Tuesday, 7 October 2014


I thought I would say a bit about my take on terrain. The first thing to say is that I like well modelled, detailed terrain, and I have a large collection of model items, especially in 6mm - houses, trees, hedges etc. However over the years I have come to realise that there's a real tension between a good-looking landscaped board, and the practicalities of playing a wargame. The main problem is the clash of scales, figure scale vs ground scale. That these two are going to be different is pretty much inevitable, certainly in WW2 games, because of the distances over which battle were fought. At 1/300 a mile is nearly 18 feet, so the average table puts units no more than a few hundred yards apart. At larger scales it is worse - two 15mm tanks could engage each other from opposite ends of a tennis court, comfortably so for 20mm or 28mm models.

So, the ground scale is going to be much bigger than the model scale, except for very small scale skirmish games. That means that the beautifully painted house you put on the table is actually 100 yards long, and "represents a village". Half a dozen houses are a moderately sized town. Well that's fine, but now along comes a unit - some tanks or some infantry stands - and wants to occupy this town. In reality we have maybe a dozen vehicles or a hundred men who would filter down the alleys, hide in the gardens and entrench behind the walls. On our table we have some stands, and some buildings, and no way to put the two in the same place. In practice you can balance them on top of the roofs, put them behind the town and say "they are really inside" or put them off table and make a note. Whatever you do is unsatisfactory, makes it hard to handle the fighting as the models aren't where they should be, and doesn't even look authentic, which was the whole point in the first place.

In the end I decided that in order to get a good game with my nicely painted models I was going to have to let the third leg of the triangle go - the authentic-looking terrain. So now I use symbolic representations of areas of terrain. This may be felt - brown squares for towns, green ovals for woods and so on. I have also used paint - plain household emulsion, an overall green for the whole board, then woods, roads, towns etc in appropriate colours. That sounds laborious but it doesn't actually take much longer than setting a table up in the conventional way. Once I have the areas marked out I use models as well - one house in each built up area, a tree model in each wood. That allows me to indulge my modelling itch, and it's also a visual reminder that the flat green patch on the board is actually a wood blocking the LOS. Whatever, if a unit want to occupy the terrain then the symbolic house or tree is shifted out of the way, or removed altogether. That way the model units can be placed exactly where they want to be - on the edge of the terrain or in the middle, with no logistical issues at all.

I don't claim that this is in any way original, but it does annoy me when people pontificate about how plain terrain "let's down" the well-painted models or spoils the look of the battle. I always remember that, except for genuine skirmish games, everything on the table is just a token, representing something larger, and if having landscaped terrain makes it harder to play the game, then I'll take a different route. That's also the reason that I favour counters, beads or labels as play aids on the table - again, the "look's the thing" people will anathematise this. But if having, say, a pink bead to tell you a unit is suppressed makes it easier to see at a glance what's going on, then that makes me happy. Of course people have different motives for wargaming, and if a picture-postcard set makes you happy, then I am not going to say my way is better - it just works for me.

The pictures are the board I used for my recent Operation Epsom solo game - 6mm figures. The base is cork floor tiles, 1 foot square, painted green and then covered with mixed flock - a generic northern European look. On top are mostly felt terrain markers - woods, towns, roads, fields. The river I made from sheet polystyrene, cut into strips and painted blue with green flock "banks". It looks quite good but it is a lot of work and it's more vulnerable to accidental movement than the felt, which sticks slightly to the flocked tiles. (The red strip is a railway embankment, a particular item in that scenario). Overall I am quite happy with the look, somewhere between a real landscape and a coloured map. The battle involved a lot of crowded fighting around two of the towns, and this terrain meant that I could handle that without trees and houses getting in the way.

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