Table Terrain Design Philosophy

A reader recently paid me one of a wargamer’s favorite complements—“Nice table!” He wanted to know where I sourced all my products. Easy enough answer there, but it made me think. What do I consider to be a good table? Why did I pick what I picked? How do I organize for a game, and what are my standards?

Thinking on the topic a bit led to the realization that I (obviously) have a design philosophy of some sort. What’s on my table springs from human thought, after all. The miniature battlefield is a manifestation of my many (ir)rational choices and my imagination, right? I am going to lay out a rough cut at describing my philosophy below. I would love to hear yours, so speak up!

Table Design Philosophy

First, I should address my framing constraints. I am time-poor, move frequently, and have kids and cats that prevent any sort of permanent gaming setup. So, everything needs to be portable and durable.

Table Orientation

German end designated as “north”

Second, I remind myself that I am just playing a game. It is not meant to be a strict historical simulation, at least not in my mind. As a result, I am not interested in modeling everything down to the littlest detail. Abstraction is fine with me, to a degree. Playability is better than total verisimilitude. My acceptable level of abstraction shifts given the scale of the game, but even in a 1:1 skirmish game I am more interested in playability. I’m not necessarily modeling the little actions of every individual soldier, after all. I am more interested in exploring the decisions leaders make.

There’s a little paradox at play here, however, because I DO think little things can really enhance a table. Rich Clarke of TooFatLardies fame recently addressed this in WS&S 75, and I generally agree with him. I may not need a replication of reality, but some odd scatter items here and there like livestock, signs, and other eye-catchers do help pull the players into the game. Hidden “easter eggs” on the board encourages players to pay more attention to your terrain and can be a draw in convention participation games. I should note that I primarily play in 15mm, even for 1:1 skirmish, so the little details aren’t as significant as they would be for 28mm play.

With that bit of equivocating out of the way, let’s talk about some concrete design principles.

First, standardization. I find tables attractive when all elements are cohesive. People can achieve this with common color and techniques. I am time-poor, however, and I prefer to paint miniatures over terrain. My answer for standardization is purchase from a single producer. Last year I sold off my motley collection of (otherwise wonderful) buildings from MBA and others to concentrate on 4Ground buildings. I know people have mixed opinions of plain 4Ground structures, but they look just fine to me (especially from a few feet away) and the company offers a wide variety of options.

Second, vertical variation. Adding a little height to the table adds appeal. I try to vary my tree heights and types, as well as building heights.

Third, and finally, is scrub. Lots of it. I put scrub brush everywhere made from off-cast Woodland Scenics clump foliage. Snuggle some up against a building and WHAM!, you structure is much better integrated on the board. Scatter some around open fields, along waterways, and in forest areas. Instant, easy terrain improvement.

Specific Items

For anyone desiring specific vendor recommendations, here goes:

  • Drop cloth – Mat-o-War through Hobby Den
    • I recently bought a couple of Cigar Box Battlemats and LOVE them. I will probably buy more. Look for one in an upcoming battle report. The only problem is that they don’t come in sizes larger than 6’x4’, so they put a crimp in my “drape over the hills” methods.
  • Roads – Total Battle Miniatures 
    • I bought these while Total Battle Miniatures still sold them pre-painted. Saved me a lot of time. They still sell the roads plain. I doubt painting would require much effort. The roads are a latex-like material that you can easily trim to any length you like. The roads also lay flat over any gradient. Awesome.
  • Trees – Mostly Woodland Scenics – Can’t have enough, vary heights
    • Recently bought some from 4Ground and they are lovely, if a little spendy
  • Hedgerows – Iron Clad Miniatures
    • I spent a few weeks gluing clump foliage to the tops of these and now feel obliged to use them in every game. Love it.
  • Buildings
    • 4Ground – I try to stick to them for standardization. They have so many terrific options. There are so many mdf alternatives out there now, though, but few offer comparable “out-of-the-box” quality.
    • Crescent Root – One of my old favorites and source of the church featured in my recent battle report. They now do absolutely amazing 28mm and 15mm pre-painted, textured mdf buildings. If you are willing to pay premium price for premium quality, then look no further. Just check out those gorgeous new 15mm buildings…my wallet already hurts.
    • For old-school resin Crescent Root buildings, see the Art of War
  • Walls – Mixture
    • Peter Pig
    • Battlefront
    • 4Ground
    • Homemade
  • Scatter – Woodland scenic clump foliage
    • HO-scale railroad scatter and livestock (my cows always get lots of compliments)
    • Graveyard from 4Ground

Now it’s your turn! What is your table design philosophy? When approaching a game, how do you decide what to put on the table? What terrain principles work for you? What makes your eyes pop at a convention? Notice any trends in what attracts you?

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9 comments

  1. itineranthobbyist · December 8, 2015

    Ok – nice response to my question. Sounds like our foundations are similar – mobile friendly, time poor, and not wanting to spend time painting terrain.

    The scrub I’d figured out by looking at other gamers tables.

    But your other comments and lists of suppliers is awesome.

    Last question – how do you do your hills?

    Like

  2. The Roving Hobbyist · December 8, 2015

    I have some old Terrain Guy pre-formed hills that I put under my base cloth. Sometimes I use other items such as books too, or rough cut insulation foam.

    The trick with the hill-under-the-cloth method, I think, is layering a couple of thick blankets between the hill object and the base cloth. I use some old wool army blankets. The blankets help smooth contours and keep figures standing upright.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave · December 10, 2015

    Mine is actually very similar.
    I’ve tried everything over the years but have now settled on 2 x Grassfields Cigar Box mats over layers of foam. Then I lay down heavy roads and rivers such as the ones you listed. Then I put down small scenic items such as buildings and farms and chateaus etc and finally wooded areas with cheap chinese trees with a little painted touchups.
    I play 6mm and 10mm so I can get away with less detail and at arms length it can look fantastic.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    • The Roving Hobbyist · December 10, 2015

      Dave,

      Thanks for the comment! Do you have any issues marrying up the two Cigar Box mats? Do you notice the seam much?

      Like

      • Dave · December 10, 2015

        No I tend to put roads and woods and fields over the seam so not much of it shows.

        Like

  4. Scott Bogen · February 13, 2016

    Hello! I really loved this article on terrain. I’ve been a Rapid Fire play for quite a number of years, and I’ve been slowly but surely working on my own system. I also run The Board Game Show blog, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind a reprint of this article (with a link back to your site, of course). Let me know, and happy gaming!

    Like

    • The Roving Hobbyist · February 14, 2016

      Hi Scott! Thanks for reading. I follow and enjoy your blog too. Feel free to reprint this article! Its appearance on your blog would be an honor.

      Like

  5. Pingback: The Philosophy of Tabletop Terrain Design – The Board Game Show

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