Hi everyone and welcome to this article! Here is a not-so-short write-up about the process of making a Warhammer 40k/Zone Mortalis gaming board that I wanted to share with you. It deals with how I went from just an idea and a visual in my head to a finished product.
The initial spark of inspiration for me to start a new project was a dungeon board that I saw at a local gaming convention in April 2014 . I can’t exactly remember what game system the board was made for, but it consisted of a “ground level” that was beautifully done to resemble a graveyard and also had an entry to a lower level. This lower level was what really caught my eye. The stone walls looked awesome and the level of interior detail was impressive.
Since I’m more of a science-fiction guy though and have never played any classical D&D style dungeon-crawling games I thought long and hard about how to adapt the dungeon system for my favourite game: Warhammer 40,000.
So I grabbed pen and paper (no pun intended) and mapped out the ideas I had for a modular system similar to Forge World’s excellent Zone Mortalis gaming tiles. The advantage of tiles certainly is the possibility of always being able to add new things to expand the board and create a lot of diversity for whatever style of game you want to play at that moment.
I started out with 16 tiles for the first incarnation of the board. Each tile was going to be 1 foot by 1 foot, 16 of them combining nicely to give me a playing area of a traditional 4×4 foot board.
Next up was the decision on what setting to use. Warhammer 40k has them all: Underground caverns, spaceships, huge palaces… In the end I decided on the home of a nobleman, maybe even a planetary governor of the Imperium. The reason for that was pretty simple: I could implement all sorts of different „rooms“ to play in, the combination of which wouldn’t seem randomly thrown together. These rooms included: A chapel, a bath house, a conference hall, throne room, several storage bays, a medical facility and many more, giving me lots of flexibility in hobbying terms.
It also helped that I started working on a Genestealer Cult back then which would go perfectly with a new board…
Cutting the tiles from MDF board here is what the first couple of hobbying sessions looked like: Gluing stuff together and figuring out which wall sections need to go where, yay!
Filling the tiles with actual material was of course going to be the main part of the project. Using foamboard, styrofoam, cardboard, wood, bits from Games Workshop kits and pretty much everything I had randomly lying around I set out to create 16 unique modules:
But what for me sets a certain hobby project apart from the next is and has always been the level of detail one puts into it. And in the confined space of 1’x1′ gaming tiles there is plenty of room to go crazy about details. Since the game mechanics of Warhammer 40,000 require a lot of cover, I made containers, crates, boxes and piles of other stuff to help future heroes dodging bullets. I also made sure that no matter where a model stood within a room it couldn’t see more than 3-4 inches without hitting some sort of barrier.
And then, of course, there’s the details that are not important for the gaming aspect, but rather for adding ‘flavour’, like the great „building widgets“ kit from a laser-cutting company that even came with surveillance cameras!
The best thing of course is when you can combine both in-game effectiveness and cool looks and parts from Spartan Scenics, Games Workshop and other model making companies helped a great deal of achieving this:
This is what a completely built tile looked like before painting. Notice the passages on all 4 sides that allow for easy rearrangement of tiles to create new scenarios and battlegrounds for potentially every time you decide to play!
Another essential part of my tile system are the doors! In Space Hulk and Zone Mortalis they are very important for gameplay because the present another variable to the game. Can I open the locked door in time to get to my objective or is there enough time to go another, longer way around? And exactly how many opponents might lurk behind that door, pointing their guns just waiting for me to open the hatch? The doors were made from foamboard and different kinds of cardboard. I made 24 of them and they easily slide in and out from the passageways I cut into all the MDF ‘casings’ of the tiles.
Here is a WIP shot from when I had most of the building stage done. Painting the whole thing would take about as long as building it for sure, if not much longer…
After some initial restraint painting turned out to be a lot of fun. I have been in the hobby for over 10 years now and still got to experiment with lots of different painting techniques: From traditional house paint basecoats and drybrushing I went to trying out weathering pigments and combined several washes and weathering techniques to get the feeling right.
Admittedly the easiest part of the painting process were the doors, but nonetheless they also remained part of the project and in turn had to receive the proper treatment:
For the final stage of painting I borrowed a friend’s airbrush pistol. I always thought of airbrushing as ‘cheating’, because it was so much quicker and easier to do than getting shading etc. right when using a paintbrush. Having never worked with one before though it was a cool journey from failing horribly at first to getting a decent result out of it in the end. I mainly used the airbrush to create Original Source Lighting effects coming from all sorts of lamps and panels, everything else was done by ‘honest’ brush work.
When finally everything was done and dusted I brought the tiles to the tabletop club I run. We did some testing on what rules best to use when fighting through the governor’s palace, how to go about squad composition and all the other fun things a project like this is really made for: Gaming! You can also see the dice rolling thingies I made for the board to avoid scenery getting crushed by casino dice:
A couple of days ago now the process did come full circle when I brought the board to the exact convention that I had taken my inspiration from exactly a year ago. Even though I had other, more organisational work to do for said convention everyone playing on it had a lot of fun and all the people that were attracted to it over the day commended me on my work.
I have to say I had a blast working on this and it was awesome to watch everything come together. Making visible progress every couple of days is super important for a project like this to keep you focussed and/or motivated. Also I can only encourage everyone to share their work if they wanted to tackle a big project. Getting all sorts of feedback from our awesome (online) hobby community is and has been a great help to stay on top of it.
Congrats, you have made it all the way to the end! Thanks for reading, chances are by the time you are clicking through the pics I’m already back at work expanding this board…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A regular University student most days, Hauke Jacobsen is also head of Northern Germany’s largest tabletop gaming club “Die Brudergilde” and a hobby allrounder (some even accuse him of being a machine). At age 25 he has already spent over half of his life building and painting so many different armies, miniatures, scenery pieces and gaming tables -for himself and for commission- that even he can not keep track of them all.