Recent years have seen a huge rise in pre-made terrain and scenery for tabletop wargames. No matter what period or setting you play wargames in you will be able to find the right scenery to help dress your battlefield.
If you are lucky enough to visit wargames shows then you will no doubt have seen how enormous the selection of lasercut MDF terrain is. In fact I released a tiny selection of my own when I published Open Combat Sword Masters (opens in new tab), you can see the 28mm MDF Tables here (opens in new tab) (great for leaping from in true swashbuckler style).
Along with MDF wargames terrain (available both unpainted and painted, depending on the manufacturer) there has been a steady rise in resin terrain being released, these in particular are very good for scatter terrain and detail pieces. So, with all of this fantastic scenery being commercially available why bother making your own?
For me personally there’s two reasons, well maybe four but the last two are sort of bonuses really.
Firstly, because making stuff is fun. I enjoy making terrain as much as any other part of the hobby. I might not be as skilled or refined in my approach as the professional terrain makers but I do enjoy making something from nothing.
Secondly, because the stuff we make ourselves can be absolutely anything we care to imagine and it’ll most likely be unique. One of the byproducts of the plethora of commercially available terrain is that wargames tables can all look a bit ‘samey’. That’s not necessarily a problem in your own gaming group, especially if it’s a small group with only one or two tables running at any given time but if you’re part of a big club it can feel a little bit visually deflating if you look around and it all looks so similar.
If you run tournaments I can totally see the arguments and benefits for the speed and consistency of commercially available terrain when it comes to getting coverage across a lot of tables. But for games in our own home (or if we have a very small play group) spending a bit of time on creating our own terrain can really add to the ambience of our games. Plus we can create things to help promote specific in-game challenges or even make unusual scenarios possible.
The other two reasons I think making our own terrain is a good thing to do and worth the effort are it saves money and it’s an opportunity to recycle stuff so putting less things back into the waste system.
Saving money is pretty self-explanatory – the commercially available terrain is fantastic and if your wallet is deep enough you can easily spend a small fortune on amassing a good selection of it. But for wargamers on a tighter budget, making our own terrain means we don’t have to lack for visually pleasing games even if we can’t stretch very far financially to populate the tabletop.
The recycling aspect is something I think many of us are getting increasingly aware of and while we’re not individually going to save the planet by making a bit of terrain it does at least stop a fraction of stuff going back into the environment.
As an aside I think the plastics and rubbish that are getting washed out to sea are a big problem for the environment. It doesn’t matter where you stand on various environmental issues, when it comes to the rubbish that our single use/throw away society has put into the environment it’s a stone cold fact. The seas are a hugely important part of the health of the planet and the systems we have used to handle waste in our society seem to be screwing them up. In the UK our own recycling system still exports a lot of waste overseas to be dealt with elsewhere which all feels a bit ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to me. In recent years countries that used to take our waste have said they can’t take anymore, I think we all need to change our approach to how we view throwing things away and look to our leaders to put funding into researching and developing more ways to not only handle the new waste we make but deal with the mess we’ve already made. I could go on much further on this topic as the health of the planet affects us all but I’ll get off this soapbox and back to terrain! 🙂
So with all this said if you fancy having a go at making your own terrain where do you start? To help you get going, I’m going to take you through a little ‘do it yourself’ project using something we wargamers will most likely all have access to: packing materials.
Easy Formal Hedges & Decorative Shrubs and Trees
I really struggle to throw the foam/sponge insert away that comes in a blister pack of miniatures. It could be a hedge (I have often thought), but the foam is so uniform in shape it has always felt rather less than inspiring to use for a hedge. Cutting in some jaggedy edges to give it more of a natural shape is never as effective as I hope but that was where I was going wrong. Why try to make a natural ‘wild’ hedge with something so uniform? Why not go in the opposite direction and use the uniformity to my advantage? Let’s make some formal hedges.
Living in the UK we are surrounded by grand houses with immense gardens that usually follow some formal design or geometric pattern. With the internet we don’t have to visit them to look for inspiration (but do so if you can!) try googling an image search for ‘formal gardens’, ‘decorative gardens’ and ‘castle gardens’ and see what comes up. I’m sure your wargamer brain will see a huge amount of potential there for both making things and playing across them!
For me, with Open Combat being played on a 24” x 24” area, a formal garden is a tabletop in itself and the variety of high hedges, low hedges and decorative shrubs can provide ample opportunities for Force Back fun and games.
So what will you need?
A good craft knife (and/or scissors), steel ruler and a cutting mat plus:
Foam/Sponge (from blister packs)
Plasticard/hardboard (for basing)
Static Grass (whatever colour you prefer).
DECORATIVE SHRUBS AND TREES you’ll also need:
Packing chips (these come in all kinds of shapes)
Cocktail sticks or Kebab Skewers (something suitable for a trunk)
Plastic bottle lids (for use as a container)
Optional extra: Tufts with blossoms.
Formal Hedges Step One – Planning and shaping
Before you start getting yourself covered in glue and static grass it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what you’re wanting to achieve. You might be trying to create an approximation of an actual formal garden design you have seen or a specific historical location to suit the period you are playing your games in. Alternatively, you may simply want to have a good selection of garden components to mix and match and create ad hoc designs as the whim takes you. Whichever route you choose, taking a few minutes to work out what you are wanting to use your terrain for will result in a much more satisfying finished project.
For myself I wanted a selection of garden components so that I could change the designs as the situation required. I can also continue to add to the collection of components over time to freshen up my options without being tied to anything specific.
I wanted some large hedges that blocked line of sight and could be used to build a maze (or part of a maze) as this would make an excellent environment to play games in. I also wanted some low hedges which could provide opportunities for players of Open Combat to force enemies models back across, tripping them and knocking them Prone. Alongside these hedges I wanted some decorative pieces for models to hide behind and, if I’m completely honest, just to look cool on the tabletop.
With all of that in mind I looked at the various pieces of foam I had available. I had some large, chunky blocks of foam (complete with peelable sticky back plastic on one side) which looked perfect for the large hedges. These are approximately 40mm high, 45mm long and 35mm wide, I decided that instead of messing about cutting to a particular size it would be much easier simply to use them ‘as is’.
I also had some long pieces of foam, approximately 8mm wide. I think this might be the standard width in blisters. I cut this into strips approximately 8mm high to form a sort of square profile if viewed from an end and 100mm (4”) in length. I didn’t mind any uneven places due to mistakes while cutting the foam as even well tended formal hedges have a few rogue growths sticking out.
Formal Hedges Step Two – To base or not to base?
Once I had the pieces of foam ready I considered basing. For the large block pieces my first thought was that it didn’t seem necessary. They were so bulky I didn’t envisage any curling as the glue dried and it seemed too much effort to cut bases for them all. But I did a test piece to see if the sticky back plastic on the foam block was any good and fixed it to some scrap plasticard. A bit of brown paint around the plasticard edge combined with a slight bleeding of the paint up the foam hedge (more on this later) convinced me that it was worth the effort.
The low hedges definitely felt like they might need a bit of support against potential curling so I cut some suitable shapes from plasticard (1mm thickness), I ensured that the size of the bases was smaller than the actual foam so that is disappeared beneath the piece of terrain. This was because I only wanted the foam to have a bit of structural support and didn’t want a base interfering with placement when arranging the low profile terrain on the tabletop.
I also wanted a few curved hedges and they definitely needed a base to hold them in shape.
To fix the foam to the plasticard I blobbed superglue (cyanoacrylate) along the plasticard and then gently squashed the foam to it until the glue set.
Then it was time for the messy bit.
Formal Hedges Step Three – Adding the foliage
Using a reasonably big brush I liberally daubed PVA glue over each surface and then sprinkled static grass onto it, firming down with my fingers to ensue the glue soaked into the static grass before shaking off the excess.
It’s useful to shake off the excess static grass onto a clean piece of paper so that you can pour it back into the container to use on the next hedge.
With the big chunky hedges I did two sides in one go and set the piece aside while doing two sides on the next one and so on, after all of them had two sides done I repeated the process on the remaining sides. This was mainly to minimise the sticky mess I was getting into.
On the smaller, low profile hedges I just did each hedge in one hit and got a bit messy in the process but it did the job.
What no primer!?
Now, under normal circumstances I would prime everything before even considering painting, flocking or decorating in any way. For the foam hedges I thought I’d try a shortcut and on the first one I mixed brown paint into the PVA glue (the plan being to provide a ‘woody’ background to the foliage). The result was… unexpected. The paint mixed with the wet PVA dyed the static grass brown and that was not the result I wanted (although I see it as a happy accident with one of my hedges suffering some form of die back on the foliage). In the end I decided to not use any primer or paint at all and simply used straight PVA straight onto the raw foam and the results were perfectly satisfactory.
I did paint the edges of the plasticard bases brown to hide the stark white of the plastic. A fortunate accident with this was that the wet paint bled slightly into the static grass and softened the line between foliage and base.
Decorative Shrubs and Trees Step One – Planning
If you take a look at images of formal gardens you’ll soon see examples of decorative shrubs and trees. Topiary is a very obvious example of this kind of decorative planting and you could easily go wild creating a whole tabletop based around topiary alone! (This is something I think I’ll come back to in another article).
I decided to make two different designs using two types of packing chips. I used the ‘S’ bend polystyrene chips and the cylindrical-shaped corn starch based chips.
Decorative Shrubs and Trees Step Two – Building
I had decided to make some potted shrub/trees for my first experiment with decorative planting. For the stem or trunk of the plants I used bamboo skewers cut to size, the container for these plants was made from plastic bottle lids. Simply cut a hole into the lid and glue the skewer into place. I hid the flat surface of the plastic with some filler (treating it how I would treat my miniature bases) to provide a natural earthy texture where the plant was growing from. What was useful with the plastic lids I used was the ribbed edge, it provided some visual interest to the piece not unlike an actual stone container we might see in a garden.
Decorative Shrubs and Trees Step Three – Shaping the Foliage and Painting
I wanted to keep things relatively simple with the first few designs to get a feel for working with the materials so I decided on using the cylindrical shapes to create a simple chunky tree.
I initially thought about using the S shaped chips ‘as is’ to form a simple S shaped bush (and I may come back another time and do this) but decided to be a little more adventurous with them and see how they behaved if I cut and glued them into a different shape.
In the spirit of producing something decorative I cut some of the S shaped curves and then glued them together to produce a rough heart shape. I had to do a little bit of extra shaping with the knife to get them to look reasonably as intended but once the static grass was glued onto them they made effective looking garden pieces.
I discovered an interesting behaviour in the corn starch packaging chips which, in hindsight, is pretty obvious but surprised me for a few minutes. Corn starch is biodegradable and if you put water on them they absorb some of the moisture and shrink! I hadn’t got this in mind when I started to glue things together so I was a little puzzled as the edges with the wet PVA on seemed to be retreating from each other but shrugged it off as part of learning process. It didn’t appear to be too much of an issue until I came to glue static grass all over the chips to create my shrubs. That was when significant shrinkage occurred. While not quite what I was going for they still looked pretty good.
The bases were primed prior to adding the foliage onto the trunk and painted as I would normally paint a miniature. I added some flowery tufts to the textured area around the trunk to help indicate the garden feel to the pieces.
So that’s it! A pretty simple way to use some of the packing materials we all get when having things sent to us through the mail.
I’m going to continue to experiment and add to the initial collection I have put together. Raised beds and low walls are certainly on my list of projects along with getting creative with topiary shapes. I’d also like to expand on the large block hedges to be able to build large layouts on the tabletop.
It’s a lot of fun creating your own terrain and going through the process has given me plenty of ideas for extra scenarios and table setups that I’m keen to explore in the future. The fact you’re using items you might normally throw away is a big plus too! So, grab some of the stuff you’ve got lying around (I’m sure you or someone you know saves things ‘just in case’) and have a go, it’s well worth the time and effort.