswing — visible both through Games Workshop’s publicly released financials, and through the incredible sales velocity of your marquee sets like Indomitus — an even bigger surge is clearly on the way. Products like Necromunda: Hired Gun, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, and Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun are seemingly elevating the quality of Games Workshop’s licensed games well into the AAA class. And now here come Amazon and Henry Cavill to make a 40K cinematic universe. As someone who’s been working on the 40K line for more than a decade now, how have the stakes changed for you and your team? What will be the biggest key to shepherding this franchise through its next decade of growth, all while suddenly being revealed to mainstream audiences for likely the first time?

Media and licensing is very exciting but the focus of the team here in the Studio is on how we can make the best version of Warhammer 40,000. It has become an ever more exciting and humbling task over my 10 years or so in the Studio, as more and more hobbyists fall in love with 40K. The responsibility to do it well feels greater every time, but that’s our focus every day: making it better and more fun for our fellow Warhammer fans. I am sure that whatever the future holds, that mission will be the same in another 10 years’ time.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed an erroneous pre-order window for the Warhammer 40,000: Leviathan boxed set. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

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