Saturday, 5 October 2013

Game Terrain - Esthetic, Functional, often Neglected?

This week I have been very much focused on finishing off the terrain requirements for the Vimiero game I am planning to run over the next two months. This has primarily involved river building and a few other important terrain markers.

Whilst doing this and some other paint jobs on figures, for friends, I was provoked into thought by a post I saw on TMP by a fellow gamer musing over whether to game Napoleonics in 15mm of 28mm and the pros and cons of doing either or both. As always TMP proved a truism that opinions are like noses, every body's got one, and the good folk of the TMP readership chimed in with their thoughts.

The one thing that, surprisingly, didn't get a mention was terrain. You would think that two different scales require two sets of terrain if you want to put on the odd game yourself.

The marvellous material that is roof felt!
I think the above example illustrates the importance most gamers attach to terrain, and often the games I see depicted reflects this priority in thinking. I am often puzzled and somewhat amazed at the time and effort many gamers go to in producing wonderfully researched and painted figures, prepare the necessary orders of battle for a certain game, and then present that game with an eclectic mix of terrain that fails to do justice to all the work that has gone into the other game components.

Only the other day my eye was drawn to a battle report, with pictures, of a game representing one of Napoleon's early battles with the Austrians in the Alps. I am always interested in this period and was immediately drawn to the link. The order of battle was complimented by some beautiful figures fighting over what looked like a generic rural area of England with Tudor beamed thatched cottages, a building I am pretty sure is quite rare in the French alps!

The last sections of the River Maciera completed Saturday morning.
I realise that if terrain is not something that "floats your boat" then my comments are starting to get irritating and you may be starting to move towards the delete button. However if you are still reading, and are up for the challenge, then let me be even more in your face, by saying, if you are not interested in terrain, then you should be.

Surely the whole point about bringing model figures on to a table to represent a period in history has to be about getting a balance between playability, functionality and esthetic's. My feeling is that very often its the last factor that gets forgotten, to the detriment of our hobby. If you're not bothered about the look of the game and just want to play out a given scenario, then it would be simpler to play a board game, computer game or dare I say, use unpainted (silver surfers) figures, with card terrain and reduce the effort.

The benefit of a mat over styrene is that I can pin terrain down to improve the look and enable my river to conform closely to the valley it flows through. Note the pin left proud to illustrate.

I'm not representing the "fasionistas of war-gaming" who get all picky about a particular colour shade of French Blue or style of Venetian  portico work that appeared on such and such 15th century building. The point is is that it's not difficult putting together a simple collection of terrain items to produce a good looking game and that it is achievable over time with a little bit of research, modelling and planning.

You don't even have to have a purpose built table like the one I have at home. When putting on games at the club, I will grab my trusty "Games Workshop" battle mat, some foam hills to stick under it and the most appropriate scenic items in the  collection and off we go. Most of the games pictured on the Devon Wargames Blog are testament to that point.

To help in the process of putting together a collection of terrain items I made a key decision. I, like many gamers, run my hobby on a limited budget. A budget requires discipline, particularly if you are going to make the most of it, trust me, I'm married to a finance manager! The key decision was to wargame in one scale to allow me to have terrain that would suit all the periods I am interested in. Thus after consideration, I decided that my chosen scale for all my land conflicts would be 15/18mm. I now have collections for AWI, Napoleonics and WWII in those scales and all my terrain basics are interchangeable between those periods. I only have to alter the buildings and create a few time/era specific pieces to put on a game with those collections.

As the saying goes, "Fail to plan, Plan to fail". Too many times, I see gamers who fail to reign in the gadfly in all of us, that falls in love with a particular range of figures, not thinking about any other considerations about terrain and then ending up very rarely using them.

A seamless transition from one section to another in the Maciera valley outside Vimiero town
Remember, the other two words I mentioned were playability and functionality. In Napoleonic games in particular we are constrained by ground and figure scales all of which causes lots of contrivances that enable us to fit a two and a half mile wide battlefield onto a nine foot wide table. However these contrivances can and are accommodated by the rules/scale of figures we use to enable us to game out the battle we do. Thus my version of the River Maciera is to depict what might seem just a small dike/brook, up against the 18mm Napoleonic warriors due to fight over it, but with the ground scale used is in fact an artillery/vehicle stopping waterway requiring bridges to enable access across it.

Also, as a Peninsular War enthusiast, I am all too aware of the importance of knowing where the "military crest" is on any given ridge. For my British commanders playing in a few weeks time those crest lines will be very important in deciding if they are able to repulse the French columns advancing on them.

The crest of the western ridge above Vimiero is indicated as a line running between the two markers. Any unit at 75 paces or more behind that line is not visible to troops in the valley below.

Thus a simple, but effective way of indicating if you are behind, on or in front of said crest is the use of the humble terrain marker made from roof felt and disguised as a bit of upland scrub

simple but very effective
All the terrain I have pictured on my table is relatively inexpensive, particularly when compared with the cost of figures. Some of it is home made, most of it has required some input from myself, in the form of painting it or sticking it together. I don't regard that task as any less important that creating the units of figures that will fight over it. The beauty of functional terrain is that it can be used for other eras, with some thought. Thus this scene could easily be adapted to rural India for Wellington's earlier campaigns, or WWII Italy/Tunisia. With a selection of European or North American buildings it could be transformed into mid/eastern Europe, or North America for a dust up in the A.W.I. or War of 1812. With the addition of snake rail fences the difference between the two would be confirmed.

The crest line on the all important "Vimiero Hill"
Which leads me to my final point. The importance of that piece of terrain that helps confirm where this battle is happening. The good news is that you don't need much to have the effect of saying "this battle is happening here".

My windmill was purchased and constructed with one idea in mind, to help the viewer, who has any idea of what to expect to see of a battle in the Peninsular, get immediate confirmation of what he or she is looking at.

Terrain building just adds another layer of fun and interest to our hobby. We can spend those few moments between planning and realising the units that will complete our orders of battle by studying pictures from the times through to modern views, together with walking the sites themselves, all with the point of identifying those key bits of terrain that need to be modelled to enable our game to tick all three boxes, playability, functionality and esthetic's, the P.F.E. of wargaming.

My Rolica windmill
As always, let me know your thoughts. The clever, constructive and thoughtful ones always get published. If you couldn't care less about terrain or it's very much a lesser consideration for you, then share your thoughts as to why.

Next up, French mounted colonels from Khurasan Miniatures, the bell tower for Oporto and the Vimiero game,(the invites have gone out).


  1. I haven't got a particularly strong opinion. I know what I like and I know what I can achieve given the constraints under which I operate and, as the two don't match, I have to come to some sort of compromise. I think it's also governed by the style of game (Old School etc.) and personal taste. I think we can be seduced by the wonderful demo games heavily publicised at shows and in publications and, quite often, some people see other styles as somehow of less value. Nevertheless, continual exposure to high quality will inevitably raise your own aspirations (though this didn't work too well with the dream of comprehensive education in the 70's!).

    Now, some people have the aesthetic side of things nailed down and can produce excellent buildings and terrain almost by accident, whereas others just haven't got a clue. I really don't mind - it's their choice (sometimes an involuntary one!) and, as long as they're content with it, that's fine. Generally, those who aren't satisfied with the situation go out and improve it. However, I think it's a case of finding the your own level of comfort. My terrain isn't what I think of as ideal, but it's at a level of quality I'm satisfied with. I have a friend whose figures and terrain look as though they've fallen out of a book by Featherstone and he's absolutely content with that. I'm making a bit of an assumption there, but, after 45+ years of wargaming, several relocations and house moves and two divorces, it's been the only constant. Maybe that says something in itself!

    So, I think your approach is generally governed by:
    your gaming environment - where you game and the conditions under which you game;
    your personal circumstances - throughout my life, much as I love wargames, the family always comes first;
    and your taste - I have real difficulty with those radioactive green boards so beloved of 'Old School' wargamers.

    But in all this, you've got to be satisfied with your choice or be doing something about it.

  2. Hi Jonathan, very interesting post. Terrain is a tricky 1. I use a GW mat in the house at the moment, cost me £5 and when I get another table ill add another. At the moment I'm searching fir faller, kibri etc go buildings of a style I can base and make into my 1813 Saxon towns. I have considered a large terrain mat but they are expensive for myself at the moment and another issue I have is storage. I am aware or the items I need, good trees, river and bridges.

    I'm getting there slowly. The guys at the club use an old snooker cloth and some cut felt and they seem very happy with that. I understand what you mean but I guess it comes down to your time, your budget, ability and what you are happy with.

    I have a lot of figures that were painted fast and not to the standard that I am 100% happy with. I still use them. Its all good.

    looking forward to your game reports!

  3. Jonathan,

    I agree. Once you have the armies ready Terrain is key to bringing the battle to life. I'm at the point now to focus 70% on Terrain and 30% on figures. Like the crest markers. Going to use that for my Vimerio game in Oct.


  4. Thanks for you comments guys, very interesting. I thought I might cause a bit of introspection with this one. A common theme from all the responses I've had, is that the vast majority agree that terrain is important, although, because of different priorities, it is more important to some than others.

    My point is to encourage other gamers to take a little bit more time to think about what would make a game look great instead of OK. That transition is not huge. The terrain cloth, trees, river sections, roads remain constant, perhaps it's the "real estate" that needs a bit more thought.

    The better the game looks, the more attractive our hobby becomes to those who might be interested in taking it up. The more people who play, the more toys we current gamers get to enjoy, that's my logic at work.

    Hey Adam, glad you like the crest markers. Yes we are going to play on the weekend after next, so with you and me hitting TMP, it looks like the spotlight will be on the early Peninsula. Have a good game.

  5. I couldn't agree more with your views on terrain, Jonathon. I only game WWII, but still have a variety of building types to move from northwest Europe to the Mediterranean to the Russian front, with some doing double duty.
    I've been looking for a viable solution to flexible stream sections (home made) without going to some sort of moulded rubber route, and was curious what you had made yours from.

    1. Hi Bill, the river sections are made from roof felt. Like you I looked at using the moulded rubber option but found they wern't precise enough to my terrain layout and sat rather proud of the table hence producing my own was the best option.

      I might do a little tutorial on the wonder of roof felt for flexible terrain. I''m going to be doing a lot of stuff for my Oporto scenario so will probably do something for that.

  6. A tutorial would be nice. In the meantime,I noticed the river sections look glossy in the photo. Can I ask how you managed that?

    1. The river water was base coated with PVA glue to smooth out the roof felt, then the paint work was done followed by a coat of Vajello gloss varnish to make it shine under the lights!