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Warhammer’s excellent new smol-scale wargame exposes Games Workshop’s biggest weakness

The hype around Legions Imperialis could lead to a larger battle over proxies

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.

Games Workshop is expanding its catalog once more, and this time from a position of strength. With its marquee Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniatures game selling like hotcakes and the reboot of its popular Old World setting on the horizon, the gaming company is doubling down on a revitalized 28-millimeter-scale Horus Heresy line with Legions Imperialis, a diminutive 6-millimeter-scale wargame set in the same time period. The spiritual successor to the cult classic Epic 40,000 is highly anticipated by the community.

Polygon has spent the last few months noodling around with Legions and we’re impressed. Battles have the look and feel of a grand strategy board game, but with dozens of individual infantry and armor units engaged at multiple points on the map. The system allows for technical, tactical battles with the flexibility to field different unit compositions with drastically different capabilities. And yet, the pace of play moves quickly — especially for having this many pieces on the table. But while Legions’ high model count has the capacity to recreate the kind of massed battles found only on the pages of the Black Library’s best novels, it also exposes the United Kingdom-based manufacturer to its biggest threat — the ubiquity of consumer-grade 3D printers and the use of proxy models on the table.

Legions Imperialis is a game played on a 4’x5’ table, which is slightly smaller and more square than the ones these games are typically played on. However, the miniatures themselves are just a fraction of the size. Just how teeny are these little guys? Well, you need to stack up four of them, one on top of the other, to even come close to the height of a standard Warhammer 40,000 or The Horus Heresy Space Marine model.

Four tiny space marines stacked up next to a large one. Image: Games Workshop

This hyper-miniature scale allows you to field armies many times larger than would be practical in a traditional, 28-millimeter wargame. So large are these armies, in fact, that each side can contain multiple allied factions on the table at one time. At launch, these mixed forces will include the Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines), the Solar Auxilia (the Horus Heresy’s version of the Imperial Guard), and the Adeptus Titanicus — towering robots capable of crushing gargantuan battle tanks beneath their feet. On the table, matches are sure to be spectacular and evocative of the franchise’s deepest lore. Players will finally be able to re-enact, for instance, the legendary Betrayal at Calth at scale, or relive the bloody drop site massacre on Istvaan V in detail.

It’s just that in order to build all these tiny little war machines, you’re gonna have to huff a whole hell of a lot of plastic cement fumes.

While the game as it’s been shown to the press still has a few functional holes in its design — whole classes of units, like Space Marine vanguard units or cavalry troops of any kind, have yet to even be revealed, for instance, thereby making some army compositions impossible to even speculate on — it’s clear that players could require 200 or more individual miniatures in order to field a full 3,000-point army. And even though most of those units are smaller than a U.S. quarter, they all must be built from the same style of multi-part plastic model kit that every other Games Workshop product is made from.

We’re talking inch-long tanks with 40 or more individual pieces. That’s madness.

These are all the parts supplied for the one tiny Baneblade shown above. The full-size version of this tank is one of the largest pieces of armor in the entire Warhammer universe. The nearly 10-inch long model will set you back $170. You get two of them in an expansion box for Legions Imperialis, and they’re expected to cost $20-$25... each.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon and Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

While I admire the attention to detail in these models — which come with alternate weapons, troops poking their heads out of hatches, and even tiny decals — I tired of building them almost immediately. Do we really need to spend an afternoon affixing all 40 individual smokestacks to the ten Rhinos in the transport company when each of those smokestacks are smaller than a grain of rice? Just mold them together with the side of the hull. Or — I don’t know — mold the entire thing as a single piece so I can get on with the painting and the playing of the game!

The process of building these models is so tedious, and the game itself so bursting with potential, that I think more than a few fans of Legions may look for proxies just to avoid the hassle. Will they be as delicately detailed as Games Workshop’s own kits? No. Isn’t there value in being able to use all those little bits in creative ways — say, using them for intricate micro-miniature scatter terrain and other scenic elements? Sure, and that’s what makes Games Workshop’s miniatures range so spectacular. But if I can buy (or print) a tank that’s a single piece, I’m much less likely to aspirate a smokestack while trying to get the glue to dry. And I’m much more likely to keep playing the game — and keep buying the miniatures to make new and bigger armies.

Dark Angels tanks set up for ranged, anti-tank fighting.
Other tanks set up for breaching and close-quarters battle.
Two Predator tanks, painted in Dark Angels Horus Heresy-era livery.
Plasma-wielding Kratos tanks with lascannon for good measure.

Listen, the core of “the hobby” is making models. I like making models. But Games Workshop could have found a way to make Legions models as singular, pre-assembled figures — the same way that Catalyst Game Labs does with BattleTech, and Atomic Mass Games does with its pre-assembled, pre-painted ships for Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. Games Workshop didn’t, and in a way, I respect that decision. But that decision in no way respects my time — or the size of my fingers.

A bunch of painted miniatures for Legions Imperialis, including tanks, troops, and towering titans.
The boxed set includes two small armies, one each for Space Marines and Solar Auxilia, plus two Warhound Titans.
Image: Games Workshop

Of course, the diversity of the Legions Imperialis model line-up — which includes many different kinds of infantry, tanks, planes, and mechs as well as artillery and other logistics units — opens up another option entirely: You can now theoretically build a 6-millimeter-scale army for use with The Horus Heresy’s own excellent new ruleset. That possibility alone makes the Warhammer: Legions Imperialis launch day boxed set, due up for pre-order soon, one of the greatest deals in all of Games Workshop history. The option for small-scale play, while it will need to be workshopped by amateur rules lawyers and professional hobbyists, could really embolden the more artistic side of the community. Merging the same kind of skills needed to create award-winning dioramas with the ones necessary to create durable, functional terrain and cohesive, thematic armies could create something truly inspiring.

In the meantime, if you plan on picking up Legions Imperialis any time soon, go grab yourself another pot of glue and some sharp blades for your hobby knife — and maybe a good magnifying glass while you’re at it.

Warhammer: The Horus Heresy - Legions Imperialis boxed set was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Games Workshop. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships, but not with Games Workshop. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect publisher for Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. The story has been adjusted.

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