Terrain should not remove excessive space from the tabletop:
Unusable space on the table is to be avoided at all costs.
For buildings you have two options. Option one is for buildings that do not have an interior. Build them at a slightly reduced scale so they do not occupy too much table space. Option two is to build the building with interior space. The whole building becomes usable space. Adding a second stories will expand the play area.
For other terrain features make sure that any ridges (such as the banks of rivers) are flat on top and have enough space to stabilize a large base. The sides of stepped hills also need to be able to stabilize a large base. You never know where a random player will end their movement.
A note on rivers: They tend to eat up space on the board and limit game play. If you are going to use a river, ensure that there are plenty of crossings so a single bridge will not become the inadvertent focal point of the game. A single bridge will end up in game terms as a meat grinder.
If the building or terrain feature can be entered, exited, or climbed upon make multiple entrances, exits and access points:
If there is only one access point, players will not use it. The feature becomes a dead end and is an unintentional waste of space.
For appearances sake:
When making modular terrain, try to make sure that edges and height of terrain features match up. Also try to hide the seams and vary lengths between different sections of terrain so the individual components cannot be used as an improvised ruler. Some game systems do not require players to “guestimate” their moves or shots but there is no reason to limit your terrain to one system.
Try to use forced perspective when building terrain:
Forced perspective is a modeling trick to imply that an object is larger or more intricate than it actually is. In the traditional modeling world this is accomplished by building smaller features further away from the viewer to give the illusion of distance. For war gaming it means building features at a reduced depth or height to imply that the feature is there without taking up the required space.
An easy example is when detailing a building interior such as a house, factory or mill. If you add the room partitions, furniture, clutter or complete mechanics there will be no room to place individual model bases let alone entire units. Generally for buildings I build all details within the interiors within a ½ inch of the wall so there is room to have models in play while giving the lived in illusion. For exterior features or details try to build them as close to unusable terrain as possible. If you are building a feature such as a blacksmiths forge, try to contain the total space to within one inch of a wall.
Reinforce the terrain piece as much as possible:
When gluing a terrain piece together, make sure that you have multiple materials overlapping each other with layers of glue laminated in between.
Another way to reinforce terrain is to glaze your finished unpainted piece with superglue. This done by dropping liquid superglue on the part to be glazed and either blowing the superglue or used a can of compressed air to blow the superglue into a thin film coating the material. Future floor polish applied prior to painting will do the same thing. Spray or paint on sealers are also invaluable as the last layer on your terrain so the feature does not chip.
Ensure that your terrain will not damage another piece of terrain that it is set on:
Adding felt to the underside of the base of your terrain features will protect the surface it is placed on.
If your terrain travels, try to have a dedicated box to carry it in, and use foam or bubble wrap to protect the terrain components:
A dedicated carry case will protect your work, help you store the terrain and retrieve what you need in an economical fashion.
Make the terrain visual interesting:
Make features look lived in. One way you can do this is to hide "Easter eggs" on the piece. Add little details that people might overlook initially. Add animals to the bases of your trees. Add a cat sitting on the roof. Add a cup of coffee sitting on a shelf or stove. Papers on the floor, or clothing hanging on a hook add that extra bit of realism that makes individual terrain features “pop”. Any little real life detail added will increase the overall effect.
Use the same color paints, the same basing materials, the same color ground cover etc. etc. Making your terrain fit together is the key. Nothing is worse visually than having a beautiful desert board with a building with a snowy base sat in the middle.
Most linear obstacles should be of average height:
This means to the waist of a man-sized model. Larger obstacles block line of sight. A long wall that is too tall will limit game play. The same goes for windows that are too high for an average model to see out of. Troops cannot realistically use them.
If a terrain feature removes space from the board try to add space with another feature:
If you have a terrain feature that does not allow models to move over the entire feature (like a train engine), try to make up the space with a multi-story building, or scaffolding that can be accessed.
Continue with a concept:
If you have a chimney or vent on a building exterior, make it lead to something inside if you can (some things cannot be properly represented on the interior such as factory machinery).
If you have machine as a terrain piece ensure that is has a visible function. If you have a steam engine, what is it for? What is it attached to? If you have scaffolding what is its purpose? People do not build machines or scaffolding without a purpose.
Allow no ambiguity in your terrain:
Is the feature rough terrain or clear? Is it deep or shallow water? If necessary you can write the terrain condition on the bottom of the piece to stop any arguments during game play.
Base everything on something hard:
How many hills have you seen that were chipped to the foam on the edges? Basing the bottom of terrain gives you two advantages. First it makes it sturdier and second it will stop most dings from other terrain or rough handling.
Try to make terrain that is not specific to only one scenario:
Scenario specific terrain is great, but once used it will most likely sit in a box or on a shelf. It is a waste of time and money.
Unpainted or untreated materials will show through no mater what you do.
Use durable materials:
If you find terrain that you like (say trees). Is there a company that makes them harder? Is there a way to make them stand up to more abuse? Always think durable. A diorama can use dry flowers and they will not be touched. This is a war game and materials are going to be handled.
When kit bashing ensure that the original model is not readily identifiable. If you have to do major modifications to make it your own, go ahead. Tinker with it.
My wife hates me for this. Almost anything can and will be useful for terrain at some point. Horde small components and details as much as possible. Buy in bulk if you can.
Keep a scrapbook:
Try to sketch all angles of your piece. If a building with an interior, try to sketch the whole thing, every wall, inside and out. It does not have to be fancy. It does not have to be original art. It only has to keep you focused on the task at hand so you remember the details that you want to add.
Try to work on only one project at a time:
It will help you from getting overwhelmed, and keep you focused on the task at hand. If you get burned out by all means do a quick smaller project but get back to the big one as soon as possible. Keeping task oriented will save you money, time and space in the long run.
Scatter terrain is useful to give the field that cluttered real life look. Crates, crops, woodpiles and the like not only make interesting features but also add to the game play.
When building scatter terrain try not to have many small pieces that have to be stacked or arranged. They will invariably fall over during play. Try to have major scatter components that are built as one piece such as piles of crates, stacks of pallets, woodpiles with wood cutting tools or coal piles with shovels. The larger components can be arranged as needed.
These are the rules that I personally try to follow. I hope that they help you keep focused and build better terrain.
For the most part, I agree with it. The only one that I really take issue with is the "one project at a time" bit, but that is because I am usually working on 2-4 projects at once. I pour plaster into Hirst molds for project #1, then cut foam for project #2 while the plaster sets. Then, once I scrape the excess plaster, I glue something for project #3. Remove the bricks, pour again, and do something for project #4. Once I have scraped the plaster again, I cut more foam.
A lot of that has to do with either ventilation (burning foam stinks, and is technically toxic) or the drying time of paint and/or glue. But I could certainly see working on only one building at a time, or something like that, where you are working on interior detail and the like.