Wednesday, 6 June 2012

'Plain Terrain' features: The concept

A 'Plain Terrain Feature'? A 'Terrain Feature' that is 'Plain'? Now this might seem like a 'backwards' concept, but as an American lady I've just been working with says "Here's the thing."

Look at those glossy rulebooks like 'Black Powder', the 'WAB' or 'Lord of the Rings' (or any GW stuff), the 'Rapid Fire' books or the new 'War and Conquest' rules, and, if you are the average wargamer, you have a 'drool' reflex over the pictures.

Now those pictures have lots of very nice painted figures. Which is what we all aspire to. But, they also have some thing else, and putting together this blog and photographing my own miniatures, has really brought it home to me. These publications have photos that all have lovely terrain, but it isn't just any old terrain, nearly always the figures are set out on 'Terrain boards'.

Now carved, sculpted, flocked and 'teased' terrain boards are all very nice. They look gorgeous, all the best 'exhibition' games at shows use them, and so as I have just mentioned do the rulebook and wargames mag photos. There are, however, three major drawbacks with terrain boards, which are: SPACE, SPACE, and SPACE. Ok, so enough boards to cover a 2 foot square DBA board or even a 4 foot one, or even your basic table are not that many, but obviously you are going to want to have your 'carved out river' boards, too, and your hill boards, and our maybe mountain boards, too, and maybe your road boards... and your city boards...oh, and your desert boards, and your desert hills...and river...and maybe some marsh boards...what about your 'Mars' boards, and Martian hills...and snow boards...and "anyone for trenches?"...

Now if you belong to a club with tons of storage space fine. If you have a spare barn, fine....but I once met a guy at a show who told me he had one of the biggest set of terrain boards going...and admitted the missus had said on numerous occasions "It's me or the terrain boards!". I saw him at the same show a year later. "A new set of terrain boards, again this year" I said. "Yes", he replied. "What's the missus got to say about that?" I asked. "Actually, I got divorced six months ago" he said....

...Now some wargamers might be happy to choose the terrain boards over the missus, but to be honest, much as I love my wargaming, that doesn't include me!

The fact is terrain boards are a right pain. I know a guy at the club who says he has a full set, but says it is too much trouble to get them out the attic for a game, unless its for a show.

So what's the alternative? Well, its the other 'system' used week in and week out at wargames clubs for your average game, ie: chuck a cloth on the table and scatter 'terrain features' on it.

But, the short-comings of this system really came home to me when I saw some pictures of a game I myself put down at my local club. The cloth was a not unpleasant or unrealistic green felt, so OK a a proper static grass 'battle-mat' might have been a bit better, but the overall look was so dull and utilitarian, it just did not 'zing'...and all that effort which had gone into painting and colour washing, and highlighting and basing my figures just paled into insignificance on this vast expanse of plain coloured background.

To make the point this is a photo of a battle at my local club using figures painted by one of our best figure painters used in a game with a plain cloth and a few terrain features.

Reece's superbly painted armies...on a very ordinary looking table cloth!!!

Now, a while back I sat and really studied the pics in the 'Fire and Fury' rulebook. The table for these pics is actually a plain cloth or more probably blanket. But immense care has been taken to break up the plainess of the underlying cloth. Bits of cordurey for plowed fields, 'fake fur' for wheat fields, lots of those little fences made out of matchsticks beloved by ACW gamers, little stones scattered about.

So at one time, I thought that might be the way to go, building up a little collection of corrugated card, scraps of carpet and some painted cork tile - all light and easy to carry and easily 'thrown down' to represent fields and the like (ie. 'plain terrain' in wargames parlance). Here's a shot I took, as it happens also of a table set up for an ACW wargame:
Barring the odd gap showing up in river sections etc. I think the photo looks pretty good, and its looks like a 'well-dressed' battlefield. The problem is, well, it LOOKS GOOD IN THE PHOTO, but it doesn't actually look so good in real life.

This partly comes across in the second photo above, which shows a less flattering view, where I the angle does not fool the eye as much. Edges curling up and so forth show up. This problem is even worse IN REAL LIFE. Because unfortunately when you are actually standing over the table, unfortunately a bit of corrugated card looks like well...a piece of corrugated card, a piece of carpet a piece of carpet tile...a bit of painted cork tile, like a bit of painted cork tile and so forth. With a crease or curl here or there it quickly looks pretty 'tatty' basically.

Now the fact is, it is possible to make 'terrain features' which look much better than this. Wargamers do it all the time for hills, rivers, roads, marsh and so forth, using sand, sculpted foam, flock and scatters, and there are stacks of blogs out there showing off this sort of work. But they all tend to have something in common. They all concentrate on 'terrain features', ie. unusual terrain - things that hinder movement, block line of sight and have an impact on the game.

What tends to get ignored is all the rest of the table, which for a lot of games, especially ancients or Napoleonic say, is just 'plain', ie. does not affect the game in any way.

Now, hang on, you might say, if you start making this sort of terrain, aren't you back to 'Terrain boards' all over again. To which my answer is 'not necessarily'. At least not the sort of boards that cover the whole table. Why not just have a few decent sized (say two foot square, or two by three) either regular or irregular shapes cut from MDF and 'terrained', ie. crafted from sand, often painted and drybrushed, and enhanced with scatter etc. to represent fields, or areas of rough meadow or pasture, or formal garden, or sandy ground, or moorland, or bare rock (eg. for Sci-Fi) or shell-hole blasted no-mans land or snow or frozen lake...or whatever, as the sort of 'plain' terrain you are likely to encounter on your battlefield... just to 'throw down' as you do for actual 'features'?

Now this admittedly an extra piece of kit to store and carry around, but they should be much less demanding in this respect than a whole table worth of terrain boards, because you are just trying to 'breakup' the look of the plain cloth. Two or three of these 'plain-terrain' features should do it. Storing 2 or 3 of these 'features' for each terrain type you want to do, is much less than for terrain boards (where you need 24 SQUARE FOOT just to cover a 8'x6' table).

Well that's the 'concept'. I've managed to get a nice 4mm MDF board at Wicks and dried out a heap of rough sand. So as soon as I get the jig saw out I'll be sharing the results...

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