Cheap and this hobby really don't fit together that well. Not to dissuade you or anything, you just have to be realistic at first that this hobby is not really for folks that want to pinch pennies, not to mention the additional unmentioned costs, Paint, brushes, glue, specialized hobby tools figure carriers etc. your best bet if you want to MINIMIZE expenses is to go for a low model count army, Space marines and their variants are fairly good for this. Imperial Guard and Tyranid most likely are the worst.
Any army CAN be competetive though, just have to get used to the quirks of the army and lose a few games before you start getting it.
The cheapest army is the one you buy off ebay. Pick an army you like, and start watching what comes up for auction
Seriously, that's about it. Most of the hoard armies cost nearly the same as the marine. For $30 you get 8-10 marines, or you get 20 guardsmen, or you get 16 guants... they're all pretty close on cost to build an army. You want to go extra cheap, find battleforces. They basically give you a free unit in each one, and if you get them even cheaper on ebay, well it helps make the hobby more affordable.
Retail prices in the US:
8 Chaos Space Marines = $25
5 Grey Knights = $30
20 Cadian shock troops = $35
10 Sisters of Battle = $35
Basic troops choice costs, no upgrades or sgts:
8 Chaos Space Marines = 112pts
5 Grey Knights = 125
20 Cadian Shock Troops = 120
10 Sisters of Battle = 110
Once you add in all the different upgrade options for each army you'll find they can all cost about the same. All you'd really be saving on is painting time. You still spend about the same cash for about the same points with any army you choose. Armies with bundle packages like Transport+Troop, Battleforce, or Megaforce, are the ones that can be cheaper by having those extra deals available.
Other then that, it's whatever you find on ebay, or a store's clearance shelves.
So my adivce remains:
Pick an army you like the look of the models.
Buy the codex, read through, and pick out a starting army of units.
Look for those units on ebay, or in bundle-deals, or both.
well i can't tell you if this is the cheapest route but i play necrons. this is what i bought
2 battle forces $160
1 foot lord - $15
1 dest lord- $25
2 Tomb spyders - $40
codex - $20
Glue, paint, carrying case, ect $60-$100 depending
That will give you around 1500 pts if i remeber correctly.
Dont be mislead by the cost of the boxes you see on the GW website what you are looking for is an army with the highest points to cost ratio. Well look to further than the necrons and chaos Box of necrons 30 and comes with 12 warriors and 3 scarab swarms so thats
18 *12 + 3 *7 = alot
and then there is chaos now true the box only comes with Eight but you can easily spend lots of POINTS making Terrifying characters and tooled up squad leaders not to mention giving units points.
However if you really want to go cheep Imperial guard (nonGW tank models are dirt cheap) and you can usually find GW tanks on sale at ebay for cheap.
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