Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Winter Sports Terrain – “The Abode of Madness”

One of the things I was keen to do alongside painting some trench raider figures was to build some specific terrain for No Man’s Land on the Western Front. The trench boards which were made for Salute in 2009 included a number of generic No Man’s Land sections which were basically flat with numerous shell craters. However, they seemed to fall short of having the real “signature” of No Man’s Land.

As I built up some of the forces for the trench raiding games, I tried to think through what I needed. I also looked back at some of the terrain building maxims I wrote about when I started this blog a year ago.

Here’s what I came up with:

Compatibility: I wanted the new terrain to fit easily into the existing trench board terrain, so that, ideally, someone looking over it would not know that the boards had been built almost two years apart.

Set a time and a place”: I wanted to establish the setting very strongly in the eyes of my players. I wanted to “Set a time and a place” for the terrain, both by super-detailing and by the overall image of the terrain. Here’s Wilfred Owen’s description of No Man’s Land from a letter he wrote on 19 January 1917: “It is the eternal place of gnashing if teeth. It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer...No Man's Land under snow is like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.” I wanted to try, respectfully, to recreate that feeling of an alien landscape and to coax the players into a world where “the shell-holes were mostly small lakes of what was no doubt merely rusty water, but had a red and foul semblance of blood”. A place where the players would, in Edmund Blunden’s words, imagine that “the days were melancholy and the colour of clay”.

Remember you’re building wargaming terrain, not a museum model”: I wanted the new No Man’s Land terrain to be practical, as well as dramatic. In one of the boards I built a couple of years ago there are quite a few small shell craters. Although these look dramatic, it can be hard to get singly mounted 28mm figures to stand up straight in. It’s not a big point, but I wanted to see what I could do about this on the new terrain boards.

Playability: Although I felt that modelling terrain of No Man’s Land offered some very dramatic opportunities, I didn’t want to become too focused on creating a work of art which would simply not be interesting to play a wargame on. I wanted terrain which was playable and versatile and which could open up a number of interesting wargame scenarios. Perhaps there’s another maxim here along the lines of reminding myself : “Don’t forget you have to play on this....lots of times

With this in mind, I sketched out the first couple of boards. I wanted a shell blasted copse without trenches which could be used as a defensive strongpoint, or an area needing to be patrolled or scouted owing to it breaking lines of sight across the front lines. I also wanted a small area of shell shattered trenches which comprised part of a now crumbling and abandoned area of the front line and which now stood, isolated, in No Man’s Land. These could be a contested area for night-time patrols, a jumping off point for an attack, or a bastion of desperate defence.

Both boards, but particularly the set of trenches, were also inspired by the very graphic images in the film “Deathwatch”, which is a very entertaining low-Budget British horror film from 2002. Whatever the quality of the film to a horror aficionado, I think they got the “look” of the trenches spot on, helped by some fine acting from a good cast. Check it out, as I hope you’ll like it as much as I do.

Building the terrain coincided with a spell of warm-ish spring weather, allowing me to get back into my garage workshop after a long winter. I started with cutting the trenches from a block of 40mm thick Styrofoam, and cutting a number of saps out to large trench craters from the trenches themselves. Unlike on a couple of the other trench terrain boards, I made sure that both the shell craters which had been sapped out to, as well as the trenches, had flat bottoms to help the 28mm figures stand straight. As regards dimensions of the shell craters to which a sap had been dug, I made sure that each of these could accommodate a 60mm round base, large enough for a support weapon, such as an HMG or mortar. I also wanted to make sure that the trench was positioned at an angle, leading the eye inwards towards the heart of the game and creating an interesting visual aspect to contrast to the other, linear, trench terrain we have built.

I then glued and screwed the Styrofoam to the base board of 6mm MDF (cut 600mm x 600mm) as described in my earlier blog posts last year. I weighted the Styrofoam down as it glued hard and fast before the next stage.

I roughed up the shell craters to which the saps had been dug using a couple of chisels of different widths, and glued down four strips of non-warp marine plywood to the Styrofoam base as a housing for a small base of trees to be positioned on the base.

I whittled down a number of sturdy branches which had fallen from trees in the garden during the winter into something which looked (at least to my eye) like the shell-shattered woods found on the Western Front.

Here, for example, is what was left of the infamous Deville’s Wood on the Somme after very heavy fighting in 1916...

I listened to a couple of my favourite podcasts on Sunday morning while making the trench sides and fixing them in place, again by the same methods as I mentioned in blog posts last year....

....and tried to remember to leave a couple of areas in the trenches themselves which could be “flooded” with water resin to create a waterlogged appearance.

A couple of the sapped craters I built up using some Styrofoam scraps, pinning the foam in place and liberally gluing with PVA to hold it in place.

Then I “painted” a mix of white PVA, Polyfilla (basically powdered DIY cement/ ‘spackle’) and dark grey paint to the base of the trench, into which were placed duckboards (cut from artists mounting cardboard) and a mix of sand and gravel (again, as described in detail in my earlier blog posts).

One thing I remembered to do was to raise up the level of the ground in the sapped craters, allowing kneeling HMG, Gratenwerfer and mortar crews to be just visible at ground level. I’d been a little disappointed that on a couple of other boards the HMG crews in a kneeling position had looked as if they had been firing into the wall of the trench! It’s a tiny point, but something which had niggled me occasionally! I therefore built up the crater with a base of spare off-cut Styrofoam and Milliput.

After a full-ish day’s work, I was left with the board in the stage as shown in the photograph below. It’s starting to take shape, although there’s a lot more work still left to do to really get to the first finished stage. To provide me with a little encouragement, I set the trench section alongside the copse board on Sunday evening to get an idea of how the two might look alongside each other. Again, there’s a LOT of work to do, but when you’re in the middle of a project it helps to try and draw a little encouragement from wherever you can!

Next time, there’s an AAR of a game we’re playing tonight using the “Through the Mud and the Blood” rules from TooFatLardies, following which, I’ll cover the fist stage in building the copse which you can see in the last photo above. Take care until then.


  1. Incredible work my friend, a real joy to look at it unfold and the skill of your scratchbuilding, Deathwatch was a very good movie and made me think that's what conditions were really like most of the time in the trenches and dugouts.

  2. Amazing work. Have to agree with the Lurker, an enjoyable read seeing how this project developed.

  3. I himmed and hawed about including destroyed forests in my trench table. I think I have one or two tiles with them, planned. I might add more stumps and what not someday. I've fallen away from terrain building as I'm trying to get some minis done for Lead Painters League and some cons...

  4. Thanks for the teach-in, extremely useful.

  5. That's just outstanding, really impressive work.

  6. Very helpful and inspiring tutorial. I appreciate the fact that your sources include Blunden and Owen. The Great War poets are excellent for the human aspect we gamers need to connect with.
    Looking forward to seeing the finished product.
    Also jealous of your comment that you can get back into your garage workshop. Here in Canada I am at least a few weeks away from that stage. :(

  7. Thanks Gentlemen, I really appreciate all of the comments.

    @The Angry Lurker - "Deathwatch" is a great movie. If you get the chance and have a spare hour or so, the Director's Commentary on the DVD is really interesting. He was inspired by a very, very dark book called "Covenants with Death", which was published in the 1930s to educate the British public about the horrors of the trenches. Some of the photographs are almost indescribable. It's one of those books you open and then never want to open again.

    @Col Corbane - Thanks Mel. Just so good to hear from you!

    @Mad Padre - I'm glad you liked the references to Owen and Blunden. Making that respectful and immediate connection with the wars of the past is one of the things I really enjoy about our hobby.


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