The Philosophy of Tabletop Terrain Design

Distant ChurchThis article originally appeared on The Roving Hobbyist and has been re-posted here with permission and for your interminable enjoyment. Yes, I love playing miniatures. Gazing at little landscapes of roads, villages, hills and forests compels me to shrink down and begin lighting up panzers. This post by The Roving Hobbyist does a nice job of explaining the thought behind building battlefields on your tabletop, and provides an army of useful links for all the goodies money can buy.

A reader recently paid me one of a wargamer’s favorite complements —“Nice table!” Street ViewHe 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

Old CarFirst, 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.

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 (Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy, issue 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 encourage 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.

Tank Approach


Cohesion, Height and Scrub

Burning in the FieldWith 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!, your structure is much better integrated on the board. Scatter some around open fields, along waterways, and in forest areas. Instant, easy terrain improvement.

Ghost Town


Vendors and Recommendations

SneakingFor 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 is 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 (Peter Pig, Battlefront, 4Ground, homemade)
  • Scatter (Woodland Scenics 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?

(The Board Game Show: Note that I took some liberties with the photo placement, inclusion and sizing from the original article. I also changed the format of the bullet points and added sub-headings.)

Categories: Features, Warfare

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