Wednesday, May 30, 2018

On, In, Through: A Theory of Terrain Design for Wargames

This dense jungle terrain channels figures between each piece, but they can't enter or cross them.

I finished my jungle terrain pieces a few weeks ago and brought them to the game shop for our Monday night wargame. One of our group stopped to inspect them.

"They look cool, but you can't really do anything with them."

I was initially confused. You could do lots with my jungle terrain! Move figures around them! Hide behind them! Why, the possibilities were... two. There were just two ways figures could interact with my new jungle terrain.

I was still happy with the look of those jungle pieces, and they've served well to fill out our jungle themed Caribbean games, but I did go through quite a bit of thinking on terrain and came to some conclusions about what makes wargame terrain functional and fun to play on. First, let's check out why some terrain is problematic.

Bad Terrain

My jungle terrain blocks line of sight and movement through it. We haven't used it for any periods that include flying units or indirect fire weapons, so in most cases my jungle terrain has similar properties to the table edge.

I'm sure "the table edge" doesn't factor into many peoples lists of interesting terrain. In some scenarios units may be off table (reinforcements yet to arrive, or attackers making an offboard flanking maneuver). The table edge blocks line of sight to those offboard units, and prevents units on the table from moving across it (without abandoning the game for the most part). The jungle terrain I created acts in much the same way, except by creating "sinkholes" in the middle of the play area.

I also built a Spanish style building for our Caribbean pirate games. I was focused on making it robust since I'd be transporting it to and from the game store where we play. I made sure to glue everything securely, including the roof to the walls, and the walls to a base. It's a great model, but our group needs to make some accommodations when we use it in a game. Units that enter the building are moved off the table, with some sort of notation to remember which floor they are on. It works, but again, the figures are no longer interacting with the terrain piece.

In, On, Through

When tackling my next set of terrain, I decided to try and adhere to three rules of thumb to make the terrain a bit more engaging to play on: figures would be able to be placed in, on or move through the terrain piece.

  • In: A unit may be in the terrain piece. Most commonly, this applies to terrain features such as woods and buildings, but also handles rough ground, swamps, and more. As long as the unit gains an effect after being placed within the bounds of the terrain feature, it's in it.
  • On: Some terrain features provide features to units based on elevation. A unit isn't "in" a hill, but on it, and usually gains bonuses for it's superior position above units below it. This also applies to the tops of buildings, cliffs, etc.
  • Through: A unit can pass through a piece of terrain, entering one side and exiting from another. Some terrain prevents all movement through it (like my jungle terrain), but a building with one entrance, or a cave would also block movement through the terrain since there's only one entry point. 

Better Terrain

As an exercise, take a look at how we can improve this Spanish style villa. 

Please excuse my crude illustration.
  • In: Units can already enter the building and gain benefits for being in it. By making the roof removable, the figures can actually interact with the terrain piece. 
  • On: While a unit can attack from the elevated position of the second floor, we could add some variety by attaching a balcony to the upstairs bedroom. Units could be on the balcony but not  in the building (perhaps an officer can provide a morale bonus from being visible on the balcony in addition to the effect of being elevated, but loses the defensive benefits from being within the building)
  • Through: By adding an additional door units can enter and move through the building. 
Now not every terrain piece needs to fulfill all three of these objectives, but I found that reviewing these rules of thumb in construction of new terrain helped me make my new pieces a bit more interactive. Hopefully they'll be features to fight over, instead of around.


  1. That's an interesting set of points you make there John. I totally agree that terrain should be more than LOS blockers. Everything on the table should be as interactive as possible.

    One area that is often overlooked is the table itself. It's often flat, which necessitates a lot of terrain. If we didn't festoon the table with it then the game would be very limiting, tactically. And therefore, less fun....just a straight up shooting gallery.

    I completely understand the dilemma though, it's a lot easier to just lay down a flock mat and be done with it. But I think it really adds to the game if there's undulation in the tabletop as well. Trenches, low hills, rising slopes and valleys....these are things that I feel have to be thought about consciously. Mostly because the bulk of the games we see in this hobby are played on flat tabletops.

    I'm building a table at the moment, and I've tried to introduce as much variation into the design as is practicable. I hope it will offer more tactical choices to the games and by extension, more fun.

    Great post John :)

    1. Thanks Mr. P! I agree about the undulations that make a flat table more interesting. The challenge I found, was finding slopes gentle enough to enable figures to stand on them without falling, but still imposing enough to impact the game (via interrupted lines of site, etc.)

      Best of luck with your terrain! Looking forward to seeing the end result!

  2. There's always a difficult trade-off between realism and playability and it's one that I constantly juggle and never get right. Similar to having an angel and devil on either shoulder, I'm stuck with a gaming grognard and grizzled scale model railroader on either shoulder - they provide very helpful but conflicting advice such as "Use a book for a hill Idiot" which is then countered by "the clay in the Iderian peninsula has a slightly different tone - yours is crap"

    I think I tend to flip flop between realism and playability but always try to make good looking, durable terrain. Terrain has a huge role to play is setting the right tone for a game and making it visually appealing and I personally believe that "experience staging" is more important than playability

    Wonderful looking Jungle, by the way!

    1. Thanks Miles! I think you must have figured out the secret, because every game I've played on your terrain has been both beautiful and full of tactical depth. :)

  3. Nice post! I think buildings are the most problematic of terrain. It can be hard to hit that balance between appearances and playability, especially in scale. Also, I think the nature of miniatures with being on bases make moving in building harder to achieve.

    I do like the three things to think about while making terrain and letting it guide you.

    1. Thanks Stew, and buildings come with another challenge: the footprint of scale buildings may make them unusable in an actual game, so we need to shrink, stretch and squash building dimensions to be playable and still look like the real thing!

  4. I totally get where you are coming from in your post That trade-off between immersion (eg a jungle board looking like a jungle) vs playability (farking jungle bits everywhere, no room for the minis) is a tough one. I've found myself regularly drifting back to a playable board being a the #1 priority. There is a game who's name eludes me at present that has an interesting take on terrain: each terrain piece has its own stats and requires action points to occupy + confers penalties and bonuses for the occupiers re their attacks and defenses etc. I'll see if I can find the details and share.