Making your battlefield terrain look better!

Click on the photo to enlarge it. This is an example of filling all of the open space on a gaming table with low cost, easy-to-make terrain features. The photo is of Scott Mingus’ s 15mm layout of Union II Corps troops (“Red” Carroll’s Gibraltar Brigade) marching through a northern Maryland village en route to Gettysburg. The gaming table looked almost like a diorama using the proverbial “two-foot rule.”

I really enjoy gaming the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, because I had ancestors who fought there, as well as some in the Western Theater (my great-great-uncles, the Chambers boys, were in the 7th West Virginia Infantry at Antietam and Gettysburg, and my great-great-grandfather Pvt. John D.  Sisson of Dover, Ohio, was a drummer in the 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry). Many eastern battlefields were in rolling, open farm country, which offers the opportunity to add considerable color and variety to the gaming table.

The key, to me, is to fill as much of the open space as possible with terrain features. Fields of various colors and textures, large quantities of fencing and stone walls (a diversity of styles of fences helps!), scattered trees even in non-wooded areas — all serve to break up the sightlines and add depth and variety to the observer.

To some, it may look cluttered, but to me, the variety of fields and fences add interest and color to the gaming table, especially when spread out over a generic ground mat. The array of colors often catches the eye of the passerby and draws him to the gaming table. This was one of my award-winning games at Cold Wars in Lancaster, PA.

Many of the terrain features I have made over the years are simple and quite inexpensive, yet they really dress up the tabletop gaming layout. For example, I like to re-use those plastic fake credit cards that come in junk mail solicitations. I cover them with a thick layer of Elmer’s Glue, and then apply various spices or coffee grounds to get a variety of shades and textures. Other cards are covered with Woodland Scenics clump foliage. Often I like to “plant” rows of young crops over top of the “soil” background (for example, rows of lettuce or other truck crops). These credit cards also make great-looking miniature “gardens,” which most farmhouses had in the 1860s.

North Carolina Confederate troops approach a garden beside a Maryland farmhouse during the Battle of South Mountain. The farmer’s wife will be devastated when she returns to find her well-tended rows of crops trampled by the feet of hundreds of soldiers.

Larger “fields” can be created by using cheap thin plastic cardstock. Plowed field effects can be made by either using scrap courdoroy fabric or by using a comb to make furrows in the partially dried Elmer’s Glue before sprinkling on the mock ground cover.

To me, there is no such thing as too many fields and looks. The variety and diversity of colors and textures attract attention from passing observers, who often are wowed at first glance by what appears to be a much more expensive gaming layout than it really is.

In the latest hard copy of Charge!, veteran gamer Lee King offers several other suggestions for making cheap, but eye-pleasing fields, fences, and other terrain features. While these will never rival the superb professional terrain of Doug Kline of Battlefield Terrain Concepts, they will augment those pieces nicely, or will look fine as stand alone terrain.

Even a few low cost, budget fields can add more excitement to what would otherwise be a very boring, plain green carpet. The more, the better!

Photo by P.J. O’Neill of one of my games of a few years ago. Note the massive amount of low cost terrain (mixed in with some choice pieces from Doug Kline’s Battlefield Terrain Concepts). This 6×16 gaming layout won an award from HMGS-East. That’s me on the extreme left, with my younger son Tom standing beside me.

Categories: Civil War dioramas, Civil War wargaming, Terrain, Wargaming in general | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Making your battlefield terrain look better!

  1. Joe LePard

    You talk of plastic card stock. What in the world is it and where do I find it?


  2. Hello Joe!

    I use plastic fake credit cards, as mentioned, for the small fields. For the larger ones, I used several 8.5×11 black or frosted clear plastic hard sheets that were designed for use in 3-ring binders for in front of and in back of the paper documents. These were from old notebooks my previous company was throwing away.

    The roads were made from thin plastic sheeting (Evergreen I think was the maker) that I bought at a model railroad store years ago.


  3. Mike

    Looks great! I’m also a big fan of filling up all that empty space – much more visually interesting.

  4. I also am a big proponent of as much terrain detail as practical. i love to take low angle PICs with good terrain. The challenge is always set-up time, particularly at Cons. For those I’ve found that premade larger pieces are the secret of faster set-up. Often times the game before you runs late and you are rushed to set up. I am always looking for new ideas on how to make/get more flexibility in good lookng terrain set-ups. Also, when a person invests the time and money to come play at a con, they deserve a decent looking game.

  5. Stephen

    What is the “two foot rule”…..what does it turn into with 28mm troops?

  6. Some gamers paint their figures to look good when viewed two-feet from the eye — the average distance someone once figured where enough detail can be seen to properly identify the troops and make them look good, without adding so much minute detail such as eyebrows and five o’clock shadows as to not be noticeable at that distance. The “rule” IIRC came from the world of 25mm figures.

  7. Jake

    I’m thinking of making a war diorama. How big should it be?

  8. It depends on the size of your available space to put the diorama, the scale of the figures and terrain, and the amount of time and money you have to invest. My advice is to start small and decide if you like the results before tackling a big project.

  9. Ariz Amezquita
    I’m trying to build a Farm and horse stable, what did you use for the grass??
    Is it fabric? What other ideas for grass? And where do you buy trees??
    Thank you!

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