Terrain Cards – Random terrain placement for pick up wargames

In our recent game of Tilly’s Very Bad Day Chris observed that, as the defender, he could exploit the terrain placement rules to his advantage. This is my proposal to address Chris’s concern. These rules allow randomised terrain for pick up battles in any period.

The terrain placement rules described here borrow heavily from Terrain Cards for a ECW Campaign.


Peter of Grid based wargaming – but not always enjoys writing his own rules and provides lots of interesting material – it is one of the blogs I follow. I particularly like his Terrain Cards for a ECW Campaign, so much that I’ve borrowed the idea for Tilly’s Very Bad Day.

The idea is to generate a realistic but random terrain for a wargame. My table sizes are 4′ x 4′, 6′ x 4′, and 8′ x 4′ and this system works for any of those.

I have 36 terrain cards with open, gentle hills, difficult hills, fields, enclosed fields, rough ground, river, streams, villages and town. The number of terrain cards doesn’t really matter, but the proportion of each terrain type does matter. More cards of a terrain type means that type is more likely to appear in a game.

This system works for Tilly’s Very Bad Day but can be applied to other game systems and periods. I’m thinking DBA, Triumph, and any ancients, medieval, or gunpowder games.

Terrain cards - Example - Real Cards

Terrain cards – Example – Real Cards


Here is a worked example to illustrate the system.

Step 1: The players have to check the terrain cards are relevant to the theatre of operations and in this case all cards were relevant to the theatre. They also made sure the two optional river terrain cards were separated out so they couldn’t be selected in the random draw.

Step 2: The game was to be fought on a 6’x4′ table so the players chose the 3×2 table layout. They randomised the terrain cards, picked six (one per sector on table layout), and flipped them over. Unusually there were three large features (woods, field, gentle hill) and only two small (rough ground and stream).

Terrain cards - Example

Terrain cards – Example

Step 3: The defender has first choice to swap terrain cards with the centre but chose not to; they liked having the large gentle hill in their centre and the other large difficult terrain on the flanks. But the attacker was worried about that large gentle hill in the centre of the defender’s deployment zone and swapped it for the open area on the flank. After this the defender could have swapped the two small features (rough ground and stream) but chose not to as they wanted more open terrain in the attacker’s centre.

Step 4: Next the players placed the terrain, starting with the stream. The stream split the large wood in two. Finally they added a road that had to cross the stream at a bridge or ford.


You have to get some terrain and make the cards.

Terrain Size

Terrain sizes are approximately. Use whatever you have.

Terrain Cards - Feature Size

Terrain Cards – Feature Size

The features on the terrain cards are my normal sizes:

  • Small area terrain: up to 24cm, about 8”, 6 TUM
  • Large (L) are terrain: up to 32cm, about 12”, 8 TUM
  • Streams: about 0.5″, 12mm, 0.5 TUM wide
  • Rivers are about 4″, 100mm, 2-3 TUM wide

Note: TUM = Tilly Unit of Measure = ½ Base Width = 4cm for me with my 8cm wide bases. This is used in Tilly’s Very Bad Day. Triumph has, for example, a similar measure.

Making the cards

You can download the terrain cards and instructions as a PDF. Just follow the instructions to print, glue on cardboard, and cut out the terrain cards. Simple.

Terrain cards

Terrain cards

Procedure for generating terrain


  1. Adjust deck of terrain cards for locale
  2. Fill table layout with terrain cards
    1. Find table layout for your table
    2. Shuffle terrain cards and mix up orientation
    3. Select top terrain card for each table sector
    4. Flip over terrain cards
  3. Swap terrain cards
    1. Swap centre terrain cards
    2. Defender swaps small terrain cards
  4. Place terrain
    1. Place river and/or stream on table
    2. Place other terrain on table
    3. Place road on table

Step 1: Adjust deck of terrain cards for locale

Remove any cards that don’t seem applicable to the location of the battle. For example a particular locale might require less steep hills, rough ground, fields or woods.

Also make sure the optional river terrain cards are set aside. They are not used in the draw.

Step 2: Fill table layout with terrain cards

Place randomised terrain cards on each sector in the table layout.

Step 2a: Find table layout for your table

Terrain is generated, via cards, for each 2′ x 2′ sector of the table. So a 4’x 4′ table has four sections, 6′ x 4′ has six, and 8’x 4′ has eight. The sectors are numbered from top left to bottom right.

Terrain cards - Table Layouts

Terrain cards – Table Layouts

Step 2b: Turn terrain cards face down, randomise, and mix up orientation

Put the deck of terrain cards face down on the table. Shuffle them around to randomise. And change the orientation of the cards at the same time.

Step 2c: Select terrain card for each table sector

For each 2′ x 2′ sector of the table, in the order shown in the table layout, randomly select one terrain card and place on the table layout.

Step 2d: Flip over terrain cards

Flip over all terrain cards on the table layout to reveal the type of terrain and orientation.

Here are some examples for different table layouts:

Terrain cards - Example - 2x2 3x2 4x2

Terrain cards – Example – 2×2 3×2 4×2

Step 3: Swap terrain cards

Swapping terrain cards gives the players a modest ability to influence the battlefield. The defender has slightly more influence than the attacker.

Swapping is optional so it is possible that neither player swaps. In all cases the orientation of a card being swapped remains unchanged.

Step 3a: Swap centre terrain cards

The guiding principle is more dense terrain moves to the flanks and more open terrain moves to the centre.

Swapping cards is not allowed on a 2×2 table layout (4′ x 4′ table) because these have no centre. There are two chances to swap on a 3×2 table layout (6’x 4′ table) and four chances on a 4×2 table layout (8’x4′). The defender gets the first chance to swap, then alternate. Players can pass on their chance or swap.

If a player chooses to swap, then do the first of the following options that is possible:

  1. Swap a large terrain card in the centre for an open terrain card on the flank
  2. Swap a large terrain card in the centre for an small terrain card on the flank
  3. Swap a small terrain card in the centre for a open terrain card on the flank

Terrain are open, small or large. Open terrain cards are obvious. Large terrain cards are labelled with a “(L)”. All other terrain cards are small including streams. The centre table sectors are shown in grey in the table layouts.

Step 3b: Defender swaps small terrain cards

Defender swaps any two small terrain cards.

Step 4: Place terrain

Place rivers/streams first, then place terrain for other terrain cards, and finally place a compulsory road or roads.

Step 4a: Place river and/or stream on table

A single stream terrain card means there is a stream on table. Two stream terrain cards means there is definitely river, and possibly a second stream.

For me a stream is about 0.5″ (12mm; 0.5 TUM) wide and a river is about 4″ (100mm; 2-3 TUM) wide.

Rivers and streams are not contained within a single table sector. Both go, more or less, straight across multiple table sectors, flowing through the middle of each table sector.

The orientation of a card will indicate whether the feature is parallel to the long table edge or short table edge.

One Stream Terrain Card

If there is only one stream terrain card, the terrain card indicates the position and orientation of the stream feature. The stream flows from table edge to table edge, hence across multiple table sectors.

Two Stream Terrain Cards

The diagram shows the six different River-Stream situations possible when the table layout has two stream terrain cards: RS1-RS6.

Terrain cards - Rivers and Streams

Terrain cards – Rivers and Streams

One of the two stream cards always becomes a river. Depending on the placement and orientation of the two stream terrain cards, the second stream terrain card

  • extends the river (RS1),
  • becomes open terrain (RS2, RS3, RS4),
  • remains a stream (RS5, RS6).
(RS1) Streams lined up

Original Terrain Cards: Two lined up stream terrain cards
Replacement Terrain Cards: Results in a river, with no separate stream.

(RS2) Parallel from short edge to short edge

Original Terrain Cards: Two streams terrain cards which are parallel to each other, and has the flow from the short edge to short edge
Replacement Terrain Cards: A river terrain card and an open terrain card. The defender chooses which stream terrain is replaced by the river and which by the open terrain.

(RS3) Flank and centre parallel from short edge to short edge

Original Terrain Cards: When parallel stream terrain cards are in a a flank sector and a centre sector, and both are flow from long edge to long edge.
Replacement Terrain Cards: The river replaces the stream terrain card on the flank. The other becomes an open terrain card.

(RS4) 2 flank streams from short edge to short edge

Original Terrain Cards: Original Terrain Cards: Two stream terrain cards are parallel to each other, are on on opposite flanks, and both are flow from long edge to long edge.
Replacement Terrain Cards: The defender chooses which one the river replaces. The other becomes an open terrain card.

(RS5) Intersecting on flank

Original Terrain Cards: If the two streams would intersect on a flank,
Replacement Terrain Cards: The river is on the flank and the other is a stream; the stream flows from the far short table edge to the river, across the table.

(RS6) Intersecting in centre

Original Terrain Cards: The two streams would intersect in the centre
Replacement Terrain Cards: The river flows from short side to short side and the other is a stream; the stream flows from the far long table edge the the river, across the table.

Step 4b: Place other terrain on table

Now place the terrain for all of the remaining terrain cards. Adhere to the size, orientation and position of the feature given on the card. If the intended position of a small feature overlaps a river or stream then move the feature to the side, trying to keep the feature in the correct table sector. If the intended position of a large feature overlaps a river or stream then split the large feature into two small features of the same type, and put the two features on either side of the water feature, trying to keep both features in the correct table sector.

Step 4c: Place road on table

Every table has at least one road on the assumption armies approached each other along a road. Some tables will demand more than one road, which may join at a junction or fork.

The road network must follow these rules:

  • The first road must go from long table edge to long table edge
  • A road must pass by each town and village
  • Roads can ross any river or stream at a ford or bridge, but not all rivers and streams have to be crossed
  • Roads must avoid other terrain

How to use for Tilly’s Very Bad Day

Terrain Cards can be used to replace the terrain rules of Tilly’s Very Bad Day for pick up games in the Thirty Years War.

You will have to decide how the three table layouts provided (2×2, 3×2, 4×2) apply to small and large games in Tilly’s Very Bad Day. For myself a small game in Tilly’s Very Bad Day is on a 2×2 table layout (on a 4’x4′ table) and a large game uses a 3×2 table layout (on a 6’x4′ table).

I have specified the sizes of feature in cm and inches, but also in Tilly Units of Measure (TUM). So just make your features to match.

Tilly’s Very Bad Day is available for Download (PDF).


Grid Based Wargaming: ECW Campaign Cards and Terrain Cards.

12 comments to Terrain Cards – Random terrain placement for pick up wargames

  • I really like the idea of having the defender swap a card along with the mechanism where streams become rivers.

    • Steven Thomas

      Jamie has been asking “What makes the attacker attack?” recently, and the associated “What benefit comes with that obligation?” The reverse is “what benefit does the defender get?”

      Terrain cards take away the freedom that the defender gets in terrain placement in standard Tilly’s Very Bad Day. But I thought they should have some benefit. Swapping cards, and they get two chances, is a small benefit compared to “do anything you want”, but, perhaps, a key benefit.

      I like the streams become rivers thing too. But it did take a lot of additional explaining.

      And thank you Peter, for getting my creative juices flowing. I’m just building on your fine ideas.

    • Steven Thomas

      Peter, I think I’ll borrow your recent idea that the defender can rotate a card, instead of swap.

  • Richard

    Brilliant idea, but I might want to make it slightly simpler, especially the water features. Perhaps a player could simply extend any single water card, removing all other water cards, or, could simply remove all water cards. The same approach could be used for the road.

    At the risk of making things more complicated (!) I was also wondering if certain specialist pieces should also be moved, e.g. village to road, watermill to river etc. All depends on what you’ve got I suppose.


    • Steven Thomas

      Richard, what do you mean “extend any single water card”? A single stream terrain card will result in a stream that crosses the entire table, so I’m not sure what “extend” means. They all “extend” (as I see it). See the “Terrain cards – Example” diagram.

      You could, of course, ignore the rules for rivers from two stream cards. A much simpler approach is to turn one of the two stream cards into a open space.

      However, I kind of like the idea of the T junction for two streams. And I made the river rules because, well, I have 4″ wide rivers and want a mechanism to use them.

      Why do you suggest an option to remove all water cards?

      I’m not sure what you mean by “the same approach could be used for the road”. Roads are treated differently anyway. There are no road terrain cards. I assume there is a road, 100% of the time, and you put it anywhere you want it.

      You can add terrain cards if you want to e.g. water mill. Or just add them for aesthetic reasons. I approve of adding terrain models because they are cool.

      • Richard


        Under TVBD as it currently stands you allow only one river/stream, only one road and only one village. So if you had more than one river card and they didn’t line up you would have to choose between them. I was just suggesting removing all water features as an alternative possibility.

        The use of more than one water feature will of course lead to a richer terrain experience, but I’m not entirely convinced that rivers work very well in wargames because they become such dominating features. Forcing a river crossing sounds in theory like an exciting game but often results in a very bottle-necked one in my experience.

        The instructions for dealing with two stream cards look complicated and I also don’t follow the bits about leaving the stream cards out of the draw.

        What I was suggesting about roads was to include a road card and use it in the same way as a stream card. By ‘extend’ I mean exactly what you mean.

        OK, these are all small points. I look forward to giving this a go as written. People who suggest changes before they have even tried something are very annoying!


        • Steven Thomas

          The options with the Terrain Cards are definitely richer than the basic arrangement outlined in TVBD.

          There are four water feature terrain cards in my deck: 2 x stream and 2 x river. Only the streams are included in the draw. The rivers are excluded from the draw (which is why they are a different colour) and only come into use when two stream cards are selected for a particular battle. Actually all the special rules for two streams come into effect then. I wanted rivers but I didn’t want them often. Actually the chance of getting two streams is low, not zero, but low.

          I agree river crossings are tricky in wargames. They were in reality as well. They may be too tricky to wargame in TVBD, but that is worth some play testing.

          A stream crossing is not so tricky.

          Roads could be terrain cards. But I thought I’d follow Peter’s lead and make it an aesthetic decision. After all they have no effect in TVBD.

  • mgluteus

    This is also a great tool for setting up your own scenario for a future game with friends. When are we going to see the Cross fire version? Same idea but with a smaller grain (1′ squares or more than 1 type of terrain to a card)?
    Dick Bryant

    • Steven Thomas

      Good to hear from you Dick.

      Hmm, terrain cards for Crossfire. Now that is an interesting challenge given the infinite ranges only blocked by LOS restrictions i.e. terrain.

      A challenge, but I admit it did get my brain working …

  • Chris Helm

    Hi Steve,

    Gosh, where to start?

    Well first but rather belatedly, thanks very much for Tilly’s Very Bad Day. I’ve been meaning to say thanks since you first made it available but I also wanted to add some further thoughts so haven’t managed to get around to it, of course. Sorry. I’ll follow up later, honestly, but for now, thanks.

    Second; thanks for this post too. You have, as so often, done what I’ve only been thinking about and done it well (with most of the credit probably due to Peter, I realise). I’ve been thinking for some time that it would be good to develop a random terrain placement system, in particular for DBA. This system will adapt brilliantly to that purpose.

    As I was reading your post and thinking of how the system would work for DBA, a couple of ideas occurred to me that might be helpful, so here they are.

    This system, like that of DBA, seems well designed to generate realistic terrain layouts for pick up games (and campaign games), with the neat trick of allowing the details to be tweaked slightly by one side or the other (in this case the defender) to simulate the perceived strategic advantage held by that side. In that vein, I think it worthwhile to consider adopting from DBA the principle that the attacker chooses his / her base edge. That’s a good mechanism because it helps limit distortions in the final terrain placement (though it’s undoubtedly an artificial fix). For that reason I think it’s worth including. I think I’d also be inclined to bring in the rule that the defender sets up first, the attacker second and then the defender gets first move. The whole of that process is a piece of design genius in respect of creating a balanced but realistic and tactically interesting opening position for a pick up game (and for any campaign game that doesn’t utilise a really detailed campaign map, i.e. every campaign that I’ve ever played in).

    My second suggestion is simply to replace ‘defender / attacker’ by ‘side with the strategic initiative’ (exerts more control over terrain) vs ‘side without’ (exerts less), as its not inevitable that the defender has local initiative, particularly in the TYW.

    Right, gotta go. Thanks again, very much. Happy gaming to all.

    Regards, Chris

    • Steven Thomas


      Several people have mentioned the “defender swap” thing. Just to be clear three swaps are allowed in my Terrain card rules:
      1. Defender option to swap, so more dense terrain moves to the flanks and more open terrain moves to the centre (part of Step 3a: Swap centre terrain cards)
      2. Attacker option to swap, so more dense terrain moves to the flanks and more open terrain moves to the centre (part of Step 3a: Swap centre terrain cards)
      3. Step 3b: Defender swaps small terrain cards

      The defender also has a couple of possible choices if two stream terrain cards are selected.

      The terrain cards system is meant to be system agnostic. As you spotted this system can be used for DBA. You mention some elements of the DBA terrain system that fit that system and, in combination, provide some balance. But other systems do not necessarily benefit from these elements.

      DBA gives the Attacker choice of the base edge because the defender has control of the terrain. That isn’t true of Terrain cards. The defender actually has very little say in this system, so the attacker needs less compensation.

      I know the sequence of defender set up, attacker set up, and defender move provides balance in DBA. But personally I find the defender moving first a bit odd. It kind of undermines the attacker attacking thing.

      Although the attacker / defender classification is simple, most rules use that classification, if they mention anything, and it is simple. Of course the “defender” in a battle might be the strategic aggressor e.g. 100 Years War English.

  • Chris Helm

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for responding and so promptly. Thought provoking too. In return here are my thoughts as provoked.

    “DBA gives the Attacker choice …. because …. .”

    Good point. You’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way at all but should have, as it’s staring me in the face.

    “…. I find the defender moving first a bit odd.”

    I’ve always thought that this makes reasonable historical sense because, in those cases* where the attacker encountered the defender, the defender was often already deployed. Thus it would make sense that the defender could seize a first mover advantage while the attacker was deploying, though it seems to have been rare that it actually happened.

    [*at this point a half-decent historian would list examples. I haven’t, as you see, but if you’re really interested and you’d like me to then I’ll try and do that. I have a feeling that’s going to be a low risk offer.]

    All that said, I think the simplest and most realistic system that I’ve played is one devised by Phil Sabin for his game ‘Phalanx’, which first appeared in Slingshot many years ago. In that system both sides deploy from camp with the attacker getting first move. It has some real benefits. It seems to reflect a reasonably common occurrence and the jockeying for position adds tactical depth, interest and tension to the game.

    Of course none of this actually makes any difference to the effectiveness or operation of your terrain cards system.

    “Although the attacker / defender classification is simple …..”

    Good point. You’re right. I was succumbing to a bad habit of wanting to over – tweak things. The KISS principle should apply here. I happily concur.

    Best regards, Chris

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