Monday, February 24, 2020

Wargaming on a Budget- Making a Board Look Good

For many years, my wargaming had a very strict budget.  In many ways this was a blessing as it forced me to focus on what I needed and wanted to accomplish in the hobby.  I couldn't do it all.  heck, I could barely do it at all.  Therefore, I had to focus on what I needed to do to make a game playable.  Often times, that included making rules, using paper templates, and figuring out how to make my own models.  Heck, even toys were often pressed into service.

 Of course, something that sets wargaming apart from board gaming, card gaming, role-playing games, and video gaming is the table itself.  A big draw is the visuals and the "spectacle" of a good battlefield.  This aspect could really make or break a good battle.  Today, I want to break down how to make decent terrain cheaply and easily.  Thankfully, it doesn't even require much effort!

A good gaming set-up is based around the following segments.  You need a table.  From there you need a gaming mat to cover it.  Then you need terrain pieces.  That's it.  You have a decent table.  We will be looking at this issue from various levels. 

The Gaming Table
Depending on the game you play, the typical play area is anywhere from 3'x3' to 8' by 6'.  That can be a lot of space that many people just do not have.  The cheapest solution I have found for creating a good baseline gaming table is to go to a big-box retailer and purchase two card tables and put a piece of plywood over it, go to a big box retailer and get three 2'x4' folding tables, or to just gut it out and build the table yourself out of plywood and lumber.  I have done all three.

Now, if you have an existing table, the easiest method is to buy a piece of lumber and throw is on top of the table when you need it.  Most places will cut a piece of plywood down to size, but larger boards maybe subject to a bit of warping in the center, so I prefer MDF.  MDF is heavier though so that maybe an issue.  A board like this can run you $10 US to $25 depending on the quality.  When not in use, you flip the board off and slide it behind the couch, entertainment center, or other suitable out of the way place. 
Two tables pushed together

You can use a variety of item to build makeshift boards.  I use some NSF wire racks and a pair of old closet doors for my table.   It provides storage underneath and a flat surface on top. Virtually anyway you can get four "legs" or supports and a flat surface will work.  Found materials or cheap items from a Thrift store work great for this method.

For a long time, I used 4 folding plastic tables that were roughly 2' x 4" and set them up together.  These were very portable and easy to carry, pack away, or travel with.  They are a bit more expensive as new ones from a Big Box retailer will probably run you over $100.  However, I was able to scout out my first set at a local Thrift shop for about $20 total to make a 8' x 4' board.  Another source can be local churches, libraries, halls hat are upgrading their inventory or garage sales.                   

In a real pinch, I just skip the table and go straight to the floor.  Typically, this is completely free!  As I get older, this option keeps getting tougher.

The floor

Gaming Mats
A Gaming Mat is simply a cover you put over a table to make it look like something other than a table.  There are many nice neoprene or foam ones with fancy designs printed on them.  Very nice, but pricey!  There are much easier and cheaper ways to get a gaming mat.

I find the easiest way to make a gaming mat is to go to the local Big Box store and get the following items:

1. A plastic table cloth of a suitable color
2. A sponge roller from the hardware department
3. A Quart of paint that is a contrast color to the table cloth
4. A place you can pour some paint for the roller

This will run you about $15-20 US.

Snow Mat
You then spread out the tablecloth on a flat surface.  Typically, these table clothes cover about 8' x 4" pretty easy.  You pour the paint, and then you use the sponge roller.  Just roll the alternate color across the surface of the table cloth.  You normally have left over paint that you can store to paint up terrain later.  You then leave it to dry over night.

General purpose Green Mat
I have made deserts, water, snow, "urban", and other exotic terrain types using this method.  They store very easily by folding them up and putting them on a shelf or in a plastic container.  They are also very light and easy to move from place to place.  You can even use multiple layers to help create simple terrain effects such as islands, rivers, swamps, etc.
Using various Mats and cutting to create a ocean, beach, and land

Of course, this is not the only way to make a good play surface to go on top of your table.  Another easy, and relatively cheap method is to go to your local Big Box retailer and take a stroll down their fabric section.  There, you can find pre-printed, light fabrics that can be cut to size for your table.  These range from various forms a camouflage, to black, to other patterns.  They can be more expensive then a cheap, plastic table cloth but they tend to be slightly more durable. 

There is a third and final method.  This is the most expensive, but allows for the most "modular" of the gaming surfaces.  It is also the heaviest and hardest to store.  Go to your local hardware store and get a box of Vinyl tiles that are 1' x 1' in size.  You then apply a base coat f paint, and sponge a couple of similar yet contrasting colors and you are all set.

Vinyl tiles

On top of your nice game mat goes the terrain.  This is what your little armies of toy soldiers will be maneuvering around to achieve their objectives.  It is always nice to have an assortment of basic terrain to make use of to act as objectives and obstacles.  Some of the basics include a river, ponds, trees, shrubs, and hills.  With a good selection of these natural terrain items you can have a good looking table.  Thankfully, each of these can be cheap to make.  

If you are using a fabric or tablecloth game mat, hills are relatively easy to make.  You simply put a stack of books underneath the mat.  Boom!  Instant hills with semi-sloping sides for a more realistic look.  They are not always easy to balance minis on, but they look very naturalistic. 

Books under a cloth

Another easy way to make hills is to get some card board, cut it to a group of identical sizes, stack them up, masking tape the sides of them to seal the open edges, and then paint them up.  This can be cumbersome as it can take several layers of cardboard to get a suitable depth.

Layered Cardboard Hill

A second easy method is to gets pieces of styrofoam from the floral section of your Big Box retailer.  You can often cut them to size with a bread knife heated on a burner.  Be careful, it is hot!  You can then paint it up with left over latex paint from your game mat.  

Styrofoam Hills
Stack them for height

Rivers and Ponds
If you happen to make a water board table cloth mat, you can cut the extra 2 feet or so off and into lake and pond strips for use on your table.  That makes it really quick and easy!  However, if you do not have that option, I also recommend taking a look at the fabric section of your Big Box retailer for suitable gauze or light fabric.  I recommend making strips of about 8 inches long that can overlap to connect.  
Lake front property
To really make a river stick, line the edges with loose moss.  It really makes it pop and represents the shrubs and woods at the edge of any water feature.    
A fabric body of water

Shrubs and Fields
Most Big Box retailers have a craft section that sell fake flowers.  In that aisle, you will frequently be able to find a bag of loose clump moss for centerpieces and floral decorations.  They run between $3 to $5 US.  Buy 1 to 3 bags of this in various colors.  This moss makes amazing shrubs and scatter terrain.  They also do a great job "outlining" larger terrain pieces such as woods, rivers, or fields to act as a board.  it allows you to make "area terrain" very easily.  If you buy nothing else on this list, BUY THIS! 

Often, in the Fabric section of the same Big Box store you can find Faux Fur.   This makes great fields.  It often comes in square patches, that you can use as is or cut into smaller patches or strips.  When combined with the moss, it can make an excellent looking field.   

Faux Fur field with moss border
For hedges, I also recommend you go to the cleaning solution aisle.  There you will find packs of multi-colored sponges.  Often, there are a number of green sponges in the pack.  They cost about $3 to $8 US.  Buy a pack or two.  Once home, take out the green ones, and then use a scissors or knife to cut them into long thin strips.  You now have some hedges or hedge rows.

In the arts and crafts aisle of your local Big Box retailer, you will find packages of pipe cleaners.  If you can find black ones, that is great; but any color will do.  If you take 3 to 5 pipe cleaners you can twist them around each other to make a solid trunk, and then use the off shoots at the bottom to create a branch system at the top, and a root system at the bottom.  Then paint them brown.  The easiest way is to dip them into a can of latex house paint, but spray paint or brush paint works too.  Once dry, you can use white glue to attach clumps of moss for foliage.  These make great trees.

In addition, you can often find toy tubes of plastic toys int he Toy section of the Big Box retailer.  These are about $8-$12 depending.  They have a variety of small trees of various types.  I recommend two tubes, but you can make due with a single tube in a pinch.  Set them out on the table, and then outline the grove of trees with moss.  You now have a area terrain forest with 0 work on your part. 

Toy trees and moss for a grove
Dirt Roads
We again take a trip to the floral aisle.  Down this aisle, you will find a roll of burlap.  It will be far to long if you roll out the whole roll.  However, you have more than enough to make a couple of cross roads.  You can cut it to any desired length, and even cross it with ease.  If you also line the road with moss and rocks it will help it stand out even further.  This roll of burlap costs between $5-$8 US.

Burlap road with moss shrubs 

These are by far the most challenging piece of terrain to make.  The easiest method is to get cardboard boxes of a size you like, spray paint them a base color, dry brush a contrast with a big ugly brush, and then print color images of windows and doors to glue on them.  Not a method I have used, but I have seen some amazing Super-hero and Mecha tables using this method. 

Typically, I actually build them out of cardboard.  Cut them to the shapes I want and templates I want and then glue them together.  I use masking tape to seal the edges and then you can hit them with spray paint for a quick finish.  Some spray paint even comes with texture now to make it even better.

Sadly, I never did finish painting this
The final method to create quick buildings is to find ready made interesting shapes and just put them on the table.  These can be electrical boxes, packaging, containers, what ever you come across!  The novel shape will often be good enough to make it work.

Novel shapes = Futuristic! 

Cardboard packing walls
Random Bits
Scatter terrain is also a very important part of wargame tables.  Things like barrels, boxes, crates, dumpsters, pillars, bushes, etc.  Crates and boxes can easily be made by stacking card board strips together and sealing the edges with masking tape, or cardstock off-shoots.  You can also make paper templates that you fold up and glue together as well.
PVC and cardboard crates in the background

Another great source is the local pet shop, toy store, or post-Christmas clearance bin.  You can find all sorts of goodies such as ruins, sand bag pits, walls, trees, etc.  These cost a bit more but can often serve to add a bit of spice to the table.   
Post- Christmas walls for a snow battle

Columns from a pet store for aquariums

Final Thoughts
Your local Big Box retailer is an easy way to make a nice selection of terrain for your wargames on the cheap.  Most of it is also relatively easy to construct or requires no special skills on your part.  You can make very nice, effective, portable tables for less than $50 US and about 2-10 hours of work (not including dry time).  To me that is a great way to make your money and time budgets last!

If you do nothing else from this article, go to the local Big Box retailer, go to the craft section with the fake flowers, and buy at least 1 bag of clump Moss and Lichen!  It will raise your terrain game 100%!

Give it a try and let me know some of your best finds in the comments.





  1. Honestly I've given up on covering the table surface, especially for non-urban environments. Even if you get a really fancy covering, there remains the problem of not matching with miniature bases (you might be able to color coordinate yours to your table surface, but typically your opponents won't match). I have a nice dark wooden table, and it has become my favorite playing surface. It might be more toy-like than the fully landscaped "railroad modelling layout" many wargamers aspire to, but in the end this is what I personally like best. Of course I only do fantasy skirmish gaming, so perhaps it's also a case of realism not being that important to me.

    1. I have seen some people use clear plastic or acrylic bases to avoid this. It is part of the reason I do not personally get hung up on basing my minis.

    2. I know... but (and here it's gets really silly!), I think it will look messy when you pick up the miniature and look at it from below :-) Ridiculous!