If you’ve ever played any sort of tabletop game that did not require a board of its own, you’ve probably considered terrain.
Terrain in tabletop war games is used to represent geographical features on a battlefield, whether it’s medieval France, the grim darkness of the 41st millennium or the post apocalypse. Terrain makes the tabletop battlefield not just look interesting, but offers tactical features, blocks line of sight and generally adds an extra layer to the tiny dimensions. Terrain features become part of the game.
The are lots of cool things out there already and a lot of it very cheap. Take for example, MDF laser cut buildings. Affordable and surprisingly detailed…
But what to do if you don’t have any terrain? How can you get it? Well, since I’ve not written much over the last month, I’m offering you a multi-blog series on my attempt to acquire and create tabletop terrain. Here goes…
Think Big and Start Small
I’ve been tabletop gaming for years, on and off. As a kid in the late 80s and early 90s it was impossible to buy terrain that was a) good and b) affordable. Now that I’m all grown up, it’s about time that I set aside some of my life and get together something which I can invite friends over to checkout and drool upon.
What do I want?
Being realistic I’m not going to have all the space in the world. Everything needs to fit on my current gaming table (I dine on my gaming table, not the other way around). My trusty gaming table isn’t huge: it’s not quite 4.5’ x 3’ foot – that’s a couple of feet too small for most standard wargames.
I’m a player of Warhammer in its various forms, so ideally I’ll need something which is 6’x4’ but I’ll be honest – the size isn’t what matters to me (they all say that). I’m more about the terrain, fantastical features to bring life to the battlefield of the Age of Sigmar or the 41st Millennium. So, forget the size for now, lets see how we’re going to create the stuff!
I won’t be going into any great planning detail for this project. I know in my head what the theme of the battlefield will look like and I think that is enough for now. I’ve also spent a few weeks watching YouTube videos and reading articles to give me some sort of grounding in the techniques used by modelers with a tonne more experience than I have.
There are two very important messages that I’ve got from the internet; 1) It is OK to be totally new to this part of the hobby, 2) don’t spend your time painstakingly drawing up designs and measuring everything.
Part 1 seems sensible – everyone has to begin somewhere.
Part 2 seems a little silly at first, until you realise that modelling terrain is just like any other creative endeavor. If you enjoy planning to the millimeter then lucky you! But for everyone else, just get stuck in and learn from your mistakes – it’s totally worth it, just like writing and editing your NaNoWriMo each year – write it first and enjoy the creativity, then learn from your editing and proofing steps. Easy to say and read and I understand reality isn’t that straight forward, but there’s something to be said for just getting on with the task.
I will add that I am not a total stranger to crafts. I’ve got several years of leather working experience, completely self-learnt. Why is this important to you? Well in the interest of honesty, I can cut pretty much freehand… and it’s right first time. You guys probably can’t so please take your time cutting anything, and for heaven’s sake, be careful!
Safety & Hazards
A word of caution, some of the stuff I’ll be using is considered toxic – but don’t panic too much. I’m talking about polystyrene based materials, which are essentially plastic.
Loads of people will cry out about how toxic polystyrene can be when you cut it with a hot wire or melt it. Yes, it is toxic, and yes the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) say it may be carcinogenic (may cause cancer) but I’ll point out that every MSDS is written from an industrial point of view where exposure is massive compared to that of a hobbyist. That said, always craft in a well ventilated area or if you can, outside. Always vacuum up any bits and pieces so they don’t stay floating around your house or work space for children and pets to inhale or ingest.
A clean work space is a safe work space.
Next up are materials and tools. I want to stress that you don’t need to go out and buy a load of expensive stuff. If you’re starting out you can get away with some PVA glue and a craft knife with some old packaging material. But if you want to make your life easier and have a small budget, you can get yourself some time-saving tools.
The great thing about making terrain is that you don’t have to buy in loads of expensive materials and tools. Chances are you throw out a lot of the materials we’ll be using in your household waste bin. Save some of it and recycle it into something useful.
Polystyrene – there’s a couple of varieties we may all be familiar with; Expanded polystyrene which is used in packaging and is normally made up of small spheres which crumble away when you break chunks of it up. It can be referred to as EPS. Extruded polystyrene is much more homogeneous and smooth. Extruded polystyrene is sometimes referred to XPS foam. If like me and you’re in the UK, XPS is generally referred to as Styrofoam. There’s a lot of confusion about what materials are named so if you’re in the know (and by that I mean: use the stuff at work or make it) please let me know!
I find that you can get away with the cheapest craft knives and some PVA glue, but if there was one essential piece of equipment I think you will benefit from its’ a hot glue gun. Not the massive sized ones, just a simple, small one. Why? Large glue guns get really hot and you don’t have as much control over them. A small glue gun is more precise and there’s less wasted glue. You can get cheap glue guns with a hundred glue sticks for less than £10, maybe even less than £7. I think I spotted some in Hobby & Craft for £5 (sans glue sticks). Shop around.
You can pick up craft knives quite cheaply. I recommend you have a disposable & retractable knife and a separate single bladed craft knife (the ones that look like surgical knives). Depending on where you are in the world, you can find these in hobby stores with extra / spare blades. Whatever you do, be careful with knives – I’ve cut myself more than a few times so I imagine you will too. GO SLOWLY.
The Ruined Tower
I’m going to wrap up this post with a few images and some constructive criticism of my own pilot project – a ruined circular tower, which I’m hoping to use in Age of Sigmar, Frostgrave or even Warhammer 40K…
I made this up using a sheet of packaging polystyrene for the base, and polyethylene foam (the stuff they use to make LARP foam weapons) for the brick work. Some lolly sticks and gravel / flocking for the details.
Criticism Number 1 – the bricks. Polyethylene is quite robust. Easy to cut and apparently heat moldable. However, it doesn’t get battered easily. Even after I scraped it across the concrete outside, it still managed to hold itself together. It looks too perfect.
Criticism Number 2 – Inside the tower there is a nice portion of what looks like a once highly detailed floor surface. I made this with a rolling pin made by Green Stuff World. The rolling pin kept sticking to my putty, no matter how much water or Vaseline I used, hence why it is only a small portion of the broken flooring!
Criticism Number 3 – The dry-brushing. Dry brushing is when you add a bit of paint to the brush, wipe most of it off and very lightly and quickly move the brush over the item you’re painting. Because the bricks lack detail this didn’t turn out exactly how I hoped – but the textured bricks I hope to make next time may change that.
Overall I think for a first attempt this turned out alright. I’ve still got to finish off the edge of the base (you can see the bubbles of expanded polystyrene).
In my next post I’ll go into the formulation I’ve devised from my first test piece. I’ll make a visual account of it too so you get to see the different stages. I’ll also go into more detail in the next few posts.
Part 2 Coming soon!
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