Monday 1 February 2010

“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: 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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