This is probably the most important decision you will make for the game. There is nothing saying that you can change faction in future but your first faction will likely provide your viewpoint on the game as a whole so its worth giving it some thought before diving straight in.
Here are a few steps to go through:
Step 1: Look and Feel
Warmachine and Hordes is a fantastically varied game. Even within just Hordes you vary from the hulking Dire Trolls of the Trollbloods to the feral Warpwolves of Circle Orboros to the eyeless dragons of Legion and not forgetting the hulking elephant beasts of the Skorne.
Also the feel of each army is important, Khador with its Russian Esq winterguard compared to the Holy Knights of Protectorate of Menoth.
When you first look through what is available to you it can be quite overwhelming but the most important thing to realise is that you need to be connected in some way to the army you will collect.
Most of the armies are so diverse now you can largely play them how you want (although Cygnar is normally going to have more guns than say Skorne) so don’t let play style initially influence you too much.
Step 2 Play style
I know, I know i just said don’t let play style influence you but what i mean by this is once you have wound it down to say 2-3 factions you like then look at how they play. Although every faction has options some skew slightly better in what you would like to do. Below is a really basic summary of how I see each faction. This list will never be 100% but may help you reduce down which faction you want.
Core Factions: The core factions are those with regular releases and the largest back catalog of models. I would recommend starting with one of these factions over the others.
Cygnar: “the good guys” Cygnar are predominantly shooting faction with even some melee units having a gun of some form. They have some very strong warcasters with some of the best feats in the game. They tend to primarily focus on buffs for spells so will want to take models they can turn up to 11. They have the largest access to electro leaps which once mastered can be a nightmare for your enemies. Due to the large amount of buffs available to to them in a straight fight most of the cygnar models won’t win. Good thing Cygnar doesn’t do straight fights as they have ways of increasing nearly every attribute in the game.
Khador: “the Russians” although initially thought to be a horde army with scores of winterguard infantry, they actually have some of the most elite troops available. Their warcasters have a good mix of abilities with some buffs (mainly to damage or speed) but also tend to be personally capable in battle themselves. Khador tends to have better baseline abilities and stats than most other races but they lack the powerful buffs to turn them on. This tends to make them a very broad faction the the only limited area being spell slinging (as they have no arc nodes) and boostable heavy guns (due to the low base RAT on the jacks) this means normally Khador armies are very axe to face and have lots of different types of axes to hit your enemy with.
Cryx: The traditional undead horde faction. They specialise in mass infantry and hard hitting melee. Their warcaster have powerful spells and feat and normally debuff the enemy allowing even the lowliest of undead critter to hit like a truck. Their Jacks are tend to be faster but can’t take much punishment. They have the cheapest arc nodes allowing their spell slinging casters to reach out across the board for little expense. Take this army if you like the idea of crippling your opponents army to the point that anything can hit like a truck.
Protectorate of Menoth: One Word – Denial. Menoth jacks are based around a unit called the Choir which can totally prevent them from receiving shooting and magic damage. They also have a range abilities to bring back models, prevent their own models from being knocked down and even just walk away when hit in combat. This is a faction that specialises in stopping your opponent from using all their abilities and then hits back with heavy hitting melee in the form of weapon master infantry and jacks. They also have superb jamming troops and ranged support options.
Retribution of Scyrah: The skill of building Retribution lists is selecting the correct tool for the goal. Their casters are well rounded usually with 1-2 buffs and with a desired play style in mind but are flexible enough to support an number of ways to play. The Infantry tends to be very skewed into a specific goal which they are top tier at but struggle outside that role. Their Jacks have a more rounded approach with all containing a gun and at least 2 close combat weapons. Choosing this faction will allow you to build many different lists each peak at there desired role but will take skill to leverage them correctly.
Circle Orboros: Circle are the “tricks” faction. They have many ways of changing and shaping the battle field to there will. The beasts generally come in 2 forms the Wolds which are slow but are well armored and the warpwolves which hit immensely hard but if you can hit them they go down quickly. This tends to be similar for most of the army so a circle play will tend to try and hit and run tactics to prevent return losses. They have a good range of casters which are quite diverse in focus ranging from buff casters to melee orientated monsters. This is definitely a high risk and high reward faction.
Legion of Everblight: Legion tend to be a faction that doesn’t stop your opponent from using their tricks just doesn’t care. Eyeless sight the key ability on most beats (and some warlocks) means you ignore stealth and clouds from the enemy. Also i high volume of flight means you can even ignore terrain and your/your opponents models for moving around. Although they have a wide range of infantry they tend to go mainly towards the beast heavy lists. They have the highest volume of shooting in hordes and in some cases warmachine. Their casters tend to work well with beasts or facilitate assassinations.
Trollbloods: One Word – “Tough”. They are literally a tough faction. Generally slower than your opponents but leverage great synergies to out tank what your opponent will try to do. They can build both full beasts and all infantry but tend to have quite a good combined arms approach. A troll army tends to look behind the curve on paper but have a wide range of spells/animi and buffs from solos they can buff to suit the situation. Trollbloods are also quite unique in that a lot of the abilities and buffs come from the army and not the caster so the warlock does not totally determine a list build.
Skorne: Skorne are the elite of the hordes world and tend to have some high quality heavy hitting melee infantry. they also back this up with a core relatively slow but very hard hitting beasts. Pain is the name of the game with them so you will tend to find a number of abilities that push the most out of your models but at a cost. Although they do have some shooting options they excel in melee. Their casters tend to be quite able to take care of themselves in combat and high a wide range of abilities from buffs to debuffs.
Combination Factions: These factions can be using in part combined with the above or if taken alone will generally have a mix of different forces (Cephalyx/Pirates/Rhul etc) this can make them an odd choice to start with as each sub faction has its own play style and in some cases the models are not compatible across lists. normally i would advice to stay away from these but due containing so many different styles of play with each sub faction a new person may find it difficult to get settled or pick models to buy next.
Mercanaries: Mercenaries are several smaller factions combined. They each have a number of warcasters so you can find sub faction purists who only play 1 type (dwarves/cephalyx etc). Each sub faction have a very varied style of play from the faceless hordes of the Cephalyx to the synergistic pirates or the bog standard steelhead infantry. Because of this although you can mix units each warcaster tends to like certain things which means mercs can be a very expensive army to collect due to the limit on overlapping (or not at all in the cephalyx case).
Minions: Currently comprised of Farrow and Gatormen and then a myriad of other miscreants all under the same roof. Minions are the mercenaries of Hordes. Although they can combine models across their lists they can only currently choose Gator or Farrow warlocks which dictates their battlegroup. They are a mainly melee focussed army with a few exceptions but tend to have quite tough and hard hitting beasts. The infantry is also pretty tough and contains lots of rules making them quite flexible if needed. They also have access to a wide variety of character units who come with their own niches.
Specialist Factions: These are factions which are self contained and will have very limited releases (can be 4-5 years without a release) but they are designed to be self contained. This makes them a great second faction but should the game move in a way they cant cope with you cant rely on new releases to help you out and so may fall behind. Only choose these as a starter if you are happy to potentially watch everyone else get new toys and that will not bother you.
Convergence of Cyriss: CoC Use a different focus system passing focus from vector to vector (CoC warjacks) and provide every turn as a puzzle allowing order of activation to provide maximum output. They tend towards high armour and heavy vectors. Each warcaster both provides the vectors their accuracy stats for shooting and melee along with a specific ability (shield guard etc) which means the same vector will perform differently with each Caster.
Grymkin: Infantry focus army of weird and wacky units. New arcana system bring a damned if you do damned if you don’t approach over traditional feats. currently going through testing but initially viewed as an army that likes to work together harvesting corpses and utilises them to become stronger.
Well i hope this has helped and after all there is no wrong choice if you love the way the faction looks and like the idea of how it plays then you can figure out the rest and to be fair that’s the idea of the game isn’t it?