2-D Terrain for Miniatures Games

By Steve Jackson
Miniatures painted by Ben Williams

As the second edition of Ogre Miniatures comes together, I’ve tried my hand at creating flat miniatures terrain, with moderate success.

Flat terrain? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Flat terrain is terrain that represents forests, rivers, etc., by flat pieces, and hills by stacks of flat pieces. The point of 2-D terrain is to look good while giving the miniatures a stable base on which to rest. It’s hard to play when your figures slide downhill on their own, or get trapped in the forest for real. 2-D terrain solves this issue.

A hill represented by layers, providing a stable base for the howitzer.

Flat terrain is also light and compact, easy to carry around. And it’s quick to set up. On the whole, it’s a good solution for most games. Any club, or any hobby shop with a play area, can use a box full of flat terrain of one kind or another.

Materials

Paper is the quickest and cheapest solution. Find some terrain patterns that you like (and we have some online at http://ogre.sjgames.com/miniatures) and a color photocopier. Bang. It’s all over but the cutting. Paper terrain isn’t durable, but it’s easily replaced — so easily that you will be comfortable writing or drawing on it to make notes during the battle, because at the end of the game you can throw it away. The biggest problem with paper is that it’s so light that it moves on its own. Spray the back with spray-glue, or tack it to cardboard, to get it to stay still.

Cloth is a traditional material for flat terrain. I found some good forest, plains, and water patterns on the shelf at JoAnn. Cloth is cheap, soft, flexible, and easy to cut into any desired shape. And it’s just as fast as making terrain from paper.

Cloth for terrain: clear terrain, water, forest, town.

The downside is that if your base table covering is cloth, another piece of cloth may be a bit hard to position precisely. And it frays at the edges (a product called Fray Check will help). Cloth may curl up on the table. And it gets creased and wrinkled in transport.

A sturdier material is cardboard. It’s still easy to cut to shape, and you can paint your terrain onto it. If you are not a master painter and want a more professional look, you can also glue paper or cloth to your cardboard. Lots of hobby glues will work to stick things to cardboard, including good old Elmer’s.

Downsides of cardboard: The edges are usually light-colored and ought to be painted, which takes a few more moments. Some kinds of cardboard dent easily, though others are very tough. And a cardboard terrain piece, once accidentally creased or folded, will never be the same.

Various kinds of flat foam are also available. Light open-cell foam in a variety of thicknesses will fall into your hands every time you open a package. (Well, now that you are looking for it, you’ll get bubble wrap instead, but the principle is sound.) Open-cell foam, when painted, has an organic appearance that some people like very much. It survives folding and squishing, and it doesn’t usually move around on its own. It may dent a bit when you put a heavy figure on it, but the dents will go away when the figure moves.

Or, for a small investment, you can buy pink builder’s foam insulation at the hardware store. You’ll need a knife to cut it, but it’s very durable, and can be covered with cloth or paper, or painted, as you see fit. It’s thicker than most other materials; you may find that either a plus or a minus, but the edges really have to be painted unless you want pink stripes all across your battlefield.

Neoprene

But I’ve been using thin cloth-covered neoprene, because I have access to a free supply. We create play mats in-house as promo items, and the rejects would otherwise go in the trash. Noooo! Don’t throw those away! I have a use for them!

The slightly tacky bottom of the neoprene mats, and their flexibility, turn out to serve very well for terrain that won’t move on its own. It survives squashing and folding. On the whole, it’s the best material that I’ve found.

I made some very pretty terrain by gluing cloth to the neoprene (rubber cement works; spray glue works better for big areas; silicone glue seems to cause curling).

A failed experiment. Silicone adhesive made the pieces curl.

Once the adhesive is dry, the neoprene-cloth sandwich can still be cut easily with scissors. I painted the black edges because I thought that otherwise I’d be able to see them on the table, but it turns out that that wasn’t necessary.

I did find one attractive cloth that wasn’t usable because with every glue I used, the neoprene curled up after it was glued down. Moral: if you can, make a test piece before investing a lot in cloth.

After a lot of experimentation, the best technique seems to be (1) draw a shape on the back of the neoprene mat, (2) adhere cloth to the front of the mat with spray glue or rubber cement, and (3) when the “sandwich” is fully dry, cut out the desired shape with sharp scissors.

I also got some perfectly usable terrain by painting directly onto the play mat material, either spray-painting with Krylon Fusion or Rust-Oleum 2X, or brushing with regular water-based acrylic hobby paint, or a combination. Either way, it takes a couple of coats, and leaves the neoprene less flexible but still adequately bendy. My artistic skills are less than masterly, but the final result was at least not embarrassing. I used painted neoprene for my swamp because I could not find a green-and-blue pattern that I liked.

Caption: Painted swamp and cloth-patterned water on green tablecloth.

“But,” you say, “I don’t have a source of scrap mats around.” The Internet comes to the rescue. You can buy neoprene in small amounts on foamorder.com, and doubtless on other sites as well. Furthermore, you can order it plain on both sides; there’s no point in getting it with cloth already on one side if you’re going to glue more cloth on it, and getting it plain is a bit cheaper.

Going Into Production

After I’d created a table’s worth of terrain, I decided that since we have the equipment, I’d take what I had learned and go into (small-scale) production — that is, actually use our playmat printer to make a few dozen terrain-patterned sheets, cut out the shapes I want, and give some to friends and our Friendly Local Game Store. And that will happen, even though it almost feels like cheating now that I have done it by hand . . .

But the craftwork was fun, and a useful learning experience — and I’ll still use the terrain that I made!

Caption: Finished layout, with Ogre Miniatures.
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