Saturday, 7 April 2012

The hills are alive...

Once again events prove the old military adage "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" as plans for a wargame this Good Friday fell through due to Family Duty.

Instead I've been tinkering with an idea that... I'm not entirely sure I can call it my own.  We're all familiar with the classic "wargame hill" made up of stepped layers of foam or polystyrene.  They may look unrealistic compared to properly sculpted and modelled hills, but the practical advantages mean they're ubiquitous in the wargaming world.

Well I was reading a fairly snarky blog post which decried the traditional stepped hill and offered an alternative method, involving layering bark chippings around a polystyrene core then filling in the gaps and building up with filler.  The results are undeniably gorgeous, however I'd argue the results are much more like mountainous terrain than rolling countryside.  Looking ate both the inspirational images of real terrain and the blogger's modelled results, it struck me that the main difference between his hills and the traditional hill is that the "flow" of the realistic hilly terrain runs vertically or diagonally.  Our traditional stepped wargames hills are aligned horizontally, which kinda works for some "mesa" type terrains, but not western european rocky terrain.

So I thought "Why not use layers of polystyrene, but align them vertically  instead of horizontally?"

Picture shamelessly stolen from Bob's Colonial Wargaming site.
The idea originates, as many do, with the long lost Major General Tremorden Rederring's Colonial Wargames Page.  The Major General  pioneered the idea of "profile mountain" terrain, based on 2d cutouts.  Back in the day I had quite an impressive mountain range built on those lines, though I mainly used it as a backdrop rather than an active terrain element.  Bob Cordery is one of the other gamers I know who built his own version of the Major General's profile mountains.  Bob then took it one stage further and used thick blocks of balsa wood layered vertically to make hills.  This page shows samples of both.

So "my" idea was to use polystyrene sheets much as Bob had used balsa blocks, but to fill and blend them together with filler to try to get a balance between the aesthetics of the 3t Studios hills and the practicality of the stepped layers.

A couple of pre-cut 3mm MDF baseboards were liberated from the stalled Victorian slum scratchbuilding  project and the corners rounded off.  I then started hacking away at a sheet of inch thick polystyrene insulation, starting with a mountain-shaped profile for the highest ridgeline.  I wanted these hills to represent rocky elevations that were impassable to vehicles or cavalry, but with the appearance that infantry could clamber over it via rocky mountain paths.  So the lower contours were shaped to only provide platforms for figures to stand on, but also to give the impression of a winding path.

The separate bits of polystyrene were temporarily held together using cocktail sticks.  Offcuts of polystyrene were used to fill large gaps and round out any large flat areas.  Then the assembled hill was glued to the base board using PVA adhesive and left overnight to stick.  This morning I started with the pre-mixed polyfilla, filling in all the gaps, rounding off joints and roughening up flat surfaces.  At the time of writing, the two hills are completely filled and being left for a couple of days for the filler to dry completely.  Once that's done, I'm going to sand the filler in places, give the whole lot a coat of PVA and sand as a nice tough protective shell, then it'll be a matter of painting & texturing.

Things are looking good so far.  If these two test hills work out, I'm planning to produce a couple more of the same size, plus a few smaller "rocky outcrops" using the same method.  Watch this space.


  1. Very interesting idea. Thanks for sharing.

  2. The Major General's site lives on !.

  3. I will look forward to seeing how this project works out . . . it sounds like it might work well.

    -- Jeff

  4. I have done some profile mountains and I like the fact that they can be fairly tall and still have a pretty small footprint. (I'm not trying to make mine look real, though. If anything, they probably look more like potatoes than mountains! ha) (I also did a waterfall using the same idea, starts vertical and then goes horizontal to hook up with my river sections)
    I'll be interested to see how your project turns out.

    1. "real" is in the eye of the beholder. I doubt my rocky hills will look objectively "real", I'll settle for "vaguely plausible".

      But the Major General's profile mountains were never meant to be realistic, but a visually appealing and practical way of representing a very complex terrain type.

  5. It's shaping up nicely. I'm looking forward to how it turns out.