Tuesday 23 July 2013

371 'Difficult Terrain' - The Weirdness of Tabletop Hills

Hullo, All.

Here's something which has been nagging me for a while now: why are terrain hills in tabletop battles usually so very 'unrealistic'?

[image used without permission from Kallistra, with no implication intended about their hills, which look beautifully crafted.]

This was brought to my attention by three things. Firstly, my attempts at 'imagining' line-of-sight when I played on very makeshift, mostly 2D terrain, here. Secondly, my recent realisation that I have pretty much no terrain that is not 40K cityfight stuff; and thirdly, I read an excellent and intriguing set of exploratory rules for cover on hills over at The M42 Project.

I was also re-watching 'Band of Brothers' for the umpteenth time, and when I saw them studying the D-Day sand tables I got very jealous.

I suppoe what I wondered was, 'can natural undulation be better represented in tabletop wargames?'.

I know that the simple answer here is no. For most practical purposes, normal terrain hills are fine...they're just not very realistic.
Obviously, the smaller your figures the better hills work, and there's always bound to be an element of silliness and abstraction when a 28mm figure is 'hiding' whilst standing up on a reverse slope (again see M42's ideas here) - but even in the reasonably small-scale Flames of War the hills seem a necessary yet unconvincing add-on.

No doubt a board of gently rolling downland or stark, rocky valleys would be beautiful, but a pain in the jacksie ruleswise and an absolute bugger to store too...but has anyone ever played on a more 'realistic' board like that? Did it work okay? Do please share.

That's enough from me - my brain has stopped functioning. Anyway, you get the idea.

Stay well,

- D.


  1. The main problem being miniatures don't stand on jagged or sloped hills.

    There has to be a compromise between the terrain looking well, and functioning.

  2. Of course - that's one of thee obvious limitations...

    ...but there again, consider the nature of 'terrain' hills - they tend to have a small footprint (necessary so not to take up too much 'space') but as a consequence they're often also unreasonably steep.

    In the pic at the top of this post, for example, many of those slopes are pretty much 1:2 gradients: very difficult for anyone to stand up on that!

    Personally, I live in an almost comically hilly area (and I do know that battles tend toward flatter ground than this normally), but the steep hill that I live on (which is steep enough for people literally to fall down simply whilst standing stone-cold sober upon it) is still only 1:6.

    If more realistically sloped but massive terrain hills were used(!) fewer models would fall over.

    And yes, I do realise how stupidly unfeasible such a proposal is...

  3. Real hills are to big in 28 mm. Real hills would be like 2 ft tall and cover the whole board. The hills we use are more like sloped embankments that show up in landscaping plans for large buildings and such.

  4. I have thought about this no and off over my whole gaming life. I grew up on a very hilly property in the country and toyed with how to build a big hilly game board. Both size and getting models to stand were always the limiting factors for me.

    That being said check this out!
    Recently Colonel Winterborne posted up some of his photos from the “Wars of Armageddon campaign weekend run by The Good The Bad The Bromley and hosted at Table Top Nations.”
    The first photo was this one:


    It has to be one of the best hills on a gameboard I have seen.
    After seeing that and reading your post I am totally motivated to give it a go and make a massively hilly board!

  5. Most were of the scattered hills on flat board type, but there were a few impressive contoured tables at the Flames of War ETC last year.

    I grabbed some shots here (the second through eighth pics), you can see a great Italian board and an interesting desert ravine boards that all managed to be very playable: http://waraltar.onthestep.net/2012/08/flames-of-war-at-etc.html

    I didn't get a full shot of the best one, a Russian steppes table. But if you look at the tiny snapshot I did get, you can see how it actually had that classic rolling terrain: http://i125.photobucket.com/albums/p42/Nuabreed/ETC%202012/DSCF0740.jpg

    I think that using the latter for 28mm gaming is entirely feasible. The secret might be, as you suggest, gentler hills but more of them.

  6. I think one "problem" is the idea of the 'pick up game'. Beginning with a blank (flat) table, players take turns to position terrain items until either they've run out or they've reached some pre-agreed limit.

    So this 'pick up game' has randomly scattered terrain and then the players dice off for other aspects governing set up and conditions (at least in 40K). So the whole thing has to be random.

    Leaving aside other observations, this reduces all terrain to an obstacle course, rather than the backgound to a battle. As Drax alludes to in the OP, battles happen in places for reasons, one of those being topography. So from a modelling POV, if you want terrain you can use in a 'pick up game' then it has to be "handy" for want of a better word. Whereas if we want a proper battlefield to fight over, then basically we are looking at sculpting an entire game board....

    Just my 2p.

  7. A very very very good point indeed!

    Even when I've played pick-up games I've never actually 'placed' scenery in the prescribed way - always just plopped it down so that it looks either 'cool' or 'fair', my preference being - obviously - the former.

    But yes - I'm always impressed (as you know) by sculpted game boards.

    That said, I'd love for there to be some sort of surface *like* a sandboard, wherein you could re-mould (and 'set') the basic playing surface to something rigid but not flat...

  8. Re-mouldble variable topography gaming table ? Sounds like one for Dragon's Den. I look forward to you launching the Kickstarter !

  9. Hey Drax! There's actually some more recent M42/WarStrike rules for hills. Check 'em out.


    I'm interested in getting feedback on the concepts of reverse slopes, forward defiles, and such.

  10. SandWyrm: I owe you an apology, mate!

    The link you've provided above is in fact the rules I'd read: my original link was in error. I'll address it shortly.

    And thanks.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!