My Geeky Hobbies: TERRAIN BOARD

As many of you know, I got into miniature painting last year because I needed a hobby that wasn’t writing. I needed something low key in order to clear my brain. Since I had gotten back into gaming, I started out by painting samurai miniatures for the L5R campaign I was playing with my kids and for the infamous Writer Nerd Game Night. (on that note, starting in 2013, I’ll be posting a new WNGN serial every Friday again. The new group already has over 100,000 words of fiction).

Then Howard Tayler and Dan Wells introduced me to Warmachine. So not only could I paint cool little dudes, monsters, and killer robots, I could then make them FIGHT. (it is actually a very fun strategic war game, and as a bonus has a very fluffy world) So if you are going to make the little guys you painted fight other nerd’s little painted guys, then by golly, they need someplace to look good doing it. WM is played on a 4×4 board, and so far all I’d played on was strips of boring old felt with occasional pieces of foam for hills and forests.

And since I am completely incapable of doing anything in life half way, I decided to try my hand at making a terrain board. My friend Robison Wells is the master of game terrain, making stuff like this:  but I didn’t want to try anything nearly that complicated for my first attempt. So I kept it simple. I’d go with just a basic village on a 4×4 piece of terrain.

Since this needed to be able to be stored in my office, I decided to go with four 2×2 squares which could be fitted together, and stuffed into a closet when not in use. (it helps to have a 500 square foot office/game room, but that was part of the deal when we moved to Yard Moose Mountain. I get an awesome office).

I used particle board for the base, then glued down blue foam insulation on top. I have another four pieces, so I could make two full boards (for a continuous 8×2 for two simultaneous games) but I wanted to experiment on one first. (which was good because I did manage to screw up and make a few mistakes). Even then, the whole project didn’t take too much time, spread out over a couple of weeks. Overall work on this was probably about 8-10 hours. (Though I did have kids helping me, and not counting drying time).


I glued down the foam to the particle boards. It took a little bit of practice figuring out how to cut the foam blocks. I don’t have a hot knife, so just scored them, then smacked them to snap them off. I got pretty good at it by the end, but the first edge was a little wonky. Later I would realize when I fitted them together that this would leave a bit of a gap when I stuck them all together. Oh well, live and learn.

One big tip, use a sharp razor, and the second that sucker starts to get dull, replace it. Otherwise you take out chunks of the foam, and that just gets ugly. It turns out that my oldest child is actually the most naturally talented at working with foam. We will call her FOAM SHAPER. If I’d let Foam Shaper cut this first one we’d all have been better off.

I did up a single quickly piece first as an experiment to see how it would look.

I used cheap craft paint. Then I fit the other pieces together and marked out the plan for the river and roads.




The rivers were super easy, (and came out looking pretty good). I dug out the channel about 1/8-1/4 an inch deep using a sculpting tool. Get ready for some vacuuming because this makes a mess of your office.  I laid down a bunch of white glue, and then simply poured kitty litter into it.


Yes, that is really orange, because I thought I’d picked up a bottle of Burnt Sienna for the ground. Whoops. Had to go back and recover that.


The road was dug out using a flat scoop clay sculpting tool. On this I just tried to keep it more level and straight, while the river was much rougher.

The roads were made out of lentils. Once again, lay down a bunch of white Elmer’s glue, and then I squished the lentils in. Later I would come back and paint the lentils with craft paint, let that dry, and then dry brush them with another color. Then I’d run a really watered down second glue coat over the top of that to seal it all in (and to keep the stupid lentils from popping out), and then sprinkle some flocking onto the still wet glue so it would look like the road stones are slowly being overtaken with weeds.


Then I covered the tops in glue and put down a bunch of sand, little bits of stone, and a ton of flocking.  I had to let this dry, brush off, look for light spots, and repeat.




Up next was the water. I used “Realistic Water” from Hobby Lobby. And Realistic Water is possibly my favorite product title ever.


Warning. This stuff makes a freaking mess. It isn’t gel. It is a liquid. And it runs right through whatever you think you have serving as a dam. It takes a long time to dry, but as long as you don’t pour more than 1/8 on an inch at a time to let it dry, it will dry clear. If you do get it on your table, don’t try to clean it up. Let it dry, then peel off the sheet later. (and the kids think that part is awesome).

Up next, modular terrain.


The houses were cheap birdhouses which were on sale at my local Hobby Lobby. They were about the right size. All I did was wood glue on some extra bits of balsa to make doors, windows, shutters. Etc. The scale is about right.


A quick paint job of cheap craft paint, and they are looking pretty decent. A wash of watered down black and brown ink and they look a little bit weathered. I can always go back later and paint on some more details, signs, etc.

Now for more terrain.


I decided to make some stone walls, a couple of hills, and some stone bridges. Then I could mix and match for whatever type of game I wanted to run. The big hill with the ramps was made to be large enough to fit over the intersection and the rivers in the center to serve as an objective. I still need to make some more forest pieces and some extra wooden bridges.


The stone work was made with a pencil, and took a few minutes each piece.

One coat of crappy paint, then some dry brushing with a few different colors, then an ink wash, stick on some moss, and you’ve got modular terrain bits.


So how does it look?


Overall I’m pretty pleased with this since it is my first attempt. The one biggest mistake was that I did not do a better job trimming up the foam edges to begin with to make sure the four pieces fit together well. There is one that is a little off. (the original test bit), which does cause a small gap. I can always cover this with bits of terrain, but it annoys me that I didn’t think of that at the time. The next one will be cleaner.

So this is what it looks like in use. (simulated battle, no Titans were harmed during the making of these pictures)


I actually really like how the walls came out.


Game wise, you can see why I need to be able to add a few more bridges. (they will look like the wooden ramps on the big thing)


The stone roads are a little lumpy, but the finished effect looks pretty decent.


The big objective came out pretty cool. But here you can see that nasty gap I was talking about. I’ll probably build a forest bit to fit right in there.


You must fight the gazebo alone.

Overall, considering that it really didn’t take too much time or effort, I’m rather pleased with how this turned out. It was a fun family project over a couple of Sunday afternoons. Now I just need to decide if the next one will be a continuation of this one, or if I want to try and tackle another kind of terrain.

My eBooks are going to be on the Kindle Store
St. Nicholas & the Dragon by Tracy & Laura Hickman

15 thoughts on “My Geeky Hobbies: TERRAIN BOARD”

  1. Looks great!

    When I used to do rivers in dioramas, I used epoxy resin. First, I painted the river (darker towards the center), then added a 1/8th to 1/4″ layer of epoxy resin. Repeat a few times to the desired depth. Use a hair dryer on the final layer for ripples.

  2. I say do a different terrain that way we can see more.
    This is great inspiration too. I whittle and have wanted to do a full scene for some time, but found the idea of carving an entire land scape out of wood daunting. Now I think I might be able to carve the landscape/background out of foam and do the important pieces out of wood.

  3. You’re turning into that mentor dude from “Ronin”…

    Next thing you know, you’ll be cutting bullets out of Robert DeNiro.

  4. Very nice! I’ve never been into the railroad aspect of model railroads, but I’ve always liked the terrain building. I’ve been tempted at times to get into WH40k…at least in part to give me an excuse to build a lot of terrain! 😉

  5. When you do your next set of terrain (and having been a wargamer for two decades, I promise you, there WILL be more) might I suggest you make the roads and rivers all enter/exit the board squares at the same point and width of each tile? This will allow you to rotate the tiles and have everything match up, no matter how they are oriented, giving you a lot of added flexibility for future play with minimal planning.

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