Tuesday 16 February 2010

“How green is my (Mash) Valley?”

At this stage, you’re ready to tackle the surface of the boards. And at this point the main aesthetic dilemma arrives. Do you want a realistic muddy trench system, or do you want something which is not just 12 boards painted interesting and slightly varied shades of brown? My question is a little loaded, of course, because we chose the former, not the latter. It was a purely personal choice, and I agonised over it.

On the one hand, no-one is going to deny that the trenches were a place of misery and suffering. Mud was everywhere. In so many ways, a landscape of muddy shell craters half filled with stagnant, poisoned water have become the enduring image in so many people's minds of the First Word War, a signature for the terrible conditions in which the War was often fought on the Western Front. Coating all of the trench terrain boards with interior filler and brown paint would therefore certainly not be inaccurate, and I was very mindful of not wanting to suggest that the no-man’s-land of the Great War was a calming place of swaying grasses and picturesque poppies flowering amidst the barbed wire.

But, on the other hand, there were actions fought over green fields even in the middle of the War, notably the early engagements on the Somme in 1916 and the crossing of the Siegfried Stellung at Cambrai in 1917 (which was not heavily shelled to facilitate the movement of the Royal Tank Corps). I reasoned that our trench system could be one of these locations, where a substantial amount of grass could remain before a heavy bombardment had taken place. This would allow for a mix of muddy shell craters but also some colour in the green of the surrounding grass fields. It was a personal choice, and I know some of you like it and that others are less keen. Well, mes braves, one pays one's money and takes one's choice.

For those of the “brown mud” persuasion, you might therefore like to skip the rest of this blog post and head down to your local DIY store for a large 5 litre drum of “Flanders Mud” paint, with my very best wishes and hearty blessing.

For those of the “green fields” persuasion (or at least those intrigued enough to try), thank you for staying. Here’s how to add the "grass". Before you do, dig out the craters you want to have in the Styrofoam terrain. Just use a chisel....go mad, there’s no magic here. If you want super craters, try building the edges up using offcuts of old Styrofoam from other projects (or from the Styrofoam left over from trenches you have just cut out), cardboard or anything suitably bulky. You can see in the photo below a fairly early stage of constructing one of the "no-man's land" Terrani Boards. I've built up a few large craters using lumps of yellow Styrofoam, applying the PVA/interior filler mix to the craters and edges of the craters. You probably want to learn my lesson in making sure that the bottom of the crater is fairly flat to be able to stand troops up in! We figured that out on the second, and later, boards featuring artillery craters, but the first "no-man's land" Trench Board (in the photo below) is just slightly too realistic in having concave bases to the craters - perfect for prone figures with rifle grenades, but less than idea for standing figures. So, here's another lesson learnt: "rememebr you're building wargaiming terrain, not a museum model". Remember to have a spare old figure on hand to check scale and the ease of positioning of figures on the terrain.

Then get some old bath towelling, basically stuff you’ve wanted to chuck away for ages. Perhaps suggest to your Wife/Girlfriend/Husband/Significant Other that it’s time for some new towels and then take the old ones and dye them dark green. I used DYLON® Dark Green Fabric Dye, which was inexpensive, easy to find and pretty easy to use. Looking back I found that the towels which dyed best were definitely the white and cream ones. It isn’t really that important, as the towelling will be painted over anyway (see below), but it does help.

When the newly dyed towels are dry, cut them to fit around the areas of the board – such as besides the craters and alongside the trench line – where the grass is going to remain present. This is really a trial and error system, and there's a lot of personal taste here. In my view, some boards look better with lots of towelling on them (perhaps a board for a communications trenche). Some boards look better without much towelling at all (the more heavily shelled parts of No Mans Land).

By the time you have finished cutting the towelling, you should have a pattern of green towelling to be placed on each board, ready to be glued down. For the sticking, I'd suggest that you don’t just use PVA glue. You will probably be fine if you do use PVA, but remember that the terrain is going to need to last a long time, and that us wargamers are a fairly clumsy bunch en masse. Try using a 50/50 PVA and interior filler (Polyfilla in the UK) mix and spread this thickly over the surface of the terrain, but not in the trenches themselves (into which you will have glued model duckboards - see earlier blog posting). The PVA/ interior filler mix dries reasonably quickly, and even quicker when you increase the ration of interior filler to PVA glue. Think of the consistency of porridge as what you’re ideally aiming for. Coat this on with a brush across the entire board’s upper surface. Again, think macro, not micro. Then simply glue the towelling down. It helps to "stipple" and "feather" the egdes of the towelling into the PVA/ interior filler mix so that the edges of the towelling cannot be seen when you're looking at the finished terrain boards. Don't worry if this doesn't look quite right fist time, because you can always add a little PVA/ interior filler mix later to correct any oversights.

The PVA/ interior filler mix should really soak into the towelling and dry rock hard. Once the towelling is glued down flat on the terrain, it’s basically never going to be moving again. And hey presto, mud and fields. The photo below gives a good idea of the PVA/interior filler after being speread on the surface of the Terrain Board but before the towelling is stuck down onto it.

While the PVA/ Interior Filler is still setting/drying, sprinkle a variety of stones, ballast, sand on the boards fairly liberally. I started in 2005 with a £5 bag of builders’ sharp sand and that’s still going strong. Just sieve out the stones, dry the sand and its ready. You can also add ballast (such as Talus) from a model railway shop or an online stockist like Antenociti or 4D models, which looks great scattered liberally among the trench craters.

Here's another example of ballast and scatter being glued into a more make-shift trench created between a succession of shell holes.. Here, I glued the "wood planking" (thick cardboard) and "corrugated iron" (corrugated cardboard) onto the PVA/ interior filler and then quickly scattered the sharp sand, ballast and talus onto the still-sticky surface.

A later trick we tried was adding dark grey or brown paint to the PVA/ Interior filler mix. We found this to be a good way of speeding up the painting time by cutting out the need for a painted basecoat in the shell craters and surface mud. You can just see that in the photo above - the grey paint tinge to the PVA/ interior filler can be seen just round the egd of the ballast/ talus scatter. In the photo below you can see the grey/dark brown PVA/interior filler/ paint "muddy combo" being mixed, together with a sample of the different scatterings we dropped onto the board to add the texture to the areas covered with the PVA muddy combo. The different terrain basing elements are (a) sieved sharp (builder's) sand; (b) residue of sharp sand, basically small pieces of rock and pebbles; (c) fine ballast/ talus; and (d) medium ballast/ talus.

This was probably another of those important gamer lessons we learned on building the trench terrain - combine stages to save time where possible, such as adding the paint to the PVA and interior filler. Even if you're not in a hurry to put on a game or attend a show, saving time on terrain projects leaves more time for gaming, going down to the pub or simply re-introducing yourself to your loving family.

By now you should have reached the stage of trenches, grass and craters. And at this point, feel free to have a suitably themed Flemish beer, because a great deal the hard work has been done!

Meeting Your Match

A few readers of this blog, and of my posts on the TooFatLardies yahoo group (http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/Toofatlardies), have asked a few questions about how all the boards match up, and how they stack together for storing away after a game. Over the past week I’ve found that my written explanations of this have left something to be desired, so I hope that a few photographs with the examples of two finished front line trench sections might help.

The photo below is a picture of ten of the terrain boards stacked under an old wargames table in my garage. They’re resting on some off-cuts of blue Styrofoam to make sure that they are off the concrete garage floor, and also to protect the edges of the boards resting on the floor. I found that the terrain boards stacked better length-wise instead of flat. This was for several reasons. Firstly, there seemed to be much less dust gathering on the vertical board than when stored horizontally. Secondly, we sometimes take just a couple of boards out to play a skirmish game on an evening if gaming friends come round. Although this doesn’t happen that often, it’s a bit frustrating to be looking through a stack of 20 or so boards to find the right one at short notice. The exception to vertical stacking is when the terrain boards are taken to the club or to a show, when they stack horizontally in the car, divided by bubble-wrap as shown with the two boards on top of the table.

When it gets a bit warmer I’m hoping to build a storage rack or cupboard for the boards in the garage, and hopefully blog the results on here.

The next photos show the terrain boards joining up side-by-side, and then a “section view” showing how deep the trench line lies in the board. You can see that the edges of the boards have a sort of “sandwich” appearance. The base is the timber battening, then the middle is the MDF square 600mm x 600mm base board for the terrain, and finally the top is the Styrofoam terrain into which the trenches are cut. You can see how the boards match up to ensure that the trench line runs continuously along the table.

The last shot is of the underneath of the terrain boards. The timber battens reinforce the MDF and give a very stable base for the whole terrain. I found over the years that MDF can warp badly, especially when liberally covered with PVA, paint and polyfilla. I was desperate to avoid this happening. This was one of the main reasons why I battened the MDF to the timber. So far so good. Over 20 terrain bases later, and we’ve had no warping. There’s an added advantage as well. You can see that the underside of the terrain boards creates a space about 40mm in height. When the boards are stacked, whether horizontally or vertically, that space allows a little contouring on the board stacked underneath or to the side. It’s an additional feature which has allowed us to build a few contours into the terrain boards, and exaggerate the jagged edges of shell craters in No-Mans Land, the odd splintered tree stump and so on.

Monday 1 February 2010

“You want how much Styrofoam?”

Materials......don’t wargamers just love ‘em? My garage is full of bits of rubbish and offcuts from a variety of friends and local stores, bits and pieces scoured from beaches and moorland from a variety of tourist spots and the dropped branches from the trees in my garden. It all comes in handy, but sometimes you need to splash out and purchase something for a new project. This next blog entry is all about purchasing materials for the terrain project and getting started.

We wanted the terrain boards to be robust, and so I purchased sufficient 6mm MDF sheets and timber battens for the base boards. This would give the terrain complete rigidity when transporting from my house to the club or a wargame show. In my view there’s nothing more tragic than making a piece of terrain and seeing the board on which it’s placed gently warping over the years. There’s an additional weight cost to the timber battening, and you need more space in which to store the finished boards in because of the battening. But, in my view, the additional weight and space costs are repaid by knowing you’re creating terrain which is really going to last for decades.

I purchased 14 sheets of 40mm blue Styrofoam (extruded polystyrene) for the terrain bases. This was the biggest single expense of the project and cost me £78 plus £10 postage. Not bad when you measure this cost against the price of pre-flocked terrain tiles, and also take into account the chance to create the exact terrain layout you want. The Styrofoam is not that hard to purchase mail order from Craftfoam in the UK (www.craftfoam.co.uk). I was tempted to try and purchase Styrofoam locally, but the builders merchants I went to laughed when I said how little I wanted, and the hobby shops were aghast I wanted so much. Mail order is therefore the way to go, and you can achieve precise cutting of the Syrofoam terrain base to 600mm x 600mm measurements every time.

The next stage, after chalking and drawing in the trenches with a marker pen on the top of the foam, is to cut out the trenches. The Styrofoam is so dense that it cuts pretty easily with just a kitchen knife. Don’t try and cut with a saw the foam unless you want trenches with bumps and irregular cuts. Such a craggy edge to a trench would be ideal for trenches built out of a meandering series of shellholes, but perhaps not for trenches with lots of wooden revetting which are part of a purpose built field fortification like the Siegfried Stellung.

If you want to revet your trenches with wood, corrugated iron and willow-weave (or what the French called clayonnage), you are best cutting at a right angle downwards and keeping everything geometric. You should end up with the trenches neatly cut out. Use a figure and some bases to make sure that the width of the trenches accommodates all the troops and weapons you want to use in them.

As for dimensions, we generally went for a 50mm width of trench, with 60mm in the front line to accommodate a fire-step, and this seems to have worked out fine.
The base of the trench is, of course, the 6mm MDF base on which the Styrofoam sits. I screwed the Styrofoam to the MDF for extra strength, and would recommend this. The Sytrofoam is of a sufficiently solid density to have the consistency of softwood, and a woodscrew will make doubly sure that the foam is never going to move after the glue is applied. You don’t need special glue to get a good bond between the Styrofoam and the MDF, although there is a lot of literature on the internet telling you to purchase contact adhesive and the like. I used “No More Nails” which seems to stick most things pretty well, plus a liberal coating of PVA between the MDF and the Styrofoam. If you are extensively screwing the Styrofoam to the MDF (about 8 screws per board does fine), the Styrofoam is simply fastened to the MDF and just won’t move. The glue will eventually set, even thought the air contact of the PVA glue in the centre of the board is limited. Try drill extra holes in the MDF if you want to speed the drying time. The “No More Nials” seems to work really well as an adhesive sandwiched between the two surfaces.

At this point you should have a solid wooden base and some very angular trenches in bright blue. But, even thought there’s a long way to go, you can feel yourself getting just slightly excited.....

I wanted the trenches to show revetting and wood reinforcement, with sections of willow-weave/ clayonnage and corrugated iron along trench sides where planking might have been scarce. Ideally, we should have made a lot more sandbags to place all along the trenches, but my attempts at moulding these into the walls were not successful. The sandbags I did use were made with Milliput and placed on the trench parapets, but more as a token than as a recreation of the vast quantities which would have been used all along the German line. Looking back, this was one of the aspects of the project I was not that happy with, and may well go back to add some extra sandbags on the trench boards at some future date. The other thing I missed when building the trenches was adding a heap of trench spoil behind the rear wall of the trench, banked up as the trenches were excavated. These seems to have been a distinctive part of the trench lines in France and, sadly, I didn’t remember to add them into the project. Again, it’s another detail which can be added without too much trouble at a later date, but I wish I had remembered to include it when building.

I decided the easiest way was to make the revetting along the trench walls was in separate sections on a flat table, and then fix the finished section onto the walls of the Styrofoam trenches.

The method is simple: cut a piece of thin card and glue on a series of thicker card “boards” and matchstick “trenchposts”. Some corrugated card can represent corrugated iron, and was used extensively in construction by both sides. You need plenty of PVA glue, but in the end the finished result passes muster as a representation of a wooden revetted trench wall.

This process is pretty inexpensive. I used one bag of matchsticks for the whole terrain and still have some left over. The thicker card used for the wooden boards is just artists mounting board, but you could use any thick card you have lying around. The thin card base is just from old cereal packets. The industrial quantity of PVA needed for this part of the project is the main expense, along with some “No More Nails” to glue the finished revetted sections to the trench sides.

The base of the trench is a bit of a fiddle. You are really looking for something representing a muddy trench with duckboards. You can try and construct a gutter and build a ladder of duckboards on top. I tried that, but it was painstakingly fiddly as the ladders kept falling apart. So, at this point it’s time for another “lesson learned”: don’t over-complicate - instead, think macro, not micro. Try and represent the look of the base of the trench. I mixed PVA and interior filler (about a 50/50 mix of PVA and Polyfilla) and spread this on the base of the trench using an old brush. I then stuck a series of thick card “duckboards” into the mix, adding assorted gravel and stones along the edges as trench “spoil”.

It’s messy, but then trenches were a mess for most of the time. You can also try making areas which can be flooded with water gel. All this involves is building up two card mounds in the trench, which then becomes a mini-reservoir for the gel. Some collapsed trench sides also looks good by the side of the intended water feature!

One day, all trenches will be made this way....

The way trenches were designed and built changed during the war. I found an excellent resource to be Paddy Griffith’s Osprey Fortress book “Fortifications of the Western Front”, but as the project continued I got almost as much use out of Peter Barton’s panorama books on the Somme and Passchendaele. I’d recommend all of them very highly.

Early war trenches could be little more than earthen lined trenches in the ground, narrow and sometimes even in straight lines. As the war dragged on, trench systems became more elaborate, with familiar crenellated lines, curved or zig-zagged communications trenches and deep bunkers. The German Siegfried Stellung, to which the Germans retreated in early 1917, appeared to be the ideal fixed fortifications for the time it was first brought into use. It featured several different defensive lines, introduced elements of flexible defence in depth and contained deep belts of defensive wire to channel and dislocate the anticipated Allied attacks.

Nevertheless, despite the immense efforts used by the German Army in its construction, the Siegfried Stellung failed in its key objective of preventing Allied advances in 1917 and 1918. Quite a number of books, in particular Jack Sheldon’s “The German Army at Cambrai” make the point that the elaborate defences of the Siegfried Stellung were problematic for the German army to defend and maintain almost as soon as they were brought into use in early 1917.

We wanted to try and loosely model the trench terrain on the Siegfried Stellung. We liked the idea of a game where the Germans were holding their main battle line against British attacks, being forced to balance the apparent wealth of defensive fortifications alongside the insufficient manpower of a battle-weary stellungsbatallion. But we also thought of the Siegfried Stellung as an inspiration for the terrain boards, not a blue print. We wanted to be able to use the terrain for a late war British, Imperial, French or even American section of trench without feeling we were stretching credibility. And we also wanted the chance to later add to the initial terrain a number of boards featuring less precisely constructed trenches - such as series of trenches dug through a succession of shell craters in the heat of a battle.

“Best Laid Plans”

When I was asked about building the terrain for a Western Front trench system, I had a few vague ideas about what I wanted to do but was really pretty uncertain about the specifics of what we needed and what would work in practice.

Back in the autumn of 2008, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of information about building trench layouts for wargames. My first port of call were the classic wargames terrain books. Most of these are by Games Workshop, and are generally really helpful for starting any terrain project. Unfortunately, although all sorts of modern and urban wargame terrain can be adapted pretty easily from the Warhammer 40K “Cityfight” and “Cities of Death” supplements, trenches don’t feature in either (which I always find a bit surprising considering that one of my favourite 40K books, “Straight Silver”, is set in a trench system which is pretty clearly inspired by World War One).

I then started looking on the net for someone who’d tried to build trench terrain before. There were a few, but not that many, who’d tried it. The references I could find to trench systems suggested it was a “specialised” type of terrain as if there was some magic about a few boards with trenches dug into them. Not everyone had been put off by the so-called complexity of building trenches. The most well known trench layout was the wonderful terrain layout built by Dave Andrews and Aly Morrison (which was used for the Warhammer Great War book: www.greatwarminiatures.tripod.com/terrainproject). And before I go much further, it’s probably the time to say that without Dave and Aly’s terrain project site and their inspirational terrain, I doubt I would have had the courage to press on a try something similar. So, thanks guys !!

While the terrain made by Dave and Aly looked fantastic, I wanted to build something different. I wanted to be inspired by the terrain in the Warhammer Great War book, but not just build a carbon copy derivative. I was also unsure about how portable Dave and Aly’s 4’ x 2’ boards would be, or how much flexibility they would give us for use in a variety of Great War games.

Almost without thinking, and within a few hours of deciding to start the project, Richard, the other club members and myself had started planning the project....

“.....and what else do I need to think about...?”

There are some things which I try and think about when at the planning stage of a new terrain project. These probably apply to any wargame modelling project...figures, AFVs, rules, whatever....but somehow they seem particularly relevant to terrain making. And of course, there’s a lot of overlap in the questions:

1. What am I making the terrain for?
Am I making it just for me, for use at my local club (TooFatLardies in St Albans), or for a wargame show? This affects almost all the other questions on the list, but also raises other questions about how portable the terrain needs to be. You can make something delicate and fragile for use at home but if you want to take it to a wargame show like “Crisis” in Antwerp, something more robust may be a good idea (unless you like using superglue to repair broken terrain).

2. Do I want to keep it, and if so for how long?
Is the project going to be a “keeper” to be treasured for years, or something to use a couple of times and maybe cannibalise or give away?

3. How much space do I have to store it if I keep it?
I always think that, in Wargames Utopia, this won’t be an issue but sadly in real life it is. Space, or the lack of it, is a powerful motivation towards having free-standing terrain items which can be neatly packed away. Although it’s tempting to think that anything made at home can be stored somewhere, my wife’s idea of the best location for storing wargames terrain differs rather sharply from mine.

4. How much time have I got to make it?
Pretty obvious really. Have I got weeks to create something really detailed or impressively huge, or have I just got a weekend to fill a gap on a table with a new terrain piece?

5. How many times am I going to use it?
Is the terrain something I want to be able to bring out time and again year after year, using different figures and different rules and different periods? Or am I looking for terrain just for a single game, or a single rule set? Or something in between?

6. Who’s going to be using it?
Am I building for myself alone, for my gaming friends at my club, or for the wider public at a wargames show? And if I know I’m building for a particular audience, what do I know about what they are looking for?

7. Why am I doing this?
OK, this question is not quite as existential as it first appear! But I like to get excited by a project, be inspired and really enjoy building something. It’s fine if the project is short and quick – a little excitement goes a fair way. But if it’s a big project, I need to ask myself whether I’m going to keep up my interest and enthusiasm and see the project through to the end.

For what it’s worth, this was our planning, based on my questions above:

• We wanted to have terrain which would complement the release of Richard’s “Through the Mud and the Blood” rules for World War One. We wanted to be able to continue to playtest the rules on the terrain and also be able to take the terrain round a number of shows in the UK and Europe as a participation game. We also wanted the terrain to be sufficiently portable to be brought to the club for a game on a Tuesday night.

• We had to decide whether we wanted modular terrain, or free standing terrain. Neither was right or wrong, we decided, and both could look great in the right game. On one hand, free-standing trenches, such as the sort made by Kalistra, were flexible, light, could be purchased without great cost and painting them was strightforward. On the other hand, quite a few of us thought that “digging” the trenches below the surface of the table looked very attractive and, since we wanted to take the game on tour round a few shows, this was a key factor. As a club we wanted people to immediately recognise that the game was set somewhere in First World War France. Added to the shellholes, the mud, the barbed wire and the rats, we needed our trenches to look like....well, trenches (or at least what all of us thought trenches looked like when we started the project). The discussions flowed for a while before we decided that although free standing trenches were very flexible, we thought that modular terrain was nowhere near as inflexible as some people had suggested. And so the die was cast....modular boards it would be.

• We were going to try and start of with a representative terrain of the Western Front in World War One and gradually build up the terrain boards, adding on “specials” and more unusual or scenario specific terrain as we went along. The terrain was going to be something which, ideally, we would come back to year after year.

• I had some space in my garage to store modular terrain, but only so long as the boards were not too huge. Modular boards which were 1200mm x 600mm might look phenomenal, but I wondered just how on earth I’d be able to keep them out of the way, and how we’d fit them into a car when it’s already carrying a couple of other gamers, a couple of 28mm armies, some more terrain, set of rules, cans of beer and so on...

• We wanted maximum flexibility for the modular boards. We knew that they would take extra time and effort than free-standing terrain, but we wanted to be able to use them without getting bored of the same identical set-up. Another main requirement was to make sure that the terrain boards would be flexible enough for the trench network to represent British, French or German trenches.

• We needed terrain which was strong enough to cope with Richard’s and other club and show gamers’ elbows resting on it with making dimples.

• Finally, we wanted the terrain finished by early March, in time for Salute 2009 and a few practice games, giving a building period of about 12 weeks. Other more specialised terrain boards could then follow as and when we wanted to build them.

After these discussions, it’s fair to say we knew what we wanted (at least in vague terms) and perhaps more importantly we knew what we didn’t want. Moving on from discussions to detailed planning, I started drawing some ideas in a project book. Looking back now at the plans in the project book, the basic framework came through intact, but lots of ideas we had were evolved fairly significantly.

Our basic plan was for 12 boards, each 600mm x 600mm, with four ranks of three boards across the table. The original plan was for two ranks of trench boards (front line and support line), and two ranks of boards for no-man’s land. Each column of boards could be swapped with any other. “Pretty flexible”, I thought when I drafted the plan, but I didn’t think at that time about how the plan could be improved.

So, here comes my first lesson learned on the trench terrain project - Always look at the plan critically and talk things through with club members, mates or old wargaming chums.

What we found later was that we could build extra flexibility into the design by interchanging the board sections, so the first rank of no-man’s land could double up in a different game as an area behind the support trench. In the same way, the support trenches could be flipped around entirely, completely changing the distances between the trenches and making the defenders job far easier. I found this out just in time, and can’t take the credit for a number of brainwaves that other club members like Rich and Big Al had, but the lesson is to really stress-test the plan to get the very best project for your time and effort.

One simple trick, if you want flexibility for modular terrain, is to just try moving the pieces around like a jigsaw and see where you get to.....if something doesn’t fit, have a go at changing it so it can slot into a variety of spaces.

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