Wednesday 1 July 2015

Ways to represent complex hilly terrain

When I were a lad, wargames were simple: you had maybe half a dozen battalions of Napoleonic British against a similar number of their French counterparts, you set up one or two woods, one or two small hills, perhaps a farmhouse or a stream, and off you went. This kind of generic encounter battle on basic and schematic terrain still makes lots of people happy: the tactical challenge can be sufficiently teasing, and the visual spectacle, especially in 28mm, can be wonderful.

But for my jaded palate, the generic encounter is no longer enough. If it isn't a direct and fairly faithful representation of a historical battle, even if a game has been one of non-stop see-saw excitement, I am left feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Hence my constant quest to refight big, important, historical battles, which led to the publication of "Bloody Big Battles!" and "Bloody Big European Battles!".

Now one problem with historical battles over historical battlefields is that real terrain is often very inconveniently 3D and lumpy. The traditional two-low-knolls-and-one-steep-ridge approach no longer works. You find you sometimes need absolutely masses of hills. And they are rarely tidy shapes either. They might be extensive plateaus; they might be a scattering of irregularly shaped individual hills; they might be a series of interconnected, snaking ridgelines, with multiple reentrants. 
Part of the Slivnitsa battlefield - very lumpy-bumpy

The point of this blog post (yes, I am finally getting to the point) is to highlight a few different creative ways that BBB players have tackled the challenge of complex hilly terrain. The five main different ways I have identified so far are:

- The Polystyrene Jigsaw
- Contour Formers
- Mix of 2D / 3D
- Custom Hill Tiles
- The Painted Cloth

 The Polystyrene Jigsaw

This has been my favoured method for a long time. When I embarked seriously on the BBB project, I realised hills would be an issue. So I invested in about £200 worth of hills of various dimensions from Total Systems Scenic (TSS), to add to my existing collection I'd carved from green ammunition packing. These have served me well, and I can jig them to make up pretty much any layout I need. It's a versatile, functional approach, and produces a reasonably attractive result, as witness my Custoza battlefield above. Downside, as you can see, is that the hills don't always marry up tidily and you can get canyons and caves where you don't want them, or ambiguity over where hills start and finish.

Contour Formers
On this thread on the Pendraken Forum, "Leman" has described how he produced a very fine example of this method. He has created custom-made terrain for Spicheren by cutting out the hills from a large cardboard box (folded out flat). Laying a cloth over the top of them gives a really good effect.
Matthew Green's Waterloo game, reported on TMP and on his blog, similarly used polystyrene tiles as contour formers under his usual green cloth.
This is more laborious than the polystyrene jigsaw, and  all the work goes into just one battle (which of course can still mean several games and many hours of entertainment if you replay it a few times).

Mix of 2D / 3D
Where there are many hills of more than one contour, one way to 'cheat' and simplify the problem is to represent the first level in 2 dimensions rather than three, and only use 3D hills for the higher level(s). This can be done either by simply delineating the 2D lower level using hedges, pipecleaners, sprinkled chippings, chalk outline etc; or, as Konstantinos Travlos did for his Nikopol Russo-Turkish War game, using coloured paper templates and other flat terrain items for the lower layer. I have used this method effectively for The Alma (Crimean War), below, and more recently for Katseljevo (Russo-Turkish).

Custom Hill Tiles
For our St Quentin (Franco-Prussian War) display game, I spent hours carving hills of the right shape from modelling tiles, then painting and flocking them. It looked good! But the cost-benefit /effort-to-reward analysis wasn't great, and I don't think I'd do it that way again.

The Painted Cloth
BBB players have produced some really striking examples of battlefields painted directly onto a gaming cloth, hills and all (with the hills then accentuated by placing books or other padding under the cloth in the traditional manner). Vincent Tsao in New York created one for his fine Waterloo 200th Anniversary game. And Franz in Germany has produced gorgeous layouts for Mars-la-Tour and Montebello (see photos in the BBB Yahoo group). I have also seen this done for Gettysburg.

So the message is: don't be put off doing historical battles by the fact that they often demand complex terrain. There are several different ways you can deal with it, and without too much effort you can produce a great visual effect.


  1. For my Waterloo game I went with a printed tabletop, a variation on the painted cloth which I have used in the past. An additional benefit (apart from ease of showing contours) was in providing roads and streams (and everything else come to think of it). Downside it was very unforgiving (particularly in relation to "useable" gaps between terrain features and some of the colours used to mark contour levels were on the tad too bright side).

    With the map, set up was really easy, as was transport.

    Since the game, and in preparation for a rematch, I am working on redoing the contour textures as well as stripping out a lot of the information that was on the map. I am also being careful to only include important/significant terrain features, not just everything that might have been there (the woods between Fischermont and Plancenoit are a good example - given the Prussians covered that ground pretty quickly, the woods could not have been that extensive).

    A down side with 2D is that some players (myself included) tended to "miss" terrain features (although I've seen that happen with more traditional table top terrain, although less frequently - the worse thing is when someone moves a bit of terrain as it is "in the way").

    Great post on this challenging subject.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks very much for commenting. I've enjoyed looking at your report of your Plancenoit game now, thank you:

    I agree with you about the 2D problem of overlooking terrain features. I think both functionally and aesthetically a mix of 2D/3D is better, with some padding under the hills, and some trees and buildings on the woods and towns.



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