Not long after our gaming group's inaugural wargame, John and I set to work planning the next step in our North Africa WWII wargaming odyssey. We wanted a coastal city so we could build a port and play with water effects (neither of us had done this in any significant volume before.) We also needed it to be modular for ease of transport. Our goal was a transportable table that offered flexible playing area while meeting the highest standards of appearance. Being relative novices in the realm of high-end terrain construction, much of the project took us into uncharted waters, and we had many accidental triumphs that have become standard procedures, as well as many failures that can provide cautionary tales for those who follow us. Did we succeed? Read on and judge for yourself...
We kicked-around a couple of ideas and decided on four 3'x4' 1/4" plywood panels, because that's what I had in the basement. This would give us a nice, big 6'x8' playing surface made of lightweight panels that fit into the trunk of my car. I framed the panels with 1"x1" lumber to prevent them from warping. The frame also allows us to clamp the panels together once finished. I then topped the panels with pink foam and subsequently sculpted the foam using wire brushes to give us the topography were were after. This is very messy-but I think the results are worth it. Many thanks to my wife, Sacha, for generally putting up with the pink snowstorm in the basement.
Lehman Russ tank added for reference.
I needed some weights to hold the foam flush with the wood while the glue dried. There is no problem that alcohol cannot solve. Here are the two coastal panels side-by-side.
A close up of the beach area shaped using wire brush. I used two brush sizes: 1.5" for bulk foam removal and a .5" brush for finer details. I would also recommend lightly roughing the entire surface of the foam (not just the shaped contours) using a wire brush to give the plaster (see below) a stronger bond with the foam. I did not do that for this project, and the plaster tends to break off a little too easily from the smooth, unshaped foam surfaces.
In addition to the port, we wanted an escarpment to give us some high ground. Here you can see the two escarpment panels taking shape.
Speaking of lessons, here was my first big one. Glue is important. Use the right glue for the right job. Wood glue worked great for binding the foam to the wood panels, but was not the best for binding foam to foam. The bond is pretty brittle and the foam slabs started to separate as I moved the panels around. Tacky glue retains some flex and bonds better to foam than wood glue, so use that instead. Also, a corollary to the Tacky Glue law is using screws to hold the foam together while the glue dries. This prevents any "drift" while the glue forms a permanent bond and ensures that the foam slabs do not separate while the glue dries. Above and below you can see dots where I used sheet rock screws in the foam. When you do this, be sure to countersink the screws so the heads are flush or below the level of the foam, but be careful not to over-rotate the screws and strip the holes. You need the threads to remain engaged with the foam.
A ready-to-play gaming table:
Ok, there was a bit more to it than that. I wish I would have taken more (any!) pictures of the finishing work, but dealing with the plaster is a pretty frantic experience. Once you start mixing it, you just have to go all-out until you have finished coating the panels. Before we knew what had happened, 8 hours had passed and we had a gaming table.
We started by plastering 2" tall bands of cast rock (Merlin's Magic) around the edges of the port and then sinking dowels into the sea floor to use as pilings. Everything got a layer of plaster coating (though we left a good bit of the cast rock sheets exposed.) John finished off the port area by cutting balsa wood planks to make the docks/wharf and added a couple of collapsed piers to complete the job. He then used a light pigment on all the horizontal desert surfaces, which offset them nicely from the darker base pigment in the plaster. Next he sketched-out the roads using dark pigment with light borders. Finally, before we poured the water effects, John used dark brown and green pigment to shade the bottom of the port area. The initial results were pretty neat.
But we weren't done yet. Not even close.
Read what happens next when I get ta thinkin'