Tabletop miniature games are an incredibly versatile type of game. You can actually play them without all the representation and detail we go into. For example, instead of miniatures you could use paper cutouts or some other simpler and less expensive solutions. We actually see alternatives to the traditional and rather costly approach to miniature wargaming all the time. Some skirmish games, for example, will use modular cards to represent terrain.
In the end however, nothing beats beautiful detailed miniatures and sumptuous, detailed terrain for your pretend wars to play out. This not only makes playing the actual game much more fun, it also means your wargaming hobby reverts to a beautiful diorama when you aren’t playing, Making the terrain is just as satisfying as building and painting models.
It can also be a lot more challenging, and require a different set of skills. So in this article we are going to look at some approaches to terrain building and what your options are, depending on time, skill, and resources.
The Classic Way
The easiest way to get your terrain sorted is by simply buying it. Unlike the actual miniatures, you don’t have to buy your terrain from the company that makes the main game. Many of them won’t even be in the business of making terrain in the first place.
Obviously, for things that are very specific to the setting and license of the game, you’ll want some original pieces. Warhammer 40K, for example, has buildings and set pieces which really have a totally unique look. In other cases, a patch of grass is a patch of grass.
Printing Your Own
In another article on this site I extolled the virtues of 3D printing(LINK) and how it has revolutionized tabletop gaming. You can go and read about that if you like, but in this context it’s very clear how useful it can be.
As a quick recap, 3D printing involves using a machine called a 3D printer to turn a digital 3D model into something physical you can hold. Most often the print material is plastic. These days, for about $200 you can buy a desktop 3D printer to make small objects. You can also simply pay a 3D print shop relatively small amounts of money to print what you need for your game.
This opens up the possibility of some really amazing terrain dioramas. You still have to paint these models or have someone else do it, but the scope is endless.
Crafting Your Own
The good old-fashioned way to make your own terrain is by crafting it. Remember when you made houses out of tongue depressors or something similar for arts and crafts? Well, this is the same sort of creativity, just applied at a much higher level.
Polystyrene is a popular material for making terrain objects. Buildings are a great example of what you can make. Using some glue and a craft knife, you can fashion the walls and outer facade of the building.
Remember to take your figure’s scale into account, since they need to match each other. It’s probably a good idea to sketch what you want the building to look like. Once you have the basic shape glued together, you can use a craft knife to model in details such as decay, if it’s a ruin. Alternatively, you can make reliefs of other architectural details. Sticking bits of crafted foam on can also be part of the process.
Once you have the physical shape you need for the structure, then you can paint it. This works in about the same way it does for miniatures. You need to start with a base coat and then layer on the detail in the right sequence. I really recommend you watch some YouTube videos on how this is done, since that’s the fastest way to learn. Thanks to the modern age you no longer have to puzzle out written instructions – you can just watch and learn. There are a million practical guides out there to make everything from dank fantasy dungeons to futuristic and post-apocalyptic cities.
While the 3D, handcrafted terrains are amazing and add to the atmosphere of the game immensely, it’s not always practical or affordable. So another approach to terrain is to use plain old cardboard or paper with a printer. You can find all sorts of terrain to print out online and, for a lot of players getting into the hobby, this is the best way to start. All you have to do is head to Google and search for printable terrain. There are plenty to choose from for free. Also, nothing stops you from folding together things like model buildings from a printable cardboard pattern!
Scavenging for Terrain
With a little creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking, you can actually find terrain materials out in the world without having to buy or craft everything yourself. Tree bark, rocks, and other natural objects can be integrated into a terrain base and even painted or modified to fit the aesthetic of the world that you are trying to make. Model objects such as dollhouse furniture or small machines that are broken can, for example, be used to build dioramas. Only your creativity will limit you.
The idea of creating terrain might seem even more daunting than building and painting your models themselves. However, there are so many options out there, not to mention practical guides, that there’s sure to be something that appeals to you.
As always, don’t expect to make something amazing from the start. It takes practice to get as good as the show-offs at big conventions.