When I was in high school, I played the Warhammer 40,000 Collectible Card Game, by Sabertooth Games. Not only was it my introduction to the Warhammer universe, but it was also the first trading card game I would really get into as a game. Like everyone else my age, I collected Pokémon cards in elementary school, but I was one of those people who never learned how to play. The 40k CCG would be where I would cut my teeth building decks.

The back of the Warhammer 40k CCG cards. Black, with a yellow aquilla across the top right corner.
The card back from the Warhammer 40,000 CCG featured the iconic Imperial Aquilla.

My brother and I played against each other regularly. He had Eldar, while I collected Tyranids, and eventually built some Imperial Guard decks. Unlike Magic, where you can mix colour to your heart’s content, the 40k CCG required you to stick to a single faction for each deck. Orks couldn’t be shuffled together with Chaos, for example, and while there were a handful of generic cards that could be used by anyone, they were almost always underpowered.

Alaitoc Pathfinders. An Eldar card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.Warriors. A Tyranid card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
The 40k CCG was my introduction to trading card games, as well as the Warhammer universe.

This limitation had an interesting consequence when it came to collecting. As one might expect, booster packs were randomized; you usually ended up with a few cards from each faction, though you could be somewhat selective by virtue of the fact that not every army appeared in every expansion set. Tyranids and Imperial Guard didn’t appear in Siege of Malogrim Hive, for example, but were featured heavily in Invasion Verdicon. This meant that if you didn’t have a deck for a set’s factions, you could skip it entirely.

Being restricted to one faction per deck also encouraged you to divide the armies between your friends, with each person claiming a different one. This way, if the Space Marine opened a good Dark Eldar card, they could give it to the Dark Eldar player, and vice versa. Imagine it a bit like having a play group of five Magic players who only collect one colour each.

Squad Hariph. A Space Marine card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.Squad Cantus. A Space Marine card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
Decks could only include cards from a single army.

This rigid faction structure ensured that decks and games were always thematic, and prevented the metagame from devolving into a single generic “good stuff” pile using all the best cards from each force. Realistically, there was nothing stopping players from shuffling multiple factions together for a casual game, and I did try it a couple of times. That said, the armies all had radically different play styles, which meant mixed decks just felt clunky and uneven.

Being limited to a single army might seem like it would be overly restrictive, but it never felt that way. There were enough options to give you agency over how to build your deck, and the way the cards were designed presented players with an interesting balancing act. To make sense of that, however, requires some understanding of how the game worked.

Each card was divided into three sections:

The abilities of a unit were used when deployed to a sector. Some units had flags which were used to claim sectors.
A card’s command line formed part of a hand of special actions you could use during a battle.
A card’s die roll was used to determine if you passed or failed certain tests.

The object of each game was to claim sectors over a series of rounds. At the start of the game players would deal out five sectors, each worth a different amount of points, and with its own special ability. Each round, players would draw a hand of cards to “deploy” to sectors they wanted to contest. Then, once deployment was done, the starting player would choose a sector to fight over.
Chem Bogs. One of the sector cards from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
Each sector had a special rule that modified how the battle was played.

The ensuing battle would start with the cards at the sector being turned face up and becoming the “units” engaging in combat. The players would then each draw a “command hand” of cards from their deck, which gave them access to the ability written in the upside-down grey box at the bottom of the card. These might be tactics (combat tricks), reactions (triggered abilities), modifiers (which changed the result of die rolls), events (end-of battle triggers), or special “Battle Actions” (“BAs”) that players could perform on their turn.

"Headhunters". An Imperial Guard card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
Units “locked” (tapped) to attack, but could occasionally “rally” (untap) to act again later.

Players would alternate performing BAs until they both passed the turn. These BAs could be ones played from their command hand, but more often than not these actions would be spent charging, assaulting or shooting with one of their units on the battlefield. These actions would lock (tap) the unit, meaning it couldn’t be used again that battle.

Gretchin Mob. An Ork card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
Units had Firepower, Speed and Defense. Dealing damage equal to a target’s defense destroyed it.
Shooting attacks could be blocked by a faster unit, while assaulting required the unit to spend a BA to charge first.

If a player didn’t have any BAs left to take, or if they decided they didn’t want to take any more actions, they could pass the turn. Once both players passed in a row, the battle was over. The player with the most flags left at the sector would claim the territory. Then, the second player would choose a different sector to fight over.

After the second battle, players would reinforce the remaining sectors by deploying more cards, and two more battles would take place. This would repeat for four rounds, or until someone claimed a majority of the sectors.

Nurgling Swarm. A Chaos daemon card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
Invulnerable units could withstand any attack, provided you could roll well enough.

Some actions and abilities required players to make a roll. Unlike other card games, however, you didn’t use a physical die in the 40k CCG. Instead, when you needed to roll, you would reveal the top card of your deck and use the die roll printed on the card as your result. This was an inspired design choice: it meant that players could intentionally build their deck to roll a certain way, giving them a whole other axis to consider.

Ork Dreadnought. An Ork vehicle card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.Hazlan. A Dark Eldar card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
Cards that were very powerful on the battlefield often came with a drawback, like low die rolls.

Building decks in the Warhammer 40,000 CCG meant considering a lot of factors. Some of the best units in the game came with terrible command lines and low rolls, while weaker units often rolled better. Would you risk failing an important roll mid-battle on the chance that you’d draw your powerful unit during deployment, or would you opt for weaker units overall, but with better command lines and die rolls? Finding the right balance for your play style and faction of choice was an interesting challenge.

Chimera. An Imperial Guard vehicle card from the Warhammer 40k CCG.
The 40k CCG is long out of print, but I kept all my cards.

I miss playing the Warhammer 40,000 Collectible Card Game. It was a lot of fun, and it remains one of the most unique games I’ve ever played. I’m definitely going to rope my brother into trying the Universes Beyond: Warhammer 40,000 Commander decks when they come out, but it’s not going to be the same.

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