Common Wargame Scenery Materials
Whether your buying pre-made, building from a kit or crafting for yourself, when making scenery for tabletop wargames or RPGs there are a few materials that are most commonly used due to ease, price, and effectiveness. You can use anything you like of course, but there are some definite favourites, and it’s a surprisingly common conversation.
Here’s a few things to consider when deciding how to populate your table.
Great for adding depth and visual style. Deep sheets of styrofoam or polystyrene make it much easier to craft great looking cliff faces, rock formations, or quick and easy stone walls, but it can also retain fairly fine details if you’ve got the time, patience and tools to create said detail. Polystyrene is by far the cheaper and easier to get hold of, but isn’t quite so easy to work with, especially if you – like me – cannot stand the squeaking sound it makes under friction.
Styrofoam is the superior foam, but comes with a pricetag to match because of how heavily it is used in industrial prototyping. I managed to get hold of quite a substantial amount when it was available on Atenocitis Workshop, now sadly gone from their website except for a few embossed boards. Other sources are not cheap, but absolutely worth the money. The biggest drawback with either is how tough they are to paint, sprays are completely out, and most means of coating properly can destroy any details you’ve managed to create, or ruin texture effects.
Casting moulds are available in a wide range of styles for practically any genre, although fantasy and sci-fi are the most common. It puts someone else’s superior artistic and sculpting skills firmly in your hands, and the utility of the segments let you use that artwork to create something suitable for your needs. Casting can be a chore, especially if you have a lot of pieces to make before you can even start building, and between bad casts or weak mixes you can waste quite a bit of time and plaster. That said, the final effects can be spectacular.
It can limit your creativity if you’re not able to find the moulds right for you, but it can be easier than finding the perfect models. The biggest obstacle is the investment in time and money, but we’re geeks, sleep and food are for the weak.
Plastics and Resins
By and large these are the principle materials you’ll find models sold in, and for good reason. Plastics hold excellent shape and detail, mostly flexible enough to be durable enough to game with, even more obvious weak points can demonstrate surprising durability. Resins are even better at holding details but can often be more fragile and expensive. Both are incredibly easy to assemble with the right glues.
But unless you have a 3D printer or access to proper molding tools, it’s impossible to make your own designs, and not easy to do so cheaply if you do have the skill and equipment. There’s a wealth of miniatures out there so it’s fairly easy to find something close to what you need, but scenery is less catered for. Modular dungeons are becoming bigger and bigger business – Dwarven Forge have led the way but others are siezing upon the concept – great for fantasy players, sci-fi and other genres may struggle. At least if you play modern or historic settings you can depend on the miniature wargaming market.
Here’s where I admit that I have new toys that inspired this entire article. MDF is cheap, easy to work, easily put together with PVA or wood glue, and people have been using it to prototype for years. Laser cutters make it so quick to produce pieces quickly and cheaply, and because of that it’s also easy to produce new designs. I have not found such diversity of style in pre-made models as I have in the MDF ranges.
It’s not perfect, being made of thin sheets does put limitations on design possibilities, buildings and set pieces are good enough but terrain features like trees, rocks and actual landscapes are not quite so easy to create. MDF is also a fragile material, if a piece splits while trying to extract it from it’s sprue then it’s close to impossible to restore it to perfect condition, you can only hope for “close enough” to keep using.
Weight is a common factor when choosing your materials. There’s a reason why metal is starting to disappear as a preference for miniatures, and for scenery it’s just too big and weighty. The same is true of clay, but they’re both superb building materials capable of supporting beautiful details in their own way, and they can be ideal for smaller details, like wire, scraps, small detail mouldings and sculptures.
Cardboard is easier and cheaper to get hold of than anything else, and very easy to work with and shape for bulky structures and even terrain pieces. It looses out in durability, card-based structures don’t travel well, and too much moisture while you’re assembling (like glue, paint, or plaster) can cause warping.
My personal favourite is the most simple: whatever I can grab. I have boxes lying around with interesting stuff, miscellaneous things that look good and work well on the table; pieces of pipe, bits of wood, columns from wedding cakes, and the cover for a parasol-hole in a patio table (makes a great altar). Once you’ve started thinking about these things you start seeing all kinds of pieces of junk as uniquely useful.
There’s a beautiful message in their somewhere…