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Journal #1 - or, What I need from a modular terrain board?

So, this is my first post - my ramblings on creating a terrain board to play my wargames on, and my decisions that will shape (pardon the pun) the final form of the Pedion (tm) terrain tiles.

Please, whomever happens upon these lines, please bear with me: I am neither a native English speaker, nor have I written any kind of fan-blog entries before. And for any Greek speakers, please use the "translate" button on the right, hope it will help!

How it started? By giving into my desire to play as many wargames as possible. And I do not mean board wargammes, with chits, counters and hex boards, but the "paint-field-move-miniatures' army" kind. My friends will know I am an avid role player but I did not play wargames at home, and wanted to start doing so.

The painter-modeler in me wanted an appropriate battlefield to place my armies. I can live with playing with book stacks, boxes and rubbers, it is perfectly fine - it just ruins the experience for me, as it does for many people I guess.

Another common problem is that I do have a table, which is large and sturdy enough. However, living in a flat, that means the table rests in the living room (or the kitchen or someplace equally non-game friendly) and not in a play-room or garage. Therefore, I could not create a magnificent one- or two-piece terrain board, and put it there permanently (or even semi-permanently) without disrupting my domestic life (read: my wife would crucify me).
Actually, space is a commodity that I find exceptionally dear in a flat, as do many of you: terrain boards and big feature pieces, while so cool looking, need some place to store. And they take a LOT of room, usually far away from where you need them most; that is, the living room table (again, storing them next to china and crystals proves ...unhealthy).

Why the long intro? So you can understand what led me to stating the requirements further below. Keep in mind - I would kill to have some of those incredibly looking, large an heavy terrain boards/tables where I could easily game in no time. But having only a living room table and limited storage space, I have to find something that suits me.

Being not the first into such dire straights, there are a number of solutions for gamers like me. They can be generalized into three broad categories:

  1. the flat, printed board; either on plain plotter paper, cardboard or vinyl you may now print battlefield 2D pictures with reasonable cost, even for large sizes like 6'x4' tables. Or the flat surface can well be a tablecloth (usually green) or a large static grass mat. These are great solutions and I have used them many times (and will again). They are especially useful in RPGs or skirmish wargames, they make no mess, they can include a square or hex pattern, and you can roll them and store them away. Of course the rolls are big and take some space. But my main problems with printed surfaces are a) they are flat, and b) they are fixed.
  2. adding terrain pieces on a flat board; I guess this is the most common solution - God knows, it is the one I have used so far. It usually is an expansion of the previous solution: get flat green/printed board and add roads, rivers, hills, buildings etc. Its fast, does the job, looks good, and has actual game value: you can create different terrain configurations, depending on the scenario played or even random terrain placement rules. But it does not "look" that realistic. I am not only a modeler by hobby, but an surveying engineer/cartographer by profession. They are not pleasing to my eye and do not reinforce my will to wage battle on them. I am especially sensitive towards the ground features -not the man-made ones, like buildings. I would like hills and roads to look a part of the surrounding terrain, not like afterthoughts. And especially, I cannot stomach rivers, creeks, craters and chasms that actually rise OVER the surrounding ground (ok, only for WWII gaming in the Netherlands) 
  3. modular terrain boards; this is the most complicated and more expensive -but also most realistic- solution sort of a fully build terrain tabletop. And they come in all sort and sizes. Here is where Pedion come in. You see, I started searching for commercial solutions in terrain tiles, and while many, none fulfilled me completely. While there are many solutions for dungeon-building, the wargame terrains where quite expensive, big in size, did not allow much variation and came mostly unpainted - and they were expensive, did I say that? One of my favorites -which I almost ordered- is the HEXON II modular terrain; they are modular, lightweight, easily stored, allowing for an extreme variety of battlefields. However, even with them I would have to spend around €200 (that is ~$250) to fill a 6'x4' area of flat green flocked tiles, without any other features... ouch
After examining (and applying) the solutions above, I came to some basic requirements for my wargaming terrain (finally mate, took you long enough). These are:

  • Modularity - again, I would love to have a large, uninterrupted gaming board lying around, but I cannot. So I need my terrain to consist from multiple pieces (tiles) that I can pull out of storage and fit together to create the second best thing: a good looking terrain, even if some seams are showing. However, being modular does not mean that it would not offer some advantages: modular tiles should be used to create multiple layouts of the terrain, conforming to different scenarios - something that a fixed (or printed) board cannot do, however beautiful. Many make "modular" boards which are actually larger boards simply cut into pieces. They can be stored away, but always fit the same way (or with slight variations). I want my tiles to support different layouts - check out the great design process from Clarence Harrison over Quindia. Taking this a step further, I would also like my tiles interchangeable, e.g. I could remove some "broken ground" tiles and add some "forest" tiles in their place (kind like HEXON allows).
  • Efficient storage - storage space is an issue for me, and I guess for others. Terrain pieces tend to take space. Lot's of it. While this is something you cannot avoid with pieces like houses, trees etc (or can you? I'll let you know in a later post...) perhaps something can be done with the terrain board. Large pieces of board are simply to difficult to store. Rolled prints or mats can fit vertically behind doors or tall closets, but they can fold - and they are too 2D for me. So if I go with modular tiles, I would like them in a size that can be easily stored away. Large tiles take less time to fit into a board but take more space afterwards. Small tiles take more time to layout but be put into a box, on a self (this is something that Hexon does really good, I told you I liked them). What I would like would be tiles which they strike a "golden" medium between size and storage space. Something to fit on a regular 30-40cm (~1 foot) self and stack over another, allowing my to close the cabinet door and keep them out of sight. Stacking is also important: tiles cannot be too high/deep. Stacking 15 or 20 3-5 cm (2") thick tiles one over another can create  a largeee stack that will not fit easily everywhere. I would like my normal (flat, not hilly) tile to rise around 1 or 2 cm (0.4-0.8").
  • Lightweight - since I am tending towards a modular system, I will need to move it around. And not only from and towards my table, but to carry it to friends' houses, my game store, conventions, even ship it. Thus I need my tiles to be made from lightweight materials. This is one of the main reasons I would try to avoid eg mdf basing - it's great, but adds a lot of weight, even if the wood is thin. 
  • Economy- by this I mean affordable, not cheap. When people and companies charge these sums for their modular tiles, they are not out to make millionaires of themselves (I think). But molds are expensive, and this is the cost you have to pay for a quality product. However, I do believe that there exist materials and techniques that cost less (especially if you are doing it yourself). Perhaps there will be some loss on quality, but the result will not necessarily suffer so much as to be unusable in everyday wargaming. To be more specific, I do not think one can get a good-looking 3D terrain board for a 6x4 table with only $30, but I do not want to spend $250 for an unpainted board either. I would consider something in the price range of $80-120 a decent and honest trade for 4x4 or 4x6 terrain (even if I still lacked the funds to buy it). 
  • Durability - as theTerrainTutor aptly calls it, the tiles must be "wargaming resistant". Normal usage and storage should not see them bend, flayed, shrank etc... Not that there will be no wear, especially as long as the production cost goes down....
  • Appearance - yes, I would like my tiles to look good, and even come pre-painted and pre-flocked! I know, I could do it myself. However, if I am going to pay over 200 euros, at least the terrain can come ready-to-play. I do not necessarily mean professional looking, drooling over terrain (oh  - my  - GOD!). Realistic 3D terrain that creates the illusion of a real landscape will suffice to let my imagination roar (along with my Dwarves)
  • Level Surface - perhaps this sounds at odds with my wish for a 3D terrain board. I mean, if I want flat, I could just roll a grass terrain mat already! What I actually mean is that the terrain should be made for wargames, not for a modeling/railway diorama. I want realistic looking ground, but on the same time I have to move my miniatures along and roll dice. So the tiles should try and strike a fine balance between the illusion of a 3D environment and large flat (or gently sloped) surfaces where the minis do not fall off or get stuck when moving. This annoys the surveyor in me, but I HATE it when the minis do not stand upright...
  • Seamless - I understand you cannot escape the joints showing on a modular board. And the smaller the tile size, the larger the number of seams among them. However, I would like the tiles to fit closely, and perhaps a solution to cover the gaps from showing to much. Deep and/or wide seams can even affect gameplay, movement of trays, and dice rolling (dice may fall into the small gap, listing on one side). 
  • Connectivity - I would like my tiles to keep together and not move/slide on the tabletop. So something must keep them together. This can be done either by tile shape (an advantage of hex based tiles) or heavier basing - but the latter contradicts to my lightweight requirement above. Plastic tiles sometimes have a connecting system like some sort of clips. The minimum requirement would be a way to stop the tiles from moving horizontally. Now, if it could also allow for raising a bit of the board without some tiles falling off, all the better....
Wow, did you read this far? thank you! I will not rumble anymore, since I will elaborate on how Pedion will tackle these requirements in future blogs. I would welcome your ideas, additions and comments on the points I make, but hold your horses a bit on proposing solutions - these I will discuss in more detail another time. 

As a final note, I give you some images of my first efforts creating a modular tile system that tries to fill the Requirements I mentioned. In some areas it succeeds, in others it fails. What you see is a 4'x4' (approx.) game terrain consisting of road, plain and difficult ground tiles. It is extremely lightweight, easily stored, adequate on appearance, and can be laid out in a myriad of ways. However it lacks on durability and stability. I have moved on from these materials, but tell me what you think. Oh, and the building are just for show - cardboard printouts of the fabulous Dragon Games series. 

Good gaming all!