Quick Hint #31

Planning Modular Scenery

Sooner or later most of us will make the leap from using flat green mats with scatter scenery to detailed modular scenery (then we wonder where we are going to store it all :)). But then as we start to think about everything, the complexity of making it look nice whilst still having the playability and flexibility we want will start to give us cold feet.

For this hint I’m not going to show you how to build a modular terrain board (maybe one day in the future) but I’m going to give you some hints on how to design one.

The Plan

This is where it all starts. Get this right and everything else gets a lot easier.

As any good designer will tell you the best way to start a plan is with a scrapbook. This can be a real scrapbook, a notebook or a folder on your computer (I tend to use a book and my PC). In this you will be keeping all those ideas you have, either as notes or pictures from magazines and the internet, even sketches.

What do you want?

This always sounds obvious but a lot of people will start building a modular board without considering this key question. Things you really should be asking yourself at this stage are as follows:

  • How big can I make my boards and still store/carry them (a 4′ x 4′ board is almost impossible to carry without damaging it and won’t fit in a car)?
  • Do I want to use it for multiple game systems?
  • How modular do I want it to be (modularity reduces things like hill sizes, rivers, roads. You may need to compromise)?
  • Will you want to extend it later?
  • What can you afford to spend?
  • What is your skill level?

The Answers

Now that you have thought about it your list of wants might look something like this:

  • Only need two 2′ x 2′ boards to start with but want to extend to cover 6′ x 4′ later (your tiles don’t have to be square, it just increases the modularity if they are).
  • Must be usable for two similar game systems.
  • It must be as modular as possible but I do want a river to run through it.
  • Money is tight but if I start with only 2 boards I can spread the cost out over coming months.
  • I’m not that confident but I’ve worked with foam to make hills before and my friend has offered to help.

The Design Stage

Now that we know the rules of the game we can actually start to design something. By now you should have some ideas written down about things you want; barren area, stream, lake, cracked mud etc… With luck you also have some reference pictures to fire your imagination (picture can paint a thousand words and it’s true).

The next stage before we start is to go and find some paper (preferably graph paper) and cut out some squares of equal size. Try and keep the squares reasonably large, about 6″ square is good. I would cut more than the number of boards you plan to make, as you will change your mind and it’s always good to plan for extending your boards right at the outset.

OK, you have your squares, your notes, your ideas and hopefully a pencil. Lets design, or rather look at the paper squares for half an hour (it’s never that easy to get started). Start with one square and try and sketch our some of the features you want, if you are using pencil you can always change your mind later. Leave things like roads and streams for now if you can as they only complicate things.

After some time you will have a square with some scribbling on it, try to avoid anything that touches the edge of any of your squares at this stage. Now repeat the process until you have one square for every modular tile you want to make. That’s the easy bit done.

Now place the paper squares down and arrange them as you would a game board. Do they match up in a pleasing way? Keep rearranging them to see what works and what doesn’t. Are they as modular as you wanted and do they look like real terrain in different configurations? Don’t worry if there are some layouts that look strange, this is almost inevitable. So grab your pencil and rubber and start making changes to your design, all the time testing the layout until you are happy with it.

Individual Tiles
Individual Tiles

Great so you have a layout that works but it’s lacking something. Roads and streams, in fact anything that crosses the line between one board and the next. It may be that you don’t need any of these for now but one day you will. So grab a paper square that you think should have an edge feature, such as a road through a village and draw in a road. Now play with the tiles again and you will see you have a problem, nothing joins with the road. So continue the road on to another tile and then rearrange them again, and now you have two tiles with edge features that don’t match, except to each other. Now your modular system is looking less modular. Of course you could continue this until every tile has a road exit point on every side, thus preserving the modularity but it would look awful. This is a trade-off we all reach, function vs. form. All I can suggest here is that you take a balanced approach, add as many edge features as you need to for the sake of modularity but few enough so as not to impact on the appearance of the scenery. (Two solutions to this are bigger tiles as these provide less modularity to start with anyway, or smaller tiles with lots of spares so you have more permutations of layout).

If you have any existing scenery it’s also worth making some cutouts of it’s base coverage to test on your new boards to see how well it fits.

So eventually after a couple of days of continuously tinkering with your layout you will have something you are happy(ish) with. It won’t be the stunning alien vista you wanted but that was never going to be achievable anyway (be honest with yourself here). OK,  so far this layout is only on paper but at least now when you come to build your boards you will know what you are trying to achieve (and then you will change bits as you build it anyway :)).

About Jarec

Long term Wargamer and dice hugger. My preferences tend towards Fantasy and Sci-Fi but I have a strong interest in the WWII and Vietnam gaming eras.
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