Interlocking Modular Terrain Tiles

Since not long after I picked up this miniature gaming hobby (addiction?), I've toyed with the idea of doing modular gaming tiles. I experimented with the seemingly common pink foam and flock as well as other options, but never went into full scale production. I didn’t really have a need for tiles, so there wasn’t any rush.  Then one day I walked into a local Five Below store and they had 24” x 24” interlocking foam squares like you would put on the floor of an exercise room or kid’s play-room on sale. You could get two for $5. Well, I figured, what (other than $5 and some time) did I have to lose? I know some other folks have used these tiles for modular terrain (see here), so why not give them a shot myself? I bought some and did some quick experimenting. Since I liked my preliminary results I returned to my local Five Below and scarfed up a dozen tiles. I have now completed seven of them and here is how some of them look:




So how did I make them? Well, that’s what I’m here to show you. While I’ve laid things out in decent detail and it might seem like a lot of work, I was actually amazed at how little work was required and how little time (apart from letting glue and paint dry) the project has taken thus far. Basically, with just a few minutes attention each day, I can get 2 or 3 basic tiles done in a week.

First you need your tiles. Here are the ones I used (again, purchased at Five Below). They have a fine cross-hatch pattern on one side (the top) and a soft, slightly fuzzy surface on the other (the bottom).



Since they are only ½” thick and flexible, warping was a real concern. As a result, I decided to back them with some scrap ¼" thick pegboard I had in the basement. Yes it added weight and thickness, but not much. I cut it so that the interlocking foam “teeth” all overlapped the pegboard completely, otherwise there could be assembly problems.  I attached the pegboard to the side with the cross-hatch pattern, thus turning the top of the tile into the bottom and making the smoother bottom of the tile into the top that I would actually be working with in making the terrain. To attach the peg board I used Tite-Bond Wood Glue, and it has been holding up just fine.



Once the glue dried and the base of my tiles were set I was ready to actually work on some terrain. At this point I thought it might be a good idea to do some planning. With some graph paper I sketched out some tiles in advance to make sure I would end up with tiles that would fit together in a wide variety of combinations (otherwise, what was the point?) As with any modular system, making sure features like roads and rivers entered and exited tiles at the same place was key. One thing to remember with these tiles, though, is that the interlocking “teeth” alternate between male and female connecting spaces. As such I had to take account of that fact when sketching things out. Here are the graph paper planning squares I sketched out ahead of time:



Now, once I knew what I wanted my tiles to look like, I started making the hills. I used a hot-wire foam cutter to sculpt some hills out of ¾” and 1 ½” pink insulation foam for various heights. These seemed best since I primarily plan on using these for smaller figure scales of 15mm and below, with a possible foray into 28mm gaming for small scale skirmishes. For reasons that will become obvious, I didn’t worry too much about how smooth the surface of my foam hills were, though I did do a bit of sanding.



Once the foam hills were ready I glued them onto the tiles where I wanted them, once again using wood glue. I then smoothed out the transitions from tile to hill with joint compound. My goal was to make the inclines shallow enough that figures would not be toppling or sliding if placed on a hill-side. Once the joint compound dried I used a wet drywall sander to smooth out any ridges or knobs that had been created.

 


Now many of the folks I’ve seen making tiles use flock to cover them. I like the look, but it strikes me as expensive and not all that likely to stand up well to being thrown in the back of my vehicle and taken to club nights. As a result, I decided to go in a different direction. I elected to cover the tiles in a really good looking mottled green felt the local fabric store sells – Reet’s Relish from National Non-Wovens. It isn’t cheap compared to other felts, and would make up about half of the cost of each tile, even when purchased on sale, but I thought it was worth it and it was still less costly than flock.

To attach the felt I again used lots of wood glue. I made sure to smear it thick on the “teeth” and the inch or so behind them, but then just did some criss-cross lines in the interior of the tile. I then dropped a pre-cut and ironed square of felt slightly larger than the tile over the top and smoothed out any wrinkles.

 


Once the glue dries, I flip the tiles over and use a sharp pair of scissors to cut the overlapping felt off and remove it from in between the interlocking teeth. I’m sure that sounds difficult and tedious, but it really isn’t. First, you don’t need to make your cuts flush with the foam. A very slight overlap is desirable as the extra felt serves to fill the seams when you connect the tiles (improving visual blending). Second, I didn’t worry about perfectly rounded corners. I eventually got to the point where I could remove the gaps with five snips each and could trim an entire side in between 2-3 minutes (so less than 10 minutes per tile). So now I have basic tiles that look like this.


Now it’s time to put on rivers and roads. I haven’t done rivers yet, but here is how I handled roads. I decided to start them at 1” wide as, once the verge effects were applied, the width seemed suitable for any of the scales I plan on using (a good sized road for 6mm, a narrow road for 15mm, and even a narrow footpath for 28mm.) On the felt I used a Sharpie to draw where the road would go, and then used a cutting blade to cut along the lines. From there all I had to do was peel the felt off of where I wanted to put the road.

 



Next I used a mix of 50% water and 50% PVA glue to lay down a layer of play sand in the road-bed for texture. As you can see I really slop on both the glue and sand. One nice effect of dumping the sand on this way is that some of the finer pieces (dust really) stay embedded in the felt when everything is cleaned off, leaving a slightly lighter shade of green by the roadway. When the glue dries and I knock off the extra sand with a brush, I then go over the road surface with another layer of the PVA glue and water mixture. When that dries I’m left with a hard, paintable textured road surface that is practically melded in with the felt and foam and that won’t shed sand.

 

 

I could have left the roads as they were, but I wanted to give them some more visual depth. I started by painting them a dark brown with craft paint. I then did two quick dry-brush layers with increasingly lighter shades of tan. The end result gave me a look of a dried dirt road. Experiment with colors and mixtures ahead of time to get whatever effect you’re looking for. You could even make decent looking black-top this way.




Now I wanted to add a verge on either side of the road. For this I covered about ¼” of the roadway (and at places a little of the bordering felt) with more of the PVA/water mix, and then covered the glue lines with paver sand (much more varied in size grain size and color than the play sand). Once that dried I broke out four different types of flock/static grass. This time, when I applied the sealing layer of PVA glue/water over the paver sand, I also sprinkled on some flock and grass in a random pattern. Below you can see the result.





That’s pretty much it. Since I was able to get the felt at 50% off, when all the materials are added up, I am producing these tiles at a cost of $7-$8 each. I’m continuing to experiment on scrap felt with doing things with paint and flock to create different effects, and as I come up with things I like I’ll add them to the basic tiles I have now and post the results here. I also want to try rivers.  Below I have some additional pictures of various tiles, with some figures for scale, as well as a couple of photos from our first game using the tiles. Hopefully some of you found this at least a little inspiring and/or helpful! 

  








14 comments:

  1. Looking top notch!

    There is only one advise I would give... Go and grab some more. I know from experience, that eventually, You will end up needing more for some obskure Terrain idea that comes to your mind and it would be a shame if they were unavailable then or only at exagerated prices!

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    1. Ha! No kidding. This project went so fast and easy I'll definitely be doing more, and already have some crazy ideas.

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  2. A+

    Best terrain project I've seen in ages. Looks great, practical, wargame useable across genres... is there Nobel Gaming Prize? I'll nominate you!

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    1. Thanks Peter. Maybe there are some Scandinavian wargamers out there who could be convinced to hand out annual wargaming awards...

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  3. The Felt is brilliant. Well done!

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  4. This is excellent. How's it holding up after 6 months?

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    1. They are holding up very well, actually. The only issues I've had have been on a couple of the "teeth" that have the road going off of them. A bit of road surface has flaked off of them and the small felt pieces have come off a few times as well. nothing a quick dab of glue hasn't fixed right up, though. A vast majority of each board has held up to numerous rides in the back of my SUV and being set up/torn down at the club on multiple occassions.

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  5. Wow!
    I absolutely love this idea! You sir are a genius and I bow before your mastery. :)
    I do have a question for you though: do you think that not putting the felt and to just directly apply sand and/or flock to the boars would wield a similar result?

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    1. Luigi, thanks for the kind words. I think applying flock directly could work with the right/enough glue. The idea for these actually came from an old company (I think now out of business) that used flock, so it must have worked for them. I would be concerned about sand, however -- at least the way I do it. To the extent I've had any issues it has been sand flaking off the roads. It has been minor, only around the joints and is easily repaired, but if you sand up the whole tile that might lead to big issues. I'd recommend getting a tile and then experimenting on it to see what works and what doesn't.

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  6. I'm looking to do modular terrain boards and Imthis looks like a great inexpensive option! How did you end up doing the rivers?

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  7. How have these held up over time? I've found that Pva delaminates from eva foam after a while, although that is with costumes rather than flat tiles

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  8. Such an awesome idea, bad part is I threw away about 50 of these 2 years ago when we moved.

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