What could be a more essential wargaming terrain piece than the common hill? No matter what period, no matter what setting, hills will be featured. They add visual interest and tactical complexity to any gaming surface, may it be modular boards, gaming mats or just a green table-cloth.
They may be an essential piece of gaming terrain, but making naturalistic looking hills that not only allow easy placement of models, but also easy placement and removal of trees or other terrain features, can be a challenge.
In this post I show you my take on such hills and try to solve some of the problems one may encounter by using the fantabulous power of magnets *gasp*! Obviously this tutorial can also be used for terrain boards.
Hill design – trust me it’s a thing!
We all know how a hill looks like and while some of them feature rock or even cliff faces, it is not common that they have neat steps (even though nature can create crazy terrain features at times) with each step being entirely flat. That said this classic wargaming hill design is the most practical for troop and single model placement. Unfortunately it does not look very naturalistic.
Thus we have to compromise. In general a slight incline will not interfere with placement of regiment bases or single miniatures. However, sometimes one does want a more dramatic effect, a cliff face for instance with a steep incline.
Given that most rule systems restrict the size of terrain pieces it is often unavoidable to have such steep inclines to fit everything within a given diameter. Accordingly miniature placement is impossible or difficult. It depends if you are more of a tournament gamer where every millimeter counts or if you are happy to accept some inconvenience in exchange for better looks.
My advise for designing your standard hill is to keep your preferred rule set and gaming style in mind. Design the hills to suit your models and place some of your models on the piece during construction to see how they work on the surface.
Another important factor is placement of additional terrain features on a hill. In many rule sets a hill can be forested or even feature a settlement.
The latter may need some proper integration and I do not think a settlement would look very convincing if only set on top of a hill without the buildings conforming to the hill or mountain. Accordingly this would need to be a special terrain piece (do I see a future tutorial taking shape?) with very limited troop placement options, but enormous visual appeal.
Trees on the other side can be placed easily. Naturally a dense canopy would have an effect on the ground vegetation, accordingly we need to decide if we want to depict a forested hill or a plain hill with the option to place some singular trees.
Finally we have to consider if slots should be utilised to place trees (or other terrain features, for instance rock outcrops) or if we use magnets to attach trees at a moments notice. I would argue that the second option is superior, as it will not interfer with the naturalistic appearance of the piece. The only disadvantage would be that if you want to place trees on open ground you need to make bases that either are magnetised, too, or have some steel discs embedded.
Another consideration is shipping. Should you move a lot there might be restrictions on sending magnets via post or taking them on a plane. So better check (I did not and had to take the magnets out again…) and use steel discs instead. On trees the magnets can be made removeable, so no problems there.
In terms of magnet strength you should definitly go for neodynium magnets, anything else will be too weak. While smaller trees will be held in place with a N45 grade magnet measuring 10mm by 1mm it is surely not a bad idea to go for some slightly stronger magnets (e. g. 10mm by 2mm) or even the N52 variety. This especially true for tall trees like pines or wind swept trees that tend to lean to one side. For the strongest possible connection I recommend using two magnets: One in the scenic base, one in the tree trunk. Naturally you need to be careful about the polarisation of your magnets if you do this. The attraction of magnet to steel disc is slightly weaker, so in this case go for stronger magnets if in doubt.
Considering all this I went for a very generic hill with some rock outcrops that can be used on its own or with some single trees on it. Later incarnations might have some special features, for instance the aforementioned village or a spring. But how do we go about making such a terrain piece?
What you need
For the basic structure:
- Black or white styrene sheet to cover the bottom of the piece. I went for 1mm thick black sheet as it gives a nice, clean and resilient finish to the bottom. You can choose if you want the glossy or matte side to be visible, but the glossy one scratches easily. Naturally, if you want to make a snow covered hill you should use white styrene sheet.
- Some glue that can bond extruded polystyrene to styrene sheet. I used Selleys Liquid Nails Fast.
- Styrofoam to provide the basic structure for the hill. This needs to be the denser variant – extruded polystyrene not expanded polystyrene – as it is easier to work with and less brittle. I used sheets with a thickness of 1 cm, but thicker sheets can obviously be used, too. You can fixate the sheets with a toothpick while working on them.
- Any glue that can glue Styrofoam. I use Selleys Liquid Nails Fast for this task. Some glues can dissolve styrofoam, so read the label and make sure it is suitable.
For the groundwork:
- A tube of caulking/ gap filler. I use Selley No More Gaps. You could use already coloured filler, but that is not necessary. A plain white no-name brand will do and should last you for several hills.
- Different kinds of sand or soil, ranging from very fine to coarse. I use some black sand in my mix, too, as it provides a bit of colour variation in the final top layer.
- Brown paint to mix into the caulking.
- Bark pieces and coarse cork pieces to depict rock outcroppings.
- Different shades of brown acrylic paint.
- Neodymium magnets or steel discs. I use 10mm by 1mm magnets or discs. Nail heads work quite well as do washers.
For weeds, brush and moss:
- MiniNatur grass tufts, birch and apple foliage nets. I use a selection of autumn and summer grass tufts. The foliage nets can be used to depict floor creepers and bushes.
- Static grass. If you have different brands mix them all up for a more nuanced and realistic appearance.
- Matte spray varnish to reduce the shine of the static grass. I use Tamiya Flat Clear.
- Brown acrylic spray paint to slightly darken the tufts or alternatively a brown wash to dull the shine of the tufts and grass.
- Fine turf e .g. Woodland Scenics range of fine turf in dark green or any other fine turf. This is basically very finely ground coloured foam. We will use this to depict ground cover.
- Dry tea leaves or basil to depict fallen leaves.
- Wood glue or acrylic matte medium to fixate turf and leave scatter.
- Dark or medium green, yellow and beige acrylic paint to highlight the fine turf. A light brown tone to drybrush the static grass.
- Acrylic medium thinned 1:10 with water to seal the piece. Apply with a vaporizer or an airbrush. This will also take away any remaining shine.
- Scissors (to cut the styrene).
- Caulking gun.
- Plastic bag.
- Sculpting tools.
- Different grades of sanding paper.
- Brushes of various sizes to apply paint, wood glue and acrylic caulking. Old bristle brush for dry brushing.
- X-acto knife or scalpel.
- If you have it: A hot knife to cut the styrofoam.
- An airbrush or a spray bottle.
Do it! Do it now!
The basic structure:
- We start easy: Cut the styrene sheet to size, but make it slightly bigger than the piece of styrofoam, so that you have a bit of room to create a reasonably flat transition to the gaming table, avoiding a visible ridge. Score the glue-side with some coarse sanding paper.
- Now cut the styrofoam sheets to size using a (hot) knife. If you use a hot knife this goes much faster.
- Assemble the rough hill shape and use some fine sanding paper to smooth the surface. You can leave some more angular areas if you want to depict underlying rock, but I find it more pleasing if the surface is sanded down to a smooth finish. Do this outside if you are able to and wear a dust mask. The dust gets everywhere and is not good for your lungs. If you use sheets I would also not glue the sheets together and then sand, but rather fixate them with toothpicks. Only when everything is nice and smooth glue the sheets together.
- You can now also glue bark pieces on the surface to depict rock outcroppings. To make the piece lighter and to get more out of one bark nugget you can use a hand-saw to cut it into pieces.
- Any gaps between bark pieces can be filled with air dry clay. Use the sculpting tools to make the transition between pieces as natural as possible. Use the bark texture as a guide. I recommend applying a protective layer of acrylic medium after the clay is hard.
- Now is also a good time to cut circular holes into the styrofoam to later hold the magnets or metal discs.
- Glue the styrofoam on the styrene base and let it all dry over night.
- Mix sand, acrylic caulking, brown acrylic paint and some water. You want it to be stiff enough to be applied with a spatula, but not too stiff to properly smooth out.
- Use now the spatula and cover the entire piece with the groundwork mix. You can embed small pieces of cork or small pebbles in the mix to add further interest to your piece. This can be messy, so I advise to wear gloves and to put a plastic bag or some newspaper under the piece.
- When you embed the magnets do not use too much mix at once and make sure it is not too watery. Depending on its composition the sand might get attracted by the magnet and form a mound. Try to avoid this, as you only want a very thin layer over the magnet. If you use steel discs you can simply cover them with a thin layer.
- Let dry over night.
- After a nice cup of tea or coffee apply a light drybrush with succeedingly lighter shades of your basic brown tone. You can also use some brown wash and apply it in selected areas. Don’t overdo it with either, subtle variations in shade will look more naturalistic.
- Onwards to the rock outcroppings. Use a beige tone as basecoat, wash with brown and then drybrush with lighter shades of the basecoat mixed with white.
- Place the MiniNatur bushes in a random pattern on your piece. Make use of different colours and textures to add interest.
- Now cover the entire piece with thinned down PVA or matte acrylic medium. Apply fine turf, static grass and the dry basil and tea leaves in a random fashion. Let dry completely and then use a vacuum cleaner with some pantyhose over the opening to remove (and later reuse) any excess static grass. Depending on how green you want it, you may need to repeat this step until you are satisfied.
- With an airbrush or with a brush apply a brown wash to reduce the shine of the static grass and to draw together different shades of green. Let dry and apply a very gentle drybrush with beige to the static grass. This should further reduce shine and also add some more colour variation. You can also highlight the fine turf using lighter shades of green and yellow.
- After the entire piece is dry, use an airbrush or a vaporizer to apply a sealing coat of thinned down acrylic medium or PVA (about 1:10, PVA/Medium : Water). Let dry and repeat if necessary. To kill the last bit of shine you can also apply a coat of matte varnish at this stage.
There is no need to restrict this method to hills alone. You can embed steel discs or magnets in pretty much any terrain piece to allow easy placement and removal of trees.
In the near future I shall also show you how to make the actual olive and pine trees for such magnetised terrain pieces. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and maybe it helps with your next batch of hills. And never forget: wield your brush with honor!