Dining Table Dilemas

Wargaming is a hobby of many parts.  There's the planning, whether historical research, or poring over the relevant codex, battletome or world guide if you're into your sci-fi and fantasy games.  There the time spent sourcing, collecting, assembling, painting and basing your models. And then there's the actual gaming itself.  Each part is important, though I understand some of us wargamers prefer some parts more than others.  But whatever the project, they all share the same journey as we bring them from an idea into a reality on our gaming table.  

And that's what I want to talk about in this post; the table.  Or, more accurately, what we put on the table to game across. And that has been a bit of a dilemma for me over the years...

I began with a couple of boards, each about 4'x3'.  I covered them with those Javis grass mats.  For the first month, maybe two, they looked the business. But as the months wore on, more and more of the static grass wore off.  It wasn't too long before the gaming surface was looking threadbare in patches as more and more of the parcel paper the static grass was attached to began to show through.  Besides which, all the edges were getting ripped and tatty.  Things obviously had to change.  

For me at least, all I was looking for was a green gaming surface.  It may be as common as muck, but a grass board is going to do you well in most periods, from ancient right up to modern.  At the time, all my gaming was taking pace on a green surface anyway.  There really wasn't any choice in the matter.  And by this time, I was looking for something that would be easy to set up.  Don't get me wrong, two 4'x3' boards weren't exactly bulky, but when you find yourself married with children, you start realising how impractical it is to walk about carrying such large things, because you can barely see where you're going.  And you've no chance whatsoever of seeing where your feet are going to land, which isn't much use when the floor is littered with toys..!

My mind gets rather vague about how the next phase happened.  I think this is in part due to the lack of wargaming that happens when your children are young.  Everything goes out the window when you have a newborn child to focus on.  We were delighted to have two in the space of roughly two and a half years.  The toy soldiers were less enthusiastic about it all...!  

To be honest, my children's early years were a bit of a wilderness for my gaming.  I don't think a lot happened in those first five years or so.  So by the time I was looking to get gaming again, I had only had one project on my mind: Chris Peers' wonderful Saurian Safari.  I'd first heard about the game within the pages of an old Issue of Wargames Illustrated I'd had sitting around for a long time.  Of course, by this point, everything I needed was unavailable.  So, after much searching, I managed to find a copy of the rules available online, so I didn't think twice about purchasing them.  I also came across The Honourable Lead Boiler Suit Company, and began to use what little available cash I had to purchase some of their dinosaurs.  Larger dinosaurs were sourced from Tamiya and Airfix.  The main protagonists were hand picked from Redoubt Enterprise's Zulu and Sudan ranges.

Of course, all this excitement made me return to the conundrum of getting a suitable gaming surface.   I decided to use a rather large 5'x4' piece of 18mm thick MDF I had lying around.  (As you do...!)  And because I was so fed up with static grass falling off a grass mat, I went very old school.  I cast some plaster of paris, broke it all up and stuck it to the board for rocks.  And I applied PVA glue all over, and carefully sprinkled sand all over it.  And yes, I then began painting it all.  That took a while. 

I was also very clever, because I had deliberately left about a centimetre all around the edge of the board.  This allowed me to paint it black (which made it all look rather posh) and I measured out increments along those edges.  And to make the board look even more posh, I painted them in with a gold paint. You roll two dice in Saurian Safari to determine where a dinosaur randomly appears on the board you see.  This plan helped that along no end!

And then I entered a whole new world when my wargaming began to take off once more.  As had always been the case, I end up happily being the host for games with my friends.  And that meant things were going to need to kick up a gear.  Trouble was, I had either tatty boards or a custom built Saurian Safari board that was custom built, and incredibly useful for Saurian Safari.  But pretty rubbish for virtually everything else.  Plus, all those plaster rocks were playing havoc with balancing my drop in terrain...

What did I do?  Well, at the time there was a website that had recently appeared on t'interweb called Antenociti Workshop.  They were promoting a gaming mat.  You could lie this down on your table and play away to your hearts content.  As usual, I procrastinated and wondered if it would be the right thing to do.  And then, after a while, I gave in and got it.  And it was perfect, right up until I came to use it in a game that is.  And then I found myself in a whole world of hurt.

You see, that mat was rather...rigid.  Admittedly, I had decided to place it on the table in the assumption that it would just, well, flop over the edges.  Did it heck as like.  It just sat there, refusing to bend, poking out and being awkward.  And then there were those places where it decided it didn't want to lie perfectly flat because it had been rolled up since it had been made.  Which caused pandemonium across the middle of the table.  You know, where I hoped to be radical and put things like, well, scenery and, heaven forbid, some models.  So I went and put a board underneath it.  Didn't solve the ridiculous bends in the middle, but hey, I had to do something.  After all, my friend was coming over and we needed a board to game on.  And when he did turn up?  Well, that mat looked flat at the edges, but it wasn't.  So the bloomin' thing just managed to poke up whenever and wherever we approached it.  Which put the miniature world off its axis every time we tried to game on it.  This, you'll understand, is not a good thing.

So I needed another plan.  One I could go all in with.  And boy did I.

Modular terrain boards.  Sounds great, right?  

Yeah, I agree.  Great to build.  The source of much joy and admiration from fellow games over the following years.  They're still in use to this day.  Extra boards were added to give more variety.  It was all good.  Well, save for two things...

Firstly, yeah they look great.  But they are also very heavy.  So its no fun going into the loft to dig them out.  And even worse when its nearly midnight and you're trying to get them back up there again afterwards.

And secondly?  They're really limiting. More than you'd expect them to be.  Sure they look good.  Rivers and streams cut into the baseboards., rather than sit higher than the grassland that surround them when you use drop on terrain. But there's the problem.  Sure, you can arrange them differently, but there's only so many combinations before the options are all used up.  They're great for skirmish gaming, but there's not a lot of space for laying out large armies.  

And there's the real rub. Because ultimately, all that modelled on terrain means that it looks great for the scale of models you've designed them for.  But it doesn't look good for a different scale.  No point having a meandering stream with bullrushes and scrub if it looks horribly wrong with 15mm or 10mm models on it.  No, you need something simpler, and a lot more versatile.

Armed with this revelation, I began searching for alternative solutions.  And after a lot of thinking, even more searching, and not a little frustration casued by the dawning revelation that I had found myself the perfect storm of problems that could never be resolved, I came across Kallistra and their Hexon II system. This gives a great deal of modularity, enabling you to fit the boards together in a great many different ways, each ensuring that what you have on them creates a different kind of board. This is definitely a good thing.  Just as long as you don't mind having table edges that aren't straight.  And honestly, you don't notice the hexes half as much as you think you might once you're gaming.  They're even rather helpful for players to start calculating distances when you're in a global pandemic and running a virtual game over t'interweb. 

So that's the problem solved, right?

Not by a long shot.

You see, if you're interested in hosting lots of games, then there's a problem.  They don't all occur in a green and pleasant land.  You need different base boards for different things.  I made city boards.  I purchased some more Hexon boards to make a desert. And pretty soon, I realised I was going to run out of space for everything.  And the cost of Hexon boards for every terrain choice, plus the various flocks and scatters you need to buy begins to make things prohibitive.  

Now at this point in our narrative, it's time for a quick reality check.  if you have one of those houses with oodles of room, then make loads of modular gaming boards.  You've got the space, and obviously all the money you'll ever need to make it happen.  If this describes you, I'm genuinely happy for you.  So toddled off and make some more boards.  Enjoy!   

Right, now the privileged few have left, I'm assuming I'm talking to those of us who have to live int he real world. I'm talking to all the gamers who have a small on-the-lap paint station because they don't have a hobby desk. I'm talking about people who want to game, but only have a dining table at best to game on.  And in a world where multiple small scale skirmish games have taken over from large set piece armies, then you need lots of terrain and lots of boards to game over. So here's what I've done...

I went for some gaming mats. 

Not gonna lie, this wasn't an easy decision to make. I like modelling boards for wargaming. Scratch that, I really love it. But loads of boards take up lots of space. So I looked about, found a mat I liked, and took the plunge. 

I decided to go for neoprene mats, one made by Deep Cut Studios, and I've never looked back. I love the way they easily roll up, and even more how they always lie nice and flat.  No danger of any creases along your gaming surface with one of these things. I began with a city ruin design, and have expanded to get a desert mat, sea mat and an aerial view of fields. Of course, this has opened up a whole new world, where multiple base boards are possible, each one able to roll away between games, occupying only a fraction of space compared to all those modular boards, and Hexon boards, and those TT Combat boards I tried out for my city boards.  

I've learned through experience that a flat board is the most modular board of all. Put on your terrain, and Bob's your uncle (or other relative of choice).  Sure, if you have the space, I don't think anything can ever beat a properly modelled layout, with all the contours skilfully sculpted, painted and flocked.   But if you're someone like myself, who loves gaming lots of rules and needs something more than green fields, you have to look to compromise somehow.  And I have to say, I love my Deep Cut Studio gaming mats.  

And always remember, no matter how good your modular terrain boards may be, they won't suit every scenario you're going to play.  Just look at mine. I'm really, really proud of them.  But that drop off to water, and some of the irregular ground is great for 28mm skirmishing.  But it's about as much use as a chocolate fireguard when it comes to different scales, or trying to lay out terrain on top of it when you need to.  

Of course, getting one mat son led to another, and another, and another.  But remember, they are a lot cheaper than a modular board.  They are more versatile.  They can be scale specific, or scale agnostic depending on which ones you go for. 

But things didn't stop there.  I decided to invest in one of those fur mats.  

Now, I have to say, this fur mat is absolutely incredible.  Get down to model height and it looks like your models are walking through the prairies.  Gorgeous.  Aye, as long as they are at least 28mm tall.  Stick some 15mm in there and, well, they disappear.  So that whole scale thing is seriously worth considering before making a purchase.  

So, what conclusions can I draw?  

Well, after thirty odd years of gaming, I can honestly say that a lot of it depends on what you are looking for.  If you want hyper realism, then you're going to need to make some modular boards.  Like, a lot of them.  You know, to maximise on the number of games you can play on them. Green boards are probably best for most theatres, but you'll need others for desert, winter and so on.  If you live in a massive mansion with oodles of storage, this could be right up your street.

But if you like to play a lot of different games, and need boards to cover different theatres and, quite possibly, different scales, you're going to seriously need to consider your options. If you don't have a massive cavern to hoard everything in, you could go for the Hexon option.  That way you can flock up your boards how you wish and very easily interchange them to create a lot of different layouts.  But bear in mind a single box covers only a 4'x3' area, so you'll need two to play your average wargame, and then a lot more to bring on the other locations you're going to want to swap in and out. 

And if you live in the real world, where you want lovely terrain, but need it to pack away somewhere safely without having to turf your nearest and dearest onto the street to make way for it all, then I would seriously recommend gaming mats.  I've obviously spoken about Deep Cut, but there are plenty of other manufacturers with lots of different products out there worth a look.  Stick gaming mat into your search engine of choice and see what comes up. I've heard nothing but good things about PWorks, Geek Villain, Cigar Box Battlemats and Tiny Terrain to name but four others.  Have a search, have a think and see what comes up.  You might just stumble on something even better than anything I've tried. 

One thing I have learned over the years is that whatever you play, you're best with a completely flat gaming surface you can drop your scenery onto.  You can't do that too easily with modular terrain boards. You can do that without a second thought with a gaming mat.  And there's nothing stopping you from putting some books or something similar underneath it to give you a hill or three, or some ridges.  

Anyhoo, as always, thanks so much for stopping by.  I hope my ramblings have been helpful.  Feel free to chuck your tuppence into the discussion in the comments below, and I'll do my best to answer any questions as honestly as I can.