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Newbie's Guide

Scratch-Building Wargames Terrain

If you are gaming with miniatures, it is almost a sure bet that one of the things that you like is the highly visual, three-dimension gaming environment. It just looks more like the real thing. For that reason, and because you want your well-painted and based DBA army to be complemented by its surroundings, wargaming terrain is an important topic.

You can buy wargaming terrain (e.g., trees, buildings, Geohex modular terrain, etc.) from a variety of commerical sources. If you are looking for commercial terrain, don't restrict yourself to wargaming shops and catalogs; check out railroad and other hobby stores for inspiration. However, commercial terrain can strain your pocket book if you're not careful. There is also the pleasure that results from scratch-building an attractive piece of custom terrain for your gaming table using materials you've scavenged out of the trash bin. If you are like me then, you scratch-build what you can, and save your money for extra figures and to buy those special pieces of terrain you're not sure you can model as well.

The materials needed for scratch-building terrain are readily available and are often free or cheap. A typical materials box might include cardboard and polystyrene scavenged from shipping boxes, balsa or bass wood from the hobby shop, cereal boxes and plastic containers, tooth-picks (flat and round) and match-sticks, plastic and paper cardstock, wine corks, cardboard tubes (from paper dispensors), cans, twine, paperclips and scrap wire, staws, sponges and scrubby pads liberated from the cleaning pail, rocks and twigs retrieved from the yard, washers, and sand. I find myself constantly surveying the waste bin at work for suitable materials, and a number of my hills are made with cardboard from Domino's pizza boxes, grease stains and all.

You'll also need adhesives such as simple PVA "white" glue (e.g., Elmers) or a glue gun, paint of appropriate colors, and flocking material. You'll need fillers such as the latex patching compound used to fill nail holes, which is found at home improvement and hardware stores, or artist's mediums such as modeling paste. You'll need common tools such as a hobby knife (e.g., Exacto), sandpaper, and a clamp or clothes pins. Some materials and projects may also require more specialized tools....such as fine saws, serrated shapers for blueboard, and battery powered polystyrene cutters

The techniques for building scratch-built terrain are many and varied. There is no single right way. The only criteria is whether you like the end result and that it looks good on your gaming table. With that reminder, I've collected here some general tips and links to more detailed resources that will hopefully inspire you to try your hand at building your own table top terrain.

This essay is a work in progress. So far, I have collected notes and links on the following terrain-related topics. Your additions and suggestions to IamFanaticus@gmail.com are welcome.


Starting With Felt

Once you've got your gameboard squared away, the next question is what do you put on top of it. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to provide terrain for your board is with colored felt. Blue felt cut into strips makes passable rivers. Use brown strips for roads. Green felt sheets cut into larger irregular shapes can represent a wooded area. Grey or black felt can be used to represent built-up areas. You can even use colored felt to represent hills and other raised features, although the effect can be quite one-dimensional. Felt is available in a wide variety of colors and shades at your local craft and fabric stores. You can use different shades to represent different terrain status (e.g. light green equal bad going woods while dark green equals impassable ground). You can usually buy it in lengths straight from the bolt or in smaller "hobby squares."

Many gamers who use felt go an extra step to fancy it up for the gaming table. For example, you can use a magic marker or touch of bleach on a brush or cuetip to trace wheel tracks in brown road sections or put ripples on blue felt water sections. I have also seen gamers apply flocking to felt using spray adhesive and then lay out the felt pieces in overlapping patterns in lieu of a ground cloth or gameboard. This creates the impression of minor contour lines.

You can certainly supplement your felt terrain to create a more three dimensional effect. For example, a few trees and/or lichen scattered on a felt "forest" looks good visually while providing a clearly defined boundary edge that is hard to represent with trees or lichen alone. Similarly, you can put some small buildings, walls, etc. on top of your felt "built-up-area." Some gravel (or kitty-litter) placed along your blue felt water feature helps bring it alive. A larger rock or two from the garden makes the grey "bad-going" felt stand out.


Modelling Built-Up Areas

DBA refers to "built-up areas" (BUA) as a type of bad going terrain, but doesn't describe BUA's in any detail. The name itself is fairly descriptive, a "built-up area" can be thought of as an area altered by human activity in such a way that it is relatively difficult for armies to manever and fight. Here are some ideas of possible BUA's you could model on your gaming table:

  • Windmills (Low Countries, Spain)
  • Stonehenge, temples, churches
  • Orchards, vinyards
  • Village
  • Roman villa
  • Fenced fields/pens
  • Castle or fortification
  • Nomadic tent city
  • Medieval Fair
  • A large herd (horses/cattle)

BUA's can be represented on the game board with colored felt cut to shape and/or by placing a three dimension model down on the game board. The model can add visual appeal to the table, but will usually impede actual placement/movement of your miniatures in the BUA. By putting a colored felt piece under the model, you can remove the BUA model when needed and still clearly mark the boundaries of the BUA.

Here are a collection of specific ideas and techniques for building BUA for the tabletop:

Douglas Barker: For building Roman/Greek villas or temples, you can take the corrugated paper dividers found in cookie packages (eg: Chips Ahoy and the like), and roll a piece into a cylinder with the ribs running the length of the cylinder. Glue a piece of balsa wood or foam to the top and bottom, and you have a column. If you put one column in each corner of the BUA, you can get a good impression of a BUA without getting too elaborate. You could get really gung-ho and do a small Acropolis by adding a roof and paper with sculptures printed on it.

Anonymous on Scratch-Building Mongol Yurts: First, I found some 1/4" metal mesh. I took two pieces, put them on top of each other, and aligned them so that together they made 1/8" squares. Then, I cut both pieces into rectangles and bent them into half-circles. I made two of these half-circles, and modified one by adding a doorframe. These two half-circles represent the wooden folding lattice that makes up the walls of the yurt. I glued the half-circles down on separate bases, then made a circle and radial spikes out of some more of the lattice (bend it around and clip off the bars going in one direction - if that's not clear, just play with it a bit and you should be able to figure it out). The circle and radial spikes were cut into two half-circles with radial spikes coming out, and the bases of the spikes were attached to the walls. This forms the base for the ceiling.

After all of this was superglued together, I covered the yurt with bits of toilet paper, and hardened it with superglue. Then I primered and painted the whole thing. I ended up with a yurt 40mm in diameter that can fit unmounted figures inside, and can be used as two DBA camps or a yurt diorama when the halves are put together. It would also work decently as DBM baggage.


Terrain for 6mm Scale

Subotai7: I have an entire forest of trees made in the following way.

  1. Use thin balsa, basswood, foamcore, or cardstock. Cut in random shapes roughly 1"x2". Vary the size some, a few larger, a few smaller. These will be the base. Paint green.

  2. Take round toothpicks. Cut in random lengths for the desired height of your forest.

  3. Drill or cut holes in your base, glue in toothpicks, points up. Paint toothpicks any shade (or several shades) of dark brown, grey-brown, or black.

  4. Flock your bases.

  5. Buy Woodland Scenics "Foliage Clusters." It comes in at least three shades of green. Essentially a big mass of the same material as the flocking. Any model railroad and most hobby stores will stock it.

  6. Pull off random chunks of the foliage clusters, using different colors of green on each base for a varied "forest" look. You will be amazed how realistic they look in 6mm scale. Slather the tips of the toothpicks with white glue, mash the foliage cluster to it. It takes some practice at first to know how much glue to use, but you will quickly get the hang of it. Allow to dry, then spray with Dullcoat or some other flat matte sealer.

It may sound complicated, but the hardest part is cutting the bases. The rest is easy. In a weekend you can "plant" a huge forest.

Duncan Adams: Here are my methods for deciduous trees and conifers. I believe they are easy and quick nad look quite good. They are extremely cheap.

DECIDUOUS: I use 7/8² roofing nails for trunks (almost 300 in a 1 pound box for less that $1) The heads are large enough to glue to a base material - I use the treated stiff felt sold in craft stores (9² x 12² sheet to $0.79) -- it doesnıt have to be thick. Then I wrap Woodland Scenicsı green polyfiber ($2.99 for a bag - Iıve made about 150 trees and used half or it) around the end of the nail approximating the shape of the tree. I put tacky glue on the nail to start it then it sticks to itself well enough to stay wrapped. Finally I smear the tree with tacky glue and apply Woodland Scenicsı ground foam in a tree like color. I usually spray them with Woodland Scenicsı scenery adhesive. When they are complete I cut a piece of the base material in a round irregular shape and attach 2 or 3 trees. Total cost is about 2-3 cents per tree and I can easily do 20 on a Saturday while I do other things during the glue drying periods.

You can apply the ground foam directly to the nails to make lombardy poplars -- base them on stick to form roadside tree lines.

Use lighter colored foam to distinguish orchards from forests.

CONIFERS: I use the brown bumpy chenille. I cut half a bump into a tree shape, attach it to a base first to make it easier to handle, then I paint them. I paint them with thick acrylic paint (Apple Barrel) applied very heavily. If you do it right the chenille fuzz clumps and looks like heavy, sagging pine boughs. I use forest green (thatıs a surprise, I bet) and when itıs dry I hi-light with a lime green. The hilighting adds depth and the appearance of old and new growth. Any inner reaches that are visible look like dead needles and branches.

This technique needs a thick base so the tree can be glued into a hole. Iıve been using the three pointed box supports that Pizza Hut used to put in their delivered pizzas. I cut the leg down to tree trunk size and drill a hole to fit the chenille. The base needs to be painted and flocked (Now that Pizza Hut has changed their packaging I have to find a new base material). Cost of a 3 tree stand: ~3 cents.

If I can get more bases Iıd want to try hi-lighting the trees in white and flocking the base to match. Then I have snow covered trees for winter games.

John Fernandes: I buy a large sponge. Slice cubes out of it and shape with a scissers. Dipping these into paint and wringing out the excess to whatever color I prefer gives variance. I stick these on toothpicks as above. 36 trees for $1.69 worth of sponge, some paint, some toothpicks!

Chris Johnson: A variant is to use cocktail toothpicks (the kind with a little bit of celophane on one end), dip that end into glue or green paint, then into flocking. The celophane is always very irregular, so it provides nice variety for little effort.


Resource Links for Scratch-Building Terrain

The following are sites that provide general tips and techniques for scratch-building terrain. More importantly, they provide highly inspirational images that should encourage you to take the plunge into "do-it-yourself":

  • Ed Allen on Making Mesas.

  • Billy's Shed (Down-loadable blueprints for cut-out scenery that can be built with thin card. Targeted most at Games Workshop fantasy, several are very suitable for ancients and medieval gaming.)

  • Bob Beattie on Terrain (from Bob's "Intro to DBA", a work in progress.)

  • Steve Burt's Making Terrain Page (tips and suggestions).

  • The Dortmund Amateur Wargamers' Painting, Modelling and Terrain-making page features scratch-building techniques for trees, bushes, hedges, and roads.

  • GW Gateway's Terrain Links (links to sites with emphasis on GW-related terrain, but easily adaptable advice/techniques for historical gaming.)

  • Hive Constructors, Inc. (tips on buildings, scenery, materials and tools.)

  • The Miniatures Page Tabletop Reference on Scenary (Bill Armintrout's collection of terrain tips and how-to's.)

  • Maj.-Gen. Tremorden Reddering's Colonial Wargames Page on Scenary and Structures (good site for desert terrain. Also note the use of cork board for contour hills.)

  • NetTerrain (specializing in scratch-building 25mm GW-style terrain pieces.)

  • The Schild and Vriend's Terrain for Wargames page (tips, links, and pictures.)

  • Terragenesis (an outstanding reference site with tips, techniques, and illustrations by Gary James. This is my starting point.)

If you are aware of other sites that you would like to see added to this list, drop me a note at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Finally, if you're willing to fork out the bucks (approx. $25 U.S.), then I can highly recommend Game Workshop's 81 page, full color book on "How to Make Wargames Terrain." Although it features terrain designed for GW fantasy and futuristic products and figures, the pictures are highly inspirational and the techniques are tried and true. Most of what you will see is readily adaptable to the historical gaming table. Some of it, such as Michael and Alan Perry's medieval castles, are quite spectacular.


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Last Updated: Sept. 10, 2000

Comments, suggested additions, and/or critiques welcome. Direct them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.