The Empire began when Sigmar united the divided tribes of humans together under his common rule. During his reign, humans often fought along side the dwarves against the orcs and goblins trying to cross the mountains into their lands. This forged strong bonds between Empire and Dwarves, which the long memoried Dwarves still hold to, and have repaid by teaching the men of the Empire about cannons and black-powder weaponry. Sigmar was deified upon his death, and is now the center of the Empire's most prolific religion. Strictly though, the Empire is a polytheistic society, with several organizations such as the Knights of the Blazing Sun devoted to foreign gods.
Since the reign of sigmar the Empire has been wrought by civil war and invasions from every side, this culminated in the invasion of the Empire by the forces of chaos, lead by the warlord Kul. The emperor at the time, magus the pious, defeated the hoards of chaos, and determined not to be magically incapable again, he set up the 8 colages of magic in Altdorf.
In its current incarnation, the Empire consists of several loosely connected provinces, each run by an Elector Count. The emperor was chosen from among these counts. However in recent times, the emperor has always been chosen from the Reikland, the most prosperous of provinces.
The Empire is threatened by enemies on all sides, with warriors of chaos invading from the north, orcs and goblins attempting to cross the mountains from the east, vampire counts causing ruckus from the fallen province of Sylvania, Skaven mobs pushing up from beneath their cities, beastmen who permiate the dark forests of the land, and dark elf raiders on their western coasts. The Empire maintains strong ties with the Dwarves who guard the mountains to their east, and the Bretonians, who they consider slightly barbaric, who guard them from the south.
GW has stated the Empire is the first army they want to move to an all plastic line, and it shows. The plastic lord/bsb kit has tons of variation, as does the plastic wizard kit which allows you to make two wizards reflecting any of the eight lores. Every single choice in the Empire army is either in finecast of plastic. The kits are great, with tons of extra bits for use in other conversions and spicing up your models, and no major difficulties in assembling. The most persistent complaint about Empire plastics is that they are in fact TOO detailed and can be quite involved to paint properly especially the cloth, with its many ruffs and flairs.
The general look of the Empire is a break from more traditional fantasy humans. In dress they look more like Renaissance Germans, with puffy shirts and feathers in their hats. The variety of provinces gives a good basis for lots of different paint schemes, and GW have left it open so you can extremely easily create you own realm with its own heraldry and colours. The addition of knightly orders which may each have their own color scheme as well can make Empire armies look very colorful and visually distinct on the field.
At the end of the day, despite any gear and special rules a unit might have, your average Empire unit has a poor human stat line. The Empire rule book makes it very easy to play a pure combat, shooting or cavalry list, as each of these have several different troop choices and different heroes to bolster each fighting style. However where the Empire excels is its diversity, and synergy.
To reflect this, the Empire has a unique system called "detachments." Blocks of rank and file troops my take up to half the number of the “parent” unit in detachments, up to 2 detachments, of supporting combat troops, or missile support. These units can allow a non-ranged block of troops to stand and shoot or to do an out of sequence charge with the detachment, almost guaranteeing a flank charge.
Basic human stat line, can “take” halberds, spears, swords; each of these is a diffent unit, spears are cheapest with swords coming in at the most expensive but they do have a boosted WS. Halberdiers, spearmen can both take shields, swordsmen come with them, all have light armour
Same stat line, with crossbow and handgun rules from the BRB, constant debate about which is better, both cost same points, no amour
Archers and free company
Same stat line, archers have skirmish and bows and cost the same as swordsmen, free company are the only unit who cannot take detachments, come with 2 hand weapons and no armour.
Basic stat line, boosted WS (same as swordsmen) come with a hefty 1+ save and lances, can take great weapons. Can be upgraded to better knights who have better strength.
The Empire battle wizards are some of the most versatile magic users in the whole game, each can choose any of the lores of magic from the main rulebook, this allows you to choose the lore that best fits your army, from beasts to make your combat troops better, or life to boost their resilience. Warrior Priests add an interesting angle into the Empire magic phase. They are melee heroes (and the arch lector is a lord choice) with access to some very powerful bound spells. Where neither a warrior priest or an Empire wizard could get spells through a reasonable enemy magic defence, in combination the two can effectively draw out enemy dispel dice and scrolls to get spells through.
Second only to the dwarves, the Empire warmachine list is diverse as well, with cannon and three of their own unique warmachines, each more wacky than the last. However be warned, as misfiring with some of these warmachines is fatal, and doing so is quite easy.
Basic cannon from the BRB
A stone thrower with a S2 blast, and armour piercing.
Fires 3 artillery dice of shots, range 24”. Misfires can range from ½ shots to the volley gun exploding
Fires D3 small blast S3 armour piercing rockets.
Some of the other special and rare units of the Empire include:
Same statline as a swordsman (+LD), come with a great weapon and a 4+ save.
These are knights riding half eagle half lion monstrous cavalry! Come with a 1+ save and lances, can have halberds. Gryphs have armour piercing
Pistoliers and outriders
Both horse mounted missile units, outriders have powerful multi shot, move or fire handguns, pistoliers have a brace of pistols from the BRB
These are bat-shit-crazy troops who will buff themselves depending on how many “sacrifice” themselves at the start of combat, come with flails
This is a monstrocity, comes with a 1+ save and T10 and W10. Has its own cannon and can grind down troops in combat, only downside is its very high cost
A special mention has to go to the Empire heroes and lords, I believe that the Empire has one of the most diverse hero and lord sections in fantasy. Each character will add something different to the list, weather making your troops braver, more combat orientated or more resilient, and the lords are basically the same, but do it all better.
Oh and the crazy chariots that they have....
this is a chariot with a 5+ save and 2 weak troops on it, the good thing is that it will boost troops near it and can call down storms and meteorites onto opponents. And adds to your power pool
lumiarck of hysh
this is a chariot with a 5+ save and 2 weak troops on it, the good thing is that it will protect troops near it with a ward save, and has a massive bolt thrower of light on it
The Empire steam tank is possibly the single most expensive GW model, coming in at $65 for single one. However it is very easy to magnetize the weapon choices on the state troops, and the missile units, which allows you to chance role between battles. Also, extra state troop bodies are readily available from ebay or bitsandkits, so you can use the spare arms and weapons provided in the boxes to cheaply make more of the basic troops.
The Empire is a great for a player who enjoys using all of their forces together in support of one another, and is not focuses on a few powerful units that can dominate a game. Price wise the Empire is reasonable. They are a horde army and state troops can get expensive, but the advantages of the wide variety of plastics keep the price in check. Power wise the Empire is also reasonable. They are strong enough to give competitive games against the newer armies, but not so over the top that playing against ok and the like provides no challenge. With their insane level of diversity, the Empire offer something to every player, whether it be massed ranks of firepower supported by cannons, or hoards of state troops buffed by warrior priests and mages or massed cavalry charges combined with the swift outriders and pistolieers.
Where to go from here
Games Workshop's Empire Page