Saturday, 29 October 2011

Idea for terrain boards

For a while now I've been somewhat dissatisfied with using cloths for terrain, even nice ones like those overpainted by Jonathan at the club.  Regardless of how well done they are, they are still very flat, and a criticism that is often levelled at ancients games is the billiard table look.  Now most battles in that period were not covered in terrain features, or at least not so much as seems to be the case for Napoleonics and certainly later.  Many gamers go with terrain tiles, usually made from polystyrene, but this brings up the issue of storage space, especially considering the area of tabletop coverage needed for a large game.  Cloths win out easily here, but for a while I've been musing about a compromise that would be portable, relatively easily stored and also a bit more interesting than the flat look:
A long time ago, I used cork tiles like the one above for rough ground.  This has always been in the back of my mind, and I think now is the time to commit to producing a full batllefield using this look as a starting point.  On the web, I found an English company called Siesta Cork Tiles that seems ideal here and the image above is taken from their catalogue.

The good thing about this kind of product is that it it is already rendered in three dimensions.  I reckon that if I drybrush a light sandy colour over the raised bark portions and put some greenery for variety in and around the lower sections, I could maybe produce a battlefield that is still technically flat, but that looks a lot more interesting than the usual.  I want a semi-arid look that can be used for just about anywhere from the steppes to the mediterranean, and that also matches the look of my figure bases:
I have been experimenting with my basing, most recently with wood bark chippings for the garden, although that didn't look right.  There was too much of it, and it made the bases a bit too dark.  However, Willie from the club gave me a sample of astroturf imitation grass, which you can see on the right of the photo above, with some 25mm Roman cavalry for scale.  This stuff would make great bushes, but I also think that if I cut it down it will go well on the cork tiles.  The experiment with the wood chips was not a failure, since it turns out that they make good foundations for layering my usual Ronseal plastic wood to build up small areas of ground that are higher than usual - another thing to keep in mind for terrain in the future.  That would make good areas of rough going.

Siesta provides the tiles in several sizes; I want to go with the largest possible because I want to reduce the number of terrain tiles as much as I can - too many grid lines can look a little strange.  However, this raises another problem, which is durability.  I'll solve this by gluing each tile onto a plain one, to double the thickness and make them less liable to be damaged in transit.  They will still be a lot less bulky than polystyrene tiles, which don't take kindly to too much rough handling.  I want to make these boards as robust as I can to cut down maintenance time.  Even quite a large number of these should fit easily into some cheap artists' carry cases for portfolios.

And here's the good bit: the double layer of tiles will enable me to make river or gully sections really easily.  I'll just cut one of the standard tiles, remove a bit, and glue the separated sections onto the base tile,  add some PVA and voila, a stream (or whatever).  For hills, I'll buy some cheap polystyrene tiles and face them with the cork, painted to match the rest of the tabletop.  The combination should allow me to represent areas like the hills and rivers at Plataea without too much trouble.

This will be expensive, probably well over a hundred pounds, but I think the result will be worth it.  I like the idea of trying this myself, and I will have the time.  We already have almost all of the figures we will need for Plataea, so this time around I can spend my time making a good tabletop.  I like to concentrate on one major project at a time if I can.  For the last few years the Society of Ancients featured battle has given me the impetus I need to keep going with figure painting; now it's time for the terrain.  I don't mind the cost, because I'd be spending that over several months on figures anyway.  I have felt for a while now that we have all of these nicely painted armies, so it's about time to spend some money on the battlefield.  Well painted armies are let down by badly painted terrain.  I have no idea how much my two-year Republican Roman project cost, but it's certainly a lot more than this tabletop. And that's just one of the arnies that fight across this terrain. If it works out, it will be permanent; durable; portable; and infinitely re-usable.  It can also be stored easily.

One objection would be that companies out there already make premium mats that come close to what I'm suggesting.  So why not just buy one of those?  However, I'll get a lot more than a single mat for the same outlay; mine will be much more easily repaired; and if a bit gets really badly damaged, I'll just need to replace a small section, rather than buy an entirely new mat.  Plus the DIY element of it means that I can produce the terrain types to match quickly and cheaply.

It will take me a few months to get all of the materials together, but I'll make this a series of Work in Progress posts so that anyone interested can see how it goes.  Wish me luck; I hope you can sort of visualise what I'm planning from the description.


  1. Sounds like a good idea. And those tiles look great. I'd just remind you of what happens when someone spills liquid on cork. Cork seems to warp and crack easily, so make sure those tiles you order are nice and thick to help prevent any warping.

  2. Cheers, Brian, thanks a lot for that. The textured tiles are only 3mm thick, but the self-adhesive plain ones are 6mm. I'm hoping that the combination will be able to take quite a bit of punishment. I'll live if someone damages one of these; I could well be a bit more miffed if a lot of grief occurred to a single large terrain mat costing over £100. I'm thinking of the kids here, but also beer and stuff at the club.

    Speaking of which, we meet in the Polish club at St George's Cross on Tuesday evenings. If you fancy a game, do drop in on us. I won't be there for the next couple of weeks, but after that I'm hoping it's business as usual. I've been saying that for a while now, though.

    Thanks again!

  3. Good idea Paul, should do the job. Maybe a coat of some form of sealer should be enough to stop too much soaking up of beer, gin, whiskey or any other libation that may get wasted.

  4. Yes, can do. I'll just need to make sure it dries in matt!

  5. I was going to mention what Brain has already said, be careful of warping. I did see some terrain mats from a new company in September at the SELWG show, they were fantastic looking, I think this is them

  6. Hi Ray, thanks for that! I still fancy taking a shot at it myself, although if it turns out to be too much hassle I'll probably just buy a couple of these. They do look resistant to warping.