For a miniatures wargame, the game itself is just one facet of what draws a player in. While good rules and nicely-made models are important, the lure of the universe and the customization options afforded to the player are often what first draws a person to the game. Some games, like Warmachine and Hordes ('Warmahordes') and Mallifaux have excellently sculpted models and well-constructed rule sets, but lack the elbow room for a player to truly make their force their own. But Warhammer 40,000? Ahh, in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only anything you can imagine.
Yes. Even this.
There are a thousand Space Marine chapters, and less than a tenth of those have even been named. A thousand men in a thousand chapters are a rounding error in the great hive cities of the Imperium, and there are uncounted hive worlds from which to draw the sledgehammer that is the Imperial Guard. An unknown number of Eldar craftworlds sail the stars, their populations as proud and heroic as their stories are tragic. Each Ork horde is unique, a reflection of the clans that populate it and the biggest, toughest, 'ardest Orks that lead it. The piratical Dark Eldar operate in small bands of roving marauders, each one distinct, and the even more corrupted forces of Chaos and its warped Chaos Space Marines allow for a very personal background, built around individual squads and warlocks and merciless killers. The Tyranids' hive mind seems at first to limit the ability to innovate, but each swarm that descends upon a world is tailored for that challenge, and each swarm that takes to the table can lay claim to innumerable worlds left dust-dry in its wake. Perhaps only the undying Necrons hamper the ability to establish a wholly discrete force, and even there Games Workshop promises a meaningful change in the upcoming Codex: Necron, making the lifeless, striding cyber-skeletons a manifestation of their leaders' will.
But it was the Tau who drew me in, with their youthful energy and their AI attack-drones and their mecha battlesuits. The Tau Empire is small, a pinprick compared to any but the Space Marines and the Dark Eldar, but even they offer hundreds of worlds from which to draw an army, a commander and a history of war and sacrifice. The endlessly innovative Tau are a gift to any player who longs to fight on the battlefields of the future, their battlesuits modifiable and their swooping grav-tanks and skimmers sleek without being frail, as mobile as they are heavily armoured as they are well-armed. Their standard troops carry the strongest, longest-ranged standard weapon in the game, and their jetpack-equipped elites have the almost-unparalleled ability to leap from cover, fire, then duck back in to weather their opponents' shooting phase. And the railgun is the strongest anti-vehicle weapon in the game, while the tank-mounted version offers anti-infantry blast weapons as well. The only two things the Tau truly lack are a close combat unit, which is admittedly out of keeping with the martial strategy of the Tau Empire, and decent special characters. And since the great draw of 40K is the ability to invent one's army from the very ground up, the lack of named characters, while somewhat handicapping in game terms, is less than a serious problem in terms of background appeal.
For kind of good reason, actually.
And of course, hand-in-hand with that freedom comes the expectation that a player will use it. Like any good 40K nerd my own army has a long and storied history, full of stirring triumphs and heroically heart-breaking defeats. I'll get to that history soon enough, but for now I wanted simply to lay down the basics of the universe, and praise Games Workshop's foresight in providing such a staggeringly sprawling canvas upon which each player can leave their pinprick mark.