Project OmniTerrain

I’ve had a new obsession over the last month or two. Actually, a very old one that came back for a visit.

Back in the 80s I was into a tabletop wargame called Battletech. It’s about big stompy robots blowing up stuff and generally being awesome.

Battletech Core Box 2018 - Warmonger Games

There’s a lot more to it than that. If I had to sum up its lore, I’d say Battletech is Game of Thrones in Space. And if that in any way sounds appealing to you, I recommend checking it out. Google-fu is your friend.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in Battletech as of late, in part because of some new video games that have come out the last five years, in part because another popular SF wargame (Warhammer 40K) has managed to piss off a lot of its fanbase.

But I’m not here to talk about the game, but the game board. Battletech is played using miniatures on overhead hex-based maps to measure out movement and distance, like this.

Battletech: Clan Invasion | Image | BoardGameGeek

And while these maps look good and clearly mark elevations so you can determine line of sight, there is just something to be said for actually having 3D terrain to move your tiny mechs on.

There are lots of homemade 3D terrain out there, some of which is really damn impressive. I recommend checking out Black Magic Craft on YouTube if you’re looking for inspiration or beginners tips on terrain painting. However, impressive as that stuff is, my mind was set on creating something that was as versatile as possible, while taking up the least amount of space.

And so began the OmniTerrain project.

I promised this walkthrough of what I did and the choices I made to people on Facebook, namely in Everything Battletech and The Tabletop Crafters Guild, who have been very supportive of me spamming them with updates over the last couple of weeks.

First off, let’s look at what my objectives were starting out.

  • I wanted these maps to be to scale with the official Battletech maps, which means each hex is about 1.25 inches across, and each map is 18×22 inches in size.
  • While most games are played on 2 maps, I wanted the option of playing with 4. If nothing else, this would mean far more possible combinations to be made with 2 map setups.
  • I didn’t just want to have the elevation of hills to be taken into account, but also, at least to some degree, depth of water or canyons.
  • Lastly, I wanted the maps to be reversible, with grasslands on one side and desert on the other (the two more popular terrain settings).
  • I wanted it to compact down to a reasonable size for storage purposes.

The most immediate hurdle I could see was handling terrain depth. In Battletech, each level is an inch high. But this also meant that if I was going to have depth, the base map would have to be an inch thick to accommodate it. Not so bad in theory, it just meant I’d be using more of the same material, but in practice it would prove to be a LOT more work…

In order to create the map boards, I bought an 8×2 foot plank of XPS insulation foam of 1 inch thickness from Rona. Normally, everyone talks about these boards being available in blue or pink, but I was fortunate enough to get mine in black.

One of these 8×2 foot planks was big enough to make 5 boards of 18×22 inch size, plus some scraps I could experiment on when it came to painting. In all instances, I cut the foam using a box cutter for the general shape, and the hot wire cutter shown above to trim.

For the terrain, I happened to have a number of slabs of 1 inch EPS foam. EPS foam is what most people think of when you say styrofoam, made of tiny little spheres packed together. It’s a little less dense than XPS foam, but I already had them on hand and didn’t see a need to buy another huge slab of XPS.

These were cut using templates I printed off and pinned to the foam. The cool thing about hot wire foam cutters is that they melt through foam, but don’t burn paper (not easily at any rate), allowing you to use it as a guide.

Once the elevation terrain was finished, it was all painted in a mixture of Mod Podge and black paint. The black paint allows you to easily tell if you’ve completely coated the piece, and also acts as a base coat for painting each side (green for grass, redish for something more deserty, and both got some yellow ochre mixed in on a second pass so it wasn’t just a flat look.

The large map slabs were also coated in Mod Podge, but first I made a decision on texture. I chose to scratch up the side that would eventually be grassland with a wire brush, and use a rolled up ball of tinfoil to add bumps/dents into the side that would be desert. After that, it was time to lay down the base colors. Note how bright they are to start with and how clear the color differences are. That won’t last.

May be art

Next we have the black wash (or, as I call it, the goddamn black wash). The wash has a separator in it (i.e. soap) which causes most of it to pool into crevices instead of the surface, which shows off the bumps/scratches made earlier. However, it still darkens the board as a whole.

In fact, it actually darkened the boards a bit TOO much (far more so than these photos suggest). So I ended up painting over them again in a lighter color and rubbing it over the whole thing, which eventually created a very pleasing layered and textured look.

In the meantime I’ve also painted the elevation tiles (front and back) to match, while painting the sides grey, giving it a black wash and a white dry brush to try and create a “rocky” look that will work on either setting.

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While not realistic looking, these hexagonal elevations are pretty cool and pleasing to the eye. However, there’s the matter of the hexes for the board and the terrain to consider next.

This. Was. A. Pain. For one thing, while stencils exist to create hex maps (and I highly recommend you get one before starting) I was not in a position to get one in a timely manner, and decided to make my own.

I took a spare Battletech map I had, taped it down to a piece of bristol board, and proceeded to punch holes in it with a large nail at each corner and halfway between each corner.

Each. And. Every. One. By. Hand.

THEN, I needed to take that stencil and add the dots to each of the boards… 5 boards on each side. What was worse, due to the nature of the stencil, I ended up having to do it twice. Once to dent the board, then again to mark the dent with a Sharpie. So imagine doing this effectively twenty-one times.

So this might be putting you off, thinking it’s a lot of work, but don’t think of it that way. Think of it as me making mistakes so you don’t have to.

If I had to do it again, I’d buy a stencil for one thing, but I’d also probably try to spraypaint it to save time (if I was sure I wouldn’t damage the board in the process). If you have an airbrush and a stencil, you could do it in no time flat. My time loss is your gain!

I considered this to be Phase One, which is a complete project in and of itself. Phase Two, however, was going to be more challenging. In preparation, I actually printed off several blank BT maps so I could visualize what I was going to cut, and how.

It occurred to me that while I wanted each map board to have a central river/canyon/lake, there was more that could be done. For example, but cutting away the edges just a bit, you’d have an optional coastline, which if put on opposing ends could make an island or peninsula, or if put together could make a large central river. As a bonus, any removed terrain could be used as extra elevation elsewhere if you desire.

In addition, I also had five boards, but only needed four. Rather than just have the fifth board be like the others, I decided to cut it up into three large sections that could be used to add even more elevation to a 2 or 4 map board, either at the edges, or smack dab in the center.

And because these were cut out using a hot wire cutter, the pieces fit back in snugly… TOO snugly, in fact. I had a foam cutting pen tool too, but it would have made the cuts far too wide. In the end, I had to use a Dremel with a sandpaper roll on it to sand them down so they would come out a little easier.

If you do sand XPS foam, remember to wear a painter’s mask. That stuff WILL get in your lungs and give you a bad time. I’m far less concerned by the fumes given off while using the wire cutter. I probably get more toxins in my lungs just driving in a car.

At this stage, I suggest that you check the size of these hexes with your largest mech mini you intend to use. I found that my narrow channels were sometimes too narrow. If this happens to you, don’t panic, just recut with the hot wire alongside the main board and use a glue gun to glue that piece to the removable segment. Do this before you sand down anything and you’ll barely notice the seam.

If you are using a 1.25 inch hex grid like I am, I suggest cutting juuuust outside the dots (or whatever) along the sections you intend to remove, rather than trying to cut the dots down the middle.

Just remember the words of Bob Ross, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents. On several occasions, I found that fixing a problem lead to new opportunities and ideas.

The problem with the whole depth issue, however, was what was going to go underneath. I decided to start with colored bristol board cut to the right sizes for each. Note that all the terrain below was made using ONLY the removable terrain, none of the elevation terrain made earlier. In addition, you can place some 1 inch blocks in the depth and raise the whole section up instead (as demonstrated in the bottom of the grassland pic below).

But obviously that bristol board doesn’t look very good. So it was time for more painting. I kept in mind where the coastlines were and where still water would be (or in the case of the desert, just create two different textures).

The end result is base mats which can be used in any combination, putting water in a desert map, or dirt canyons in a grassland map. The key here is options. You don’t HAVE to use the depth features, but it’s nice to have when you want to create variety.

Of course, now I have one last problem… I have to take my stencil and mark all THESE maps with dots as well. Ugh… Such pain…

Now, it occurred to me that I only needed to hex the sides a couple of hexes and enough of the middle to cover all the configurations. But then I thought… wait, if I had the base boards fully hexed, it would open up even MORE possibilities. Like a beach landing.

Or a cool canyon with a large mesa in the middle.

One future upgrade I will make (won’t do it now, but I have the parts I need waiting for me at home) will be segments that end in half-hexes to be used with certain boards that could be used on a larger 4 map board, but you don’t want to end awkwardly in a flat edge because the piece spans the standard map.

Another thing I’ll be adding in the future is some cardboard roads segments that can be applied to any map (concrete on one side, dirt on the other) and level 0 rivers (which could be useful if you want rivers running over terrain from elevations down to a lake, for example). And of course more trees, rubble, buildings, and other kinds of features that can be added as needed.

The last thing that needs to be done is to seal and protect the pieces with a coat of polyurethane spray. But be careful what kind you get, as many will melt your project if it’s not perfectly sealed. I use Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane clear semi-gloss. And even though it’s safe for foam, you have to still spray it from at least a foot away from the project.

I’ll update this post if anyone has any questions or want me to provide more information on my process, but, yeah, that’s my OmniTerrain.

Now I have to actually play a game on it.

I said one of my goals here was to make something relatively compact given what you can get out of it. So, did I succeed on that front? I think so. Here is all the terrain I made packed and stacked. They could fit nicely together in one large box, along with terrain features like trees, rubble, roads, rivers, what have you.

And here is me using ALL of it to create a two biome battlefield with a land bridge between them. Note I’m also including some blue river strips and grey roads to help illustrate what is possible. And as a final step, I intend to include some small “caps” ending in half hexes to fix situations like the middle peninsula looking so abruptly cut off.

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So, as you can see, there is a huge amount of potential in this set, both on a small and large scale.

Final thoughts

If I had to do it all again, what would I do different? Well, it would be nice to either add some weight to these pieces, or find a way to make them more secure. Foam is light and when you have a small piece on a stack of three or four others, it’s probably going to get knocked off.

Adding magnets to the foam before applying Mod Podge and painting is one idea, but would be laborious to say the least (and if you get any of the polarities wrong? Ooops.). Perhaps inserting washers or steel balls before sealing it and painting would help?

As it stands, I’m using painter’s tape to hold smaller pieces in place.

I would definitely buy a stencil if I didn’t already have one, and find an easier way to apply the marks to my terrain to cut down on repetition. An airbrush would be a godsend.

While 3D printing seems to be the end-all-be-all for games like this, I can’t help but wonder how much it would cost (and how much time it would take) to make the equivalent of this using a printer? I won’t say this is cheap to do exactly. The initial foam board used was under $30, but there are SO MANY little things that add up when it comes to hobby craft.

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