Monday, 14 June 2010

The Old Road of Insanity, the Cellars of Madness

After deciding to build the (fictional) fortified village of Vlissinghe, and after scouting around on the internet to find a few examples of historically fortified and partially ruined villages, I set about planning how the village would be integrated into the other trench terrain boards, covered in my earlier blogs. As you might remember, the first set of trench terrain boards were built to continuously run along the length of a wargames table. I wanted to make sure that the fortified village terrain boards fitted in with that sequence, maximising the flexibility of the set of terrain boards as a whole.

I also wanted to make sure that, as far as possible, the front line trenches of the earlier terrain boards were integrated into the fortified village, giving the feeling that field engineers had entrenched around and through the village, using the cellars of the houses and crypt of the Church as part of the defensive structure. This seemed to fit in well with the descriptions I had read of Beaumont Hamel on the Somme, which was heavily fortified by the German Army in 1915 and 1916 and was partly the inspiration for the fortified village terrain in the first place.

On the pictures below you can see the basic layout of the first of the two fortified village boards. I cut a trench line to follow and match the other trench boards (although the front line trench in the fortified village board extended a little further into No Man’s Land in order to maximise the space on the board). To allow access from the trenches into the ruined buildings, I settled on what was basically a sloping ramp from the trench. The sloped entrance would allow figures to move directly from the trench into each of the three ruined buildings on this board.

I tried to make each of the three buildings fit the same “footprint” so that they could be interchangeable, thereby ensuring that we could vary the buildings and the placing of them in games. The bases of each building were cut from marine plywood, being a strong, non-warping plywood originally meant for model boats. This gives, in my view, a really great base for modelling and will not warp when water based paint, PVA glue or polyfilla is spread or painted on its surface.

In each of the bases I cut a rectangular hole, which would allow a player to see into the cellar of the building and would ensure that wargames figures placed in the cellar were visible to the player. I wanted to build the effect of a broken floor, but with the cellar being filled with defending troops, casualties, command posts or simply rubble, all of which would be visible from above.

The cellars were simply cut into the Styrofoam and then lined with plastic sheeting of bricks (for the walls) or stone (for the floor), all of which I obtained from the awesome 4D Model shop just near Tower Bridge in London. In quite a few of the walls I carved out tunnels (or at least the entrance to tunnels), simulating that field engineers had tried to burrow through the cellars in order to allow the defending forces to move quickly from one building in the village to another. Again, this was something which the British forces attacking Beaumont Hamel in the summer of 1916 remarked upon.

You can see the effect of the broken floors leading to dark and gloomy cellars fairly well in this photo of the first board before it was painting and with the ruined buildings in place. When you look closely at the buildings, as we hoped visitors to the Crisis 2009 Show would do, figures in the cellar should be visible pretty clearly.

You might be wondering what the strips of hardboard stuck to the surface of the Styrofoam are for. This was an idea I picked up from Barrie Hilton and Adrian Howe at the Partizan show in 2007. Adrian and Barrie had built a wonderful model of the Flanders village of Neerwinden in 1693, with each of the buildings sitting on a defined area of the table, held in place by a small wooden lip. I tried the same thing with my village. The hardboard strips held each building firmly in place. Making each of the bases for the buildings exactly the same size allowed each of the buildings to be rotated, providing a bit of variety in table configuration.

I tried this trick on the second fortified village board as well, although here the buildings were larger and straddled an Old Road which I wanted to build through the village. I wanted to build a ruined Church in the village, really as a centrepiece for the game and as a suitable command post for the defending forces. I’d originally intended to use the small ruined abbey in the picture below which is made by Scotia Grendel, but the more I looked at it, the more I felt it wasn’t quite the right scale for the game I wanted. Here's another of my terrain building maxims: "Always scale a building against a miniature figure and the other terrain so see of what you're building looks right". I know that sounds ridiculously basic, but that's saved me a couple of times, and this was one of them. I was happy with the placing of the Church in the centre of the village, but wanted both a large crypt and also a Church tower (well, where else does a sniper get placed a la ‘Saving Private Ryan’?). As the Scotia Grendel model did not have a tower and becuase of it's scale not looking quite right, I resigned myself to scratch building the Church as well as the other buildings.

After measuring out the support trench line on the second fortified village board, I also marked out the cellars of the two smaller buildings on the board and the crypt for the Church. I like to have a bit of variety in my terrain so I also tried to do something a little different with one of the buildings. Instead of having a cellar standing alone in the building to the side of the Church, I wanted to link that building to the support trench by a tunnel. I simply cut the tunnel into the Styrofoam, and then cut a large piece of plywood for the base of the building. This gave plenty of room for the building, but also allowed the tunnel to that building from the support trench to be completely covered. This allows the defending player to place figures in the tunnel during the game, say when support troops are moving through the tunnel network to the front line trench.

As with the first board, I added the hardboard strips to the surface of the Styrofoam to ensure that the buildings would not move around when placed on the surface. I used a quick adhesive, “No More Nails” to ensure a really hard, fast bond. I was planning that the towelling terrain (see my earlier blog posts) would cover up to, and also cover over, the hardboard in any event, so all the adhesive was needed for was to hold the strips in place until the polyfilla/PVA mix could be added.

I also wanted to make sure that figures could move between the two fortified village boards while remaining in the trench/ tunnel system. I didn’t want things to be too easy for the defenders, hence the addition of the Old Road which breaks up the second fortified village board, but I did want at least one entrenched and protected route from the front line trench to the support trench. I therefore made a trench running between the two boards, connecting at the point at which a non-village front line trench board would connect with a non-village support trench board. By doing this I was able to build in maximum flexibility to the terrain boards as a whole, and would then be able to use either of the fortified village boards alone with the rest of the trench terrain. I made sure that the connecting trench was fairly well protected against attack using a sandbagged ‘corner’ made from a Styrofoam off-cut and green stuff.

This was to ensure that, with the absence of a zig-zag design (as with the other communications trenches between the front line boards and the support trenches), an attacker was not simply able to shoot down the trench from a building captured in the first fortified village board to the Church crypt in the second fortified village board. This was one of those bits of terrain design which seemed to be a bit ‘game-dominated’ but reflected what I felt a real life defending commander would have done in preparing his defences.

In the next instalment of the blog later this week, I will briefly cover how I made the ruined buildings and the Church, before going on to cover the various extra bits and bobs we made for the village for the Crisis 2009 game.
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