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.
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:
The straight road sections can then be made up of just these two kinds of hexes:
Here’s how they all fit together to make a full crossroads:
Here’s a dirt track I made with a T-junction using this method:
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 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.
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.