Monday, May 25, 2015

Making Terrain Boards Part 1: Planning

A portion of a beautiful terrain board from Wargames Illustrated Historicon 2014 display

I've always loved the diorama aspect of wargames,  but my focus always tends to drift towards painting up figures rather than making terrain. The fields, walls, buildings and trees that cover our wargame tables have such a great impact on the look of the game, they may actually be more vital to creating the overall look of a wargame rather than the figures themselves.

I have plans to create a large 9 x 5 foot grassy terrain cloth, similar to my desert wasteland cloth, but that requires a 9 x 5 foot table which I don't have. Constructing that large wargame table is at least a year in the future, but I couldn't stand my plain green terrain mat anymore. I've begun working on some terrain boards as the basis for skirmishes set in northern Europe (Saga, Lion Rampant, WWII ETO, fantasy battles, etc.)

Update: I've made a lot of progress since this first post. Here's a full list of my terrain board posts.

Research and Resources

I've never built a terrain board, so I searched for examples and tutorials by those who have more experience creating wargame terrain. I learned a ton these folks and highly recommend checking out their sites and videos:

The Problem with Terrain Boards 

I looked at tons of terrain boards and tutorials built by masters of the hobby. Despite their skill at replicating the natural world with bits of foam and paint, there are a few artifacts that always creep in that spoil the illusion for me: seams and corners.


I love the roads on these boards, but it's a shame there are so many seams

There are very few straight edges or 90 degree corners in nature. The seams between terrain boards jump out as unnatural, not only because they create a visual distinction between two otherwise unbroken area of ground, but because seams are so straight. I toyed with the idea of creating terrain boards with curving, scalloped edges that would fit together a bit like the interlocking halves of a yin-yang symbol but decided the trouble wasn't worth it. Instead I'm opting for a simpler solution. Many terrain boards are built on 1' x 1' or 2' x 2' squares. To reduce the total number of seams on the table I'm opting for large 2' x 4' terrain boards. Storage will be a bit trickier, but I think the reduction in total seams will be worth it.


One of the advantages of terrain boards over terrain cloths is the ability to created sunken features like streams and rivers. I wanted to include some sort of water feature but I wanted to avoid the other telltale sign of wargame terrain, the river grid. Because terrain boards are usually designed to be reconfigured into different arrangements, features that cross from one board to another (such as roads and rivers) need to enter and exit each board at the same place so they can be swapped out interchangeably. Unfortunately that leads to rivers entering and exiting boards in completely straight line, or making a hard 90 degree turn to exit one of the other board edges. When all of the boards are laid out the river snakes across the table in linear fashion, all straight lengths and 90 degree turns. Despite how good the rest of the terrain looks, the unnatural configuration of such a feature blows my suspension of disbelief.

Gorgeous terrain I can only dream of emulating, but aargh! the elbow corners in that river!

I was determined to avoid any sort of river grid. I experimented with a few layout options before striking on my solution. My river would enter and exit each terrain board at the same point, but at a 45 degree rather than 90 degree angle. By offsetting the river in such a way I'm hoping to avoid the dreaded river grid syndrome, while still allowing the terrain boards to reconfigure into different layouts.

Miniature Terrain Boards for Miniature Terrain Boards 

My 1 inch by 2 inch foam core mockups

I did some initial planning on grid paper, but to get a real feel for the boards I created some foam core mockups that I could draw on and move around. Integrating the river feature limits the number of configurations for the boards but I can get a total of five different layouts from just three terrain boards. Check it out:

I've also got some plans to integrate some dirt roads or trails, but I want to get some of the larger geographic features worked out before I commit to those.

This is a pretty daunting project and I'm learning as I go, but I'm making steady progress and I'll post updates as I go. If you have any tips, tricks or recommendations, please let me know!


  1. A tip for hiding seams comes from the wargames club "Spieltrieb Frankfurt":

    They use an adhesive foam tape in the seams which is painted afterwards to blend in with the rest of the board.
    If you make sure that the boards are pressed against each other, the seam will nearly disappear.

    1. I can't get that particular link to work, but exploring the rest of that site turns up a lot of encouraging photos. I have some plans to finish off the edges of my terrain boards, I hope they turn out as nicely as those of the Frankfurt group!

    2. You're right, the link is broken now. Hmm.
      Does this picture work?

    3. Oh wow, that is brilliant! Really making me reconsider how I was going to do my board edges....

  2. I'm in the midst of my own sectional terrain project!

    1. Miles, seeing you making steady progress on your own terrain boards was one of the kicks I needed to get started on my own! Thanks for the inspiration :)

  3. I will be following this with great interest as terrain boards are on my future project list. The river solution is a great one

  4. This is a great showcase of your talent and purpose. Also, just FYI, you have the absolute best blog logo in the hobby.

    1. Haha thanks Francesco! Glad you liked the blog and the logo :)

  5. In addition to the five 4 x 6 layouts, you have a number of 4 x 4 layouts using only twofold the boards.