Why hexes are awesome and why you should make your own

Ross Kearns has launched a kick starter for a Tabletop Hex Terrain Toolkit. I asked Ross to write a guest article about it. All words and images are Ross’s.

Whenever I see a wargames tables, no matter how pretty the terrain is, the first thing my eye is always drawn to is the ugly join between the boards. Then it’s to the ugly join between the hills and the flat ground beneath them. To get around this with my own terrain, I assumed that I would have to make each battlefield on a great seamless board with undulating terrain. I wouldn’t be able to transport it, of course, but at least I’d somehow be able to store it along with all the other boards for different scenarios, in racks in that brilliant warehouse I didn’t own.

It was only later that I realised that the answer wasn’t to have fewer joins, it was to have more. Here’s a terrain board I made with modular hexes – covered in joins everywhere you look, and yet they don’t seem to offend the eye at all. I think it’s because unlike modular rectangular boards, there are no straight lines that cut right across the battlefield. Every join on this battlefield is only 5cm/2” long.

Modular Hext Terrain

Modular Hext Terrain


If there’s one thing that hexes can do better than any other kind of terrain, it’s rivers. They form natural, pleasing curves instead of the right angle turns that modular rectangular boards are forced into. Crucially, unlike rivers that you place on top of the gaming board, hex rivers run below the level of the surrounding land. The same thing goes for trench works and fox holes – it’s like they’re actually dug into the ground. As you can see, hills also form natural shapes which you can’t get with rectangular terrain without sacrificing versatility.

So where do hexes normally let you down? People often complain that they’re not good for roads, since the angles are a bit odd and you can’t have crossroads. How can you be expected to fight the iconic battles of Normandy if there are no crossroads to capture and defend? As it turns out, with a little bit of thought, you can absolutely have crossroads with modular hexes. The trick is to locate the crossroads off-centre:

Crossroads

Crossroads

The straight road sections can then be made up of just these two kinds of hexes:

Straight Road 1

Straight Road 1

Straight Road 3

Straight Road 3

Here’s how they all fit together to make a full crossroads:

Example Crossroads

Example Crossroads

Here’s a dirt track I made with a T-junction using this method:

Example Road

Example Road

With this technique, instead of having six directions in which the road can leave a hex, you have 18 (three for each side). With subtle curves to transition from one direction to another, that should be enough to fool the eye into thinking they are free-form roads.

Like a lot of people, I was bothered by the jagged edge around the board that you get with hexes – as we know, hexes don’t line up to give a neat line across the board. This too was easily solved, by having semi hexes that fit into all those gaps. It is a commitment though, because semi hexes aren’t nearly as versatile as full hexes, since they can’t be rotated around to line up with the hexes next to them.

The other problem with hexes, and this is the big one, is that they’ve always been pretty tricky to make. When I first started with hex terrain, I spent ages drawing out a hexagon using a ruler, compass and my best high school geometry. I was quite pleased with the result. Then I cut it out and used it as a template to draw another one. It looked just as good at the first and lined up perfectly. Then I tried rotating it 30 degrees and suddenly it didn’t line up at all. My perfect hexagon was anything but. Multiply that kind of error across a battlefield and you’d have big gaps everywhere.

Hex geometry

Hex geometry

Hex terrain moved on in the 80s and 90s to injection moulding of expanded polystyrene. Let’s assume that the manufacturer could accurately make a mould that was a true hexagon.

First problem: it’s not possible to machine a mould cavity with sharp corners. The closest you can get is determined by the radius of the milling bit. So you get hexagons with rounded corners, which mean there’s a gap everywhere that three hexes meet on the tabletop.

Second problem: to eject the hex from the mould cavity, the mould needs a certain amount of draft – meaning that it’s tapered such that the top of the mould cavity is wider than the bottom. The deeper the cavity, the greater the tapering. So now you get even wider gaps between the hexes.

Third problem: expanded polystyrene has to be heated up for injection moulding and shrinks as it cools. If you’ve moulded a sphere, that’s fine, the sphere will just be slightly smaller afterwards. However, if you’ve moulded something of a less regular shape, like a hexagon, say, the wide parts will shrink more than the narrow parts, which means your true hexagon mould produces a part which is no longer a true hexagon. Shrinkage is also affected by the conditions in the factory where it’s made – heat and humidity all play a part. Two hexes made by the same manufacturer with the same mould on different days can end up a different size and shape – even worse if they’re different heights with the same theoretical base size. All of this means bigger gaps on the table.

So, how do you get around this? How can you make them accurately? Well, there’s 3D printing, which would be very expensive and very, very slow (several hours for a single hex), or there’s laser cutting. Unfortunately, the heat the laser generates as it goes through polystyrene turns it into a melty mess that’s no good to anyone. The solution I came up with was to use a laser cutter to accurately cut hexagons from MDF and then use them as a jig with which to cut the polystyrene (initially with a knife, and then when I realised how much easier it was, with a hot wire cutter). This worked so well that I designed more MDF jigs to help make hills, cliffs and rivers. Pretty soon, the really tricky task of making hex terrain became really easy.

G4 Hex Maker

G4 Hex Maker

R5 Hex Maker

R5 Hex Maker

If you’re inspired to make your own hex terrain, you’re in luck – I’ve just launched a Kickstarter to release my laser cut MDF tools to the public (or at least that small segment of the public who are into tabletop games. And making terrain. And agree with me that hexes are awesome).

The Kickstarter is running until 3rd December 2016 – so get in quick if you want to get involved. There’s a reward level for everyone, right up to a system for interlocking your hexes so you can build whatever size of board you like.

9 comments to Why hexes are awesome and why you should make your own

  • Dick Bryant

    I always liked the look of a hex battelfield. My club went with Geo-Hex when they first came out -they didn’t seem to have the manufacturing problems aluded to in this article, but are susceptible to “elbow divots” from people leaning on the table. We gave up on them after a while because it was such a pain to set up a different hex map terrain each week. I beleive this would be great for a gamer playing less often with time for set-up between games.
    Dick Bryant

  • I tried Geo-hex. I made over one summer the entire Gettysburg battlefield, only to find that when assembled it was not secure enough to stop bases slipping down chasms between the hexagon tiles.

    So I migrated to Kallistra. Although more formalised, with a load of spare Geo-hex, plenty of PVA and flock I have customised several bespoke tiles.I also make my own road and river tiles, rather than superimpose features on the base tiles.

    Recently, having moved down a scale from 6mm to 3mm, I have started using gridded terrain mats, sometimes embellished with customised MDF hexagons 6cm across. Various examples of my method can be seen on General Whiskers

    • Steven Thomas

      I’m more a flat terrain guy because of the convenience. So your gridded hex terrain mat would appeal to me if I went for a hex game e.g. Defence of Billington. But I have to say that Ross’s contoured 3D table is beautiful. A work of art.

  • Willem

    I have always been an avid fan of hex battlefields. Never a discussion about distances and movement. If, for your game, LoS is from center to center of the hexes, never a discussion here either.
    For my 6mm WWII game I use Kallistra exclusively. I designed my own road system that was produced by Warbases. The roads are 4cm wide and are placed in the center of the hexes. Crossroads are at a 60° angle but this has never interfered with the gameplay. What Ross introduces here is very interesting and I will keep a close watch here. You can see pictures of my battlefields here : http://s1168.photobucket.com/user/sixmil/library/Sixmil%20Buildings

    • Steven Thomas

      Nice set up. The interlocking nature of your modular roads is very cool. Prevents those awkward “I’ve bumped the road and now we have three roads” moments; I don’t know about others but it happens to me all the time. Couple of questions … where do I find them on Warbases? How could a buyer make them look, well, more like a road?

      I also notice you put your buildings on the hex edges rather than inside the hexes. Why is that? Block line of sight?

  • Willem – having crossroads at 90° is an aesthetic thing rather than gameplay, for sure. What I didn’t mention in the article is that it also means that bridges can cross rivers at 90° too, which I think looks more realistic, certainly for WWII era and before, when ease of construction was more important than speed of motorist.

    You have some really nice looking battlefields in that gallery by the way – I’ve never really played 6mm, but it has so much going for it that I probably will one day.

  • Steven Thomas

    I just noticed Ross’s reddit about 50mm hexes overlaid on his 100mm hexes. I can imagine both hex sizes on the table for a game like Crossfire which is all about terrain density. Use a group of 50mm hexes for dense terrain, e.g. a dense wood or built up area. Use the normal 100mm hexes for the more open bits of the table. In all cases one hex, of either size, is one terrain feature.

  • Willem

    Hello Steven,
    The roads were custom-made by Warbases. You will not find them on their website. However, if you contact them by mail I’m sure he will remember and he most likely still has the drawings I sent him in his computer. If necessary download a pic from my Photobucket to boost his memory. If you would contact them let me know how you fare and if necessary I can resend him my (crude) drawings.
    The interlocking system is indeed a great help keeping the road “continuous”.
    They can be made to look better. Warbases could scribe cobblestones in them without a problem. Being mdf they can be painted. I painted some of them blue on one side so they could be used for a canal or a waterway when flipped over.
    My buildings on the hexsides … since a few years I’ve been working on my own “WWII for 6mm” rules which are hexbased using Kallistra tiles. I placed them on hexsides basically to have them “out of the way” inside the hexes so I was able to place 4 units in a hex without hampering their communication or LoS. I experienced several consequences in doing so. LoS and LoF are measured from center to center of the hex. So placing them on the sides proved to generate lesser discussion. Players also no longer “relocate” them.
    All buildings are placed with opposite corners on the spots where the hexes converge so their basic dimensions are always ±3cm wide and 5cm (or a multiple) long (Kallistra has 10cm side to side). Placing them in this manner brings the long side of the building perpendicular to the roads which are placed through the middle of the hex. This means some restrictions in designing the buildings but I can live with that. If buildings are placed on opposite sides of the road (4cm wide) the hex is completely covered and the result is a neat street. (Wish I could place a drawing so it would be more visual).
    Ross has indeed a massive point with the 90° crossing and certainly for bridges and I’m already pondering how to adapt my road system to implement this in some way.
    I also noted the 50mm hexes on 100mm. It think it a very refreshing idea worth pursuing.

    • As a long time user of Kallistra hex tiles I like your approach.
      I tend to make roads and rivers permanently on the hex tiles by soaking and scraping the relevant parts of the tiles tiles and then painting in the river or road.
      But your building approach is not one I had thought of.

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