Tabletop Terrains

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Tabletop Terrains
Sean Patten's scratch-built Thurderhawk Gunship, a veritable coral reef of plastic and metal bits surrounding a styrene plastic form.
Sean Patten’s scratch-built Thurderhawk Gunship, a veritable coral reef of plastic and metal bits surrounding a styrene plastic form.

Say the word “gaming” and most people these days will think of the first-person shooting and role playing that takes place on a computer screen. Or maybe a family board game. But to a relatively small and dedicated cadre of players, “gaming” brings to mind a rich and diverse skill set and activities including carpentry, painting, sculpting, mold-making and casting, scale modeling, and environmental simulation. This is the realm of the tabletop miniature wargamer.

There are tabletop wargames based in many genres, but the most common are historical, fantasy, or science fiction. The process for making terrain boards and pieces is basically the same across the genres, but in this article, I’ll talk about sci-fi terrain — the type with which I’ve had a lot of personal experience.

What Is Tabletop Miniature Wargaming?

Before we talk about the terrain making, we need to understand what the terrain is for. The mechanics of each tabletop wargame are different, but play basically boils down to “fire and movement”: moving your toy soldiers … er … troops into position (how far you can move is determined by dice rolls and measured with a tape) and firing your weapons at your opponent’s models (determined by dice rolls and the rules for the weapons depicted on the model). Nearly all tabletop wargames are WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), so the models must actually show the weapons and defenses they are using in play (e.g., you can’t have a model holding a projectile weapon and claim that it’s a plasma pistol). Terrain (woods, swamps, mountains) becomes very important because it affects movement rates and “line of sight” rules. So, the buildings that gamers spend dozens of hours constructing — sometimes to nearly museum display quality — are not just for ambiance and the cool factor. They also provide much-welcomed cover when your ground forces need a place to duck behind, or your sniper team needs high points in which to nest.

Terrain for Beginners

Getting started in miniature wargaming can be an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Like paper-and-pencil role-playing games and map-based wargames, the rules can be very intimidating to newcomers. There are lots of hit, wound, and save tables to memorize, terrain and other dice modifiers to understand, special rules to remember. On top of that, miniatures mean toy soldiers: dozens, even hundreds, of little plastic and metal soldiers to buy, assemble, paint, and base.

Once all of that’s done, the last thing you want to do before playing is to spend months more building a terrain board and scratch-building dozens of buildings, barricades, rubble piles, and the like.

Luckily, you can get away with some pretty groovy-looking terrain made from little more than kitchen trash. The trick is developing a terrain builder’s eye. Look carefully at what goes into your trash can. Any metal can, turned over, can become a storage tank of some sort. A bunch of them together can serve as a fuel depot, a worthy objective for a game. A cut-up egg carton becomes a field of alien gestation pods. The plastic dividers in boxes of cookies, crackers, and candy, flipped over, can serve as futuristic army barracks, power stations, command bunkers, and anything else your imagination can dream up.

Of course, none of this stuff is going to look very believable in its native packaging colors. This is quickly and easily dealt with by spraying everything with matte black paint and then drybrushing it to bring out details. Drybrushing is when you put paint on a brush, remove most of it on a rag or paper towel, and then work the “dry” brush over the target area. Any raised details on the piece pick up some of the drybrushed color, adding texture and dimension. For concrete and rock effects, drybrush successive layers of darker to lighter gray and then white. For a metal look, use metallic paints from darker to lighter shades. You’ll be amazed at how effective this technique is once you get the hang of it.

Meet the Gomi No Sensei of Terrain Makers

In William Gibson’s collection Burning Chrome, he describes the character Rubin as “a master, a teacher, what the Japanese call a sensei … he’s the master of … garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of castoff goods our century floats on. Gomi no sensei. Master of Junk.”

The masters of terrain building have an uncanny ability to look at the mundane objects around us and visualize what they’d look like turned upside down, twisted sideways, glued to some other piece of detritus, cut, improvisationally embellished with bits of plastic at hand, painted, and lit by twinkle lights and some AA batteries.

One such venerated master is Sean Patten. A computer game designer by day, he got into tabletop wargaming in college. At first, the terrain was an afterthought, with cardboard boxes sheathed in building façades photocopied from books serving the utilitarian need. When Games Workshop came out with Warhammer 40,000 (aka WH40K), their tabletop miniatures sci-fi game, in 1987, Patten says he was “immediately attracted to its gritty art style and dark gothic-industrial setting.”

It is this dense, baroque junkyard world — where a far-future dark age sits on top of the strata of all periods of history — that serves so many of the gomi no sensei of terrain, like Patten. He’s built terrain for other game systems, such as Mage Knight (where he was commissioned to build a couple of boards for its maker, Wiz Kids), Mechwarrior, Mordheim, and others, but he’s most in his element plying his trade in the 41st century. He became something of a legend in the WH40K community years ago when he built a Thunderhawk Gunship, an iconic vehicle in that game universe, which, at that point, had rarely been seen in three dimensions. His version of the ship took three months to build and used hundreds of parts, including Star Wars toys and models, other sci-fi and army toys, sheet plastic and lead, clothes pins, belt buckles, and spent printer cartridges.

Mark Zimmer is another master of the terrain maker’s art. Like Patten, he got on board with WH40K in 1987, but wasn’t that interested in terrain until he got back into the hobby years later and discovered amazing online resources for terrain crafting, such as the venerable TerraGenesis. “Discovering Gary James’s excellent do-it-yourself site got me really excited about the idea of building my own terrain.”

Zimmer now runs Parasitic Studios, a site where he shows off his work, offers pointers, and sells his terrain. Like most accomplished builders, he sells pieces via eBay and does commission work. “My original goal was to get this hobby to pay for itself. Over the last few years, I’ve done considerably better than that,” says Zimmer. Like Patten’s Thunderhawk, Zimmer also has at least one project that got away from him. “I built this massive, modular, 35-square-foot Space Hulk table (a WH40K game that takes place on a derelict spaceship). It was comprised of 88 individual pieces. The rooms and passageways could be arranged in different layouts (like a big puzzle). It was insane.”

Terrain Making Tips

Here are some words of wisdom on getting into making tabletop terrain, gleaned from my own terrain-making experience and that of Patten and Zimmer.

Start a collection of plastic and metal containers and packaging rescued from the trash. Save stuff that looks even mildly interesting.

Keep a “bitz box,” a collection of smaller parts, pieces from old scale models, jewelry, junked toys, wargame miniatures, etc. Buy any and all models at yard sales. It may be a car or a plane or goofy Battlefield Earth toy now, but repurposed and painted properly, it can become almost anything.

Learn the way of the blueboard. Blueboard (aka insulation foam, or pink insulation foam) is used in construction. You can get it at any home/building supply place. It is, literally, the ground upon which most terrain projects sit. You can cut it with a hot wire, sculpt it, sand it, paint it, and turn it into nearly any shape you want. Take a few pieces of this board, tape them together, cover with glue and dyed-green sawdust, and you’ve got yourself a gaming board.

Get some specialty tools. Besides the usual building and hobby tools, you’ll want a hot-wire foam cutter (you can get these cheaply at a craft store), a hot glue gun, and a Dremel rotary tool.

One of Patten’s secret ingredients for great terrain is Pre-Mixed Concrete Patch (found at building supply stores). “You can use it for adding texture, filling gaps in terrain pieces, and building up ground surfaces.”

Zimmer is partial to kitty litter. “By mixing kitty litter with white glue, you get a chunky, spreadable cement mixture that makes incredible-looking rubble/debris when it dries. Be sure you buy the cheap clay litter.”

Zimmer also recommends what’s known as “granny grating” in the trade: “These lightweight plastic grids are actually designed for use in cross-stitching, but are excellent for making fencing and floor grating.”

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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