Square-foot module history
15 years slowly making a wargaming terrain system
In my teens, I got into miniature games based on non-competitive pre-computer military simulations, which take up a lot of room. At the time, the standard size of a table for the game Warhammer 40,000 was 6 × 4 feet, which is about 18 × 12 dm.
When I was at university, I built a table, with a raised edge to catch dice. In 2007, I started making modules to add to this bare enclosure. I had basic hand tools and my father built a hot-wire foam cutter large enough to make modules 3 dm on a side with ±1 mm precision.
The first batch of modules was made of 3 mm Masonite sheets sandwiched between 30 mm of expanded polystyrene (EPS) on top and small squares of 7 mm pine for feet under the corners. I picked a basic horizontal size of 298 mm, allowing for 1 mm of error on each side to fit everything comfortably inside the table’s raised edges. Half the modules in the first batch were 298 × 298 mm, and half were twize as big for the same tolerances, that is 598 × 298 mm.
The materials were cheap and light. They made the first modules easy to grab and to stack, because the pine feet lifted the Masonite off the table and over any minor protrusions on the next module in a stack on a shelf. The 30 mm of play between the EPS surface and the Masonite base also made for rivers that looked properly hard for troops to pass.
The early materials also had drawbacks. Masonite is hygroscopic; the double-size modules in particular were never perfectly straight after being glued together. EPS is soft; damage to a module would leave dents or white cracks in the paint. With all three materials sandwiched together, every module took up at least 40 mm of shelf space, which I decided was too much.
As the years passed, I gradually disposed of all the double-size modules. In new designs I upgraded from Masonite and EPS to 3 mm acrylic (PMMA) and blocks of extruded polystyrene (XPS). The acrylic sheets were heavier but stayed flat regardless of humidity, and the XPS was more resistant to damage while being easier to sculpt. By getting rid of the pine feet and putting the acrylic directly on the gaming table, I dropped the minimum height of a module from 40 mm to 10 mm, making river canyons and craters shallow but storage easy. I cut down some of the oldest modules to this new base height so I could keep them.
There have been other changes. With better tools, mechanical tolerances went down and the basic horizontal size of a module went from 298 to 300 mm. I started printing hard edges to get more durability and more consistency at the interfaces between modules. I also changed the paint scheme.
So far, the modules have always represented a grassy biome, for practical and biophilic reasons, but the colour of the grass has changed. The first batch used a cold, dark green, which I thought was appropriate for 40K’s dystopia, but it didn’t look much like grass.
I switched to happier midtones in later production, in a few steps. By 2016 I was using Daler & Rowney System 3 acrylic paints for the grass: “Hooker’s Green” (dark base), “Chromium Oxide Green” (highlights) and a 50–50 mix of the two for the midtone at the edges of every new module. A tube of Daler & Rowney’s “Pale Olive Green” provided a warmer finish for variegated drybrushing.
For muddy patches, I was using a walnut-brown Pebeo craft paint for a while, but when I replaced the first river modules with lower ones, I went with Vallejo Model Color, specifically “Chocolat Brown” (70.872), for the river banks at module edges to get them to match up. The water in the first river modules was an organic blend of blues and greens with black edges, but when I painted the new river water in 2022 I went with a bold look, using Vallejo Game Color “Bonewhite” (72.034), an almost opaque off-white that was easier to match up from one tile to the next. It’s meant to pass for naturally muddy, polluted, or alien, depending on the scenario.
The texture of the grass on the first modules is natural sand and dirt of various grain sizes, glued to the EPS with PVA. I have maintained that tradition in later work, because I think that the main alternative—static grass—would moult in handling and storage when used at such a scale.
In later work I have added more sculptural detail, rendered in various plasters as well as cuts into XPS. Some modules even contain gypsum plaster details from silicone moulds made by Hirst Arts. Hirst’s floor pieces are ¼” tall, perfect for blending into the 7 mm layer of XPS on top of the acrylic base.
Chipped-stone floors are first covered in a black wash, then detailed with pigment powders. I’ve used Vallejo’s “Burnt Umber” for earth, “Carbon/Smoke Black” for deep recesses, and “Chrome Oxide Green” for plant growth in the cracks. Finished with a light drybrush of white.
If you’re thinking of getting into wargaming, you will need a large table, but you will not need modules like mine between the table and the miniatures.
In its current state as of June 2022, my system takes up more than two meters of shelf space. Setting it up for games, and tearing it down afterwards, is slow; it takes some carrying and thinking to get everything matched up and fair to all players.
Instead of adding an interesting dimension to the gameplay, my system tends to create ambiguities (e.g. line of sight over a crest) and obvious choke points (the one bridge over the river). The result can be less dynamic and play slower than an open field with a few clearly delineated, taller pieces of cover.
I maintain the system for aesthetic reasons. I enjoy the crafting. Even if this appeals to you, you are better off with a few buildings and trees to start with. These days, printed terrain in biodegradable PLA plastic is a great option.