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"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How-to: Setting up terrain the right way

This wasn't an article I was planning on writing, but someone in our chatbawks (you should all go there, it is full of sexy ladies and sweet advice from rad dudes) brought the subject up and it seemed like a useful idea, so here we are. I've talked in the past about how terrain setup can drastically change how matches are played, but there's never really been a good "here is how you do it" post, here or elsewhere to my knowledge. So let's start with the basics.

25% Coverage
If you're not getting this one, it almost doesn't matter what else you do right. One quarter of the table should have terrain on it that is relevant to the game. The key word here is relevant- hills sitting in corners are not "relevant" terrain, because they do not give cover or impede movement. Terrain is there as a balancing factor for melee and weak-save armies to counterbalance some of the other changes of 5th edition, like not being able to consolidate into combat, etc. If you skimp on terrain, shooting armies- and especially static gunlines- will dominate the game, and given how many people complain about these armies, it's surprising that they are as lax with setup as I usually see.A very easy way to check for 25% is simply to arrange all the terrain in one corner of the board (without stacking anything on top of others). If it completely fills one of the table quarters- ta da! You have enough terrain.

Arranged fairly
Here's another easy one to check: does each side of the board have roughly the same amount of total terrain on it? Do any of the pieces grossly favor one side or the other? Will LOS-blocking pieces completely destroy the symmetry of the table in one or more of the deployment types? All of these are things to watch out for. Tall pieces of terrain are often the worst offenders here, especially when situated in the deployment zone (to sit on top of) or dead center in the middle of the board (to completely cut LOS on Spearhead or similar deployments.

Other types of terrain are also important in this regard for various reasons (cover from barrage weapons, etc), but these tend to be less problematic than large blocking/impassible pieces that divide the board up heavily.

Diversity of types
This is one that is actually a lot harder to spot than the others, but can be just as important. Sometimes there is a push to "theme" tables, to make them look like real battlefields or of a particular kind of world (Eldar ruins, Ork jungle fort, etc). I encourage this, as it can look very nice on the table and provide for some fun narratives to the battle, but it's also important to keep in mind what kind of terrain you're putting down when you make such a table. A mix of different types of terrain is the most fair board- it makes for interesting choices during deployment and movement as units try to find spots that best suit their role and force players to think about how the battlefield is laid out rather than just hunkering behind identical walls and pew-pewing away.

-Blocking terrain are pieces that are large enough to completely block line of sight to most- or even all- models. This typically means a building taller than a tank, but can also include large hills and other such obstacles or even dense ruins that have few/no windows going through them. Blocking terrain should be relatively uncommon, compomising no more than one-quarter to one-third of the terrain at most; more than this and the game ends up being too much of a cat-and-mouse affair, with very little except assaults happening.

-Area terrain can be considered the "basic" terrain, can be virtually anything. Since it allows units to shoot through it while slowing them down, it can generally be considered "neutral" with regards to shooting vs. assaults. Area terrain should generally be a large portion of your table coverage, along with...

-Terrain. Yep, just plain ol' terrain. This is all that stuff that gets in the way, but doesn't have a "base" like fences, walls, individual trees and vegetation, rock piles, etc. Like area terrain, it is effectively neutral with regards to army bias (assuming you follow the rules for total table coverage). Between the two of them they should make up approximately half of the total pieces on the table.

-Ruins are one type of area terrain that deserves more attention. Ruins, especially large multi-level ruins, can create some odd problems for units and should be used sparingly. The larger a ruin is, the more "empty" space you want in it, especially in terms of windows to shoot through, otherwise it just becomes another form of blocking terrain. Be very wary of placing more than one multi-level ruin in any deployment zone, as that can remove any incentive for support units to maneuver and instead result in them just sniping away from the top of a tower the whole game. Speaking of towers: DON'T make them someplace models can get to, it creates rules issues and magnifies the above problems.

-Rivers are another type of area terrain that deserves special consideration. Due to their nature, they tend to not offer any cover to units on one side or the other of them- for this reason, either consider making "hill rivers" that rise a short ways above the surrounding terrain, partly blocking sight, or discount what a river counts for in terms of total coverage. Roads should similarly be more or less ignored when determining terrain coverage- they are, for most purposes, simply part of the board.

-Impassible terrain is usually, but not always, blocking terrain as well, though things like magma pools or toxic waste might be an exception. Large structures might also be impassible except to jump infantry/skimmers (as per their rules)- as with blocking, such pieces should be used sparingly.

-Hills are an exceptionally common type of terrain because they are easy to make, use, and transport, all significant boons. However, they offer only limited cover and, depending on how you play the particular piece, may or may not slow units at all. Extremely large hills may be blocking terrain for most intents and purposes. Due to their disadvantages, hills should generally be no more than a third of the terrain on a table- however, by adding other bits to them (shrubberies, rocks, fortifications, etc) they can easily be converted to be more generally useful and fall into the simple terrain category.

-Buildings, not to be confused with ruins, are unique amongst the terrain types because they offer additional rules as to how units can be affected while inside them. They offer significant extra protection, just like a vehicle, and can thus drastically swing a game. They should be exceedingly rare and NEVER exceed AV12; higher armor values are simply too difficult for many armies to affect.


Unfortunately somewhat shaky, but should still be pretty obvious. How much terrain is on this table? Not a lot. You can see the one decent-sized hill in the center and one small one just above it on the top left-ish... which are rather negated by the fact that it's a Citadel board and thus the IG army can sit up on top of the risen section in the corner. (You can see the other sculpted hill pretending to be terrain in the very bottom left corner as well.) Aside from that there are... two pieces of area terrain and a rock. Very little cover, zero blocking terrain of any kind, very little terrain total. This board was a nightmare to play on, I should add.

This board is significantly better, but still not great. It hits 25% pretty solidly, but it does it using nothing but hills, so you have a weird combination of blocked-LOS and no cover of any kind against barrage weapons. It's playable, but rather awkward- usually what you will get from having all of one terrain type.

Here is a better use of the Citadel board- hills are located to break up the table in Spearhead, with the large central piece also contributing. Unfortunately, things are rather devoid other than that, but it at least isn't just clear LOS all the way across the board in all directions. With a little shuffling around and replacing one of the towers with an additional piece of area or regular terrain, this could be a very serviceable board.

Yikes- again we are struck by the "all one type and one type only" board. Shooting here is going to be an absolute nightmare, as all these huge blocking pieces basically destroy the coherency of the table. Moreover, it's not going to be a lot of fun, with units sort of waddling around corners trying to get to things. Any kind of skimmer army would have an absolute field day with this table.

Stelek commented that he thought this one was a bit mediocre because the buildings were so huge- in essence, a similar problem to the last table. I would tend to agree, but I think overall it's much more playable, at least. It has a few other terrain types mixed in there, and replacing one of the buildings (my thought would be the huge, blocky brown one on the upper right) with something else, you would have a very nice table to play on. There's nothing wrong with occasional large structure pieces as long as they aren't right in the middle of the table every time and completely blocking off all vision.

So, uh, where's the rest of the table? While this one has a good number of pieces on it, they are all quite small and don't really fill up very much of the board at all. This is the standard I end up seeing at many tournaments- sparse cover, but not completely absent, just insufficient to really give much protection to anything bigger than an infantry model.

So if you're a TO, please do try and take some care when setting up your tables, as it has a HUGE effect on how the games play out. Mix things up, don't just slap down a bunch of forests or hills on a table and call it good; we realize that you are putting a ton of work into what you do, all we're asking is for a little consideration to make the game fair to everyone. If you're a player, ask more of your tournament's boards- and give more. Most stores and tourneys are perpetually short of terrain, so be a bro and donate a little time/work putting together something for them if you go there occasionally (or donate a few bucks to assist someone else in doing so.) Terrain can be really, really cheap to make- there are tutorials at the Chicago Terrain Factory and many other sites on making large stands of trees or hills for under ten dollars, and given the money we spend on this game anyways that isn't much to ask.

(Pictures variously stolen from BoLS, YTTH, and my own battles.)

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