What constitutes good looking terrain on the table-top depends on the eye of the beholder. With respect to Hills, for example, many gamers like their hilly terrain to have smooth slopes, as opposed to contours. To maximize that effect, you can even drape a terrain cloth or table cover over the hills in order to get the most “realistic” look. One disadvantage of a smooth slope, however, is that elements on bases may have trouble standing on a hill side depending on the degree of slope.
Other gamers are happy to deploy contoured hills on their tabletops. Not only do they provide flat surfaces on which figures can navigate up a slope without falling over, but they are also evocative of many of the early maps of historical battles, such as this map of the Battle of Hastings from Sir James H. Ramsay ‘s, The Foundations of England, (Oxford 1898).
If contours are your thing, then contour terrain can be created cheaply and easily from various materials, wood/plywood, foam, insulation board, etc. Here is my quick and easy approach to contour hills using the stiffened felt sheets sold in craft/hobby stores. I prefer them since they’re more rigid and feel more substantial than hills made with regular felt. As for tools, you need a good pair of sissors, white glue (PVA) and a pen or pencil for marking.
Once you have materials and tools in hand, first determine the number of contours desired in your hill. As a general rule, my stiffened felt hills are from 6-9 contours high, with the 8-9 level hills looking both higher and steeper than their 6-7 contour brothers.
Then consider the desired size and shape of the bottom (largest) layer. You could even cut out a sample template in cardstock or paper to make sure its of legal size for your preferred game system. To determine the size of the top contour, subtract about 1CM from the largest contour for each intermediate level.
Once you know the approximate size and shape of the top layer…cut it out by hand using a good pair of scissors. Then cut out the next layer freehand, using the previous higher level layer as a template…just extend the cut outwards around your template piece by a distance of 1CM. Don’t worry if its not perfect…the more irregular the relationship of the shape of one contour layer to the next, the more it looks like a natural variation.
Once all the layers are cut out…lay down a medium coat of white glue (PVA) on each smaller layer and adhere it to the next larger contour until all layers have glue. You want enough glue to adhere the layers without seeping through the felt, and no glue should be visible on the exposed area of the contours. Once you’ve got all the layers glued and assembled, put a large book or weight on top of the hill and let set for 24 hours, and it should be fairly indestructible.
Here is an alternative method suggested by the Fanatici Pillager: “Glue the top layer to your stock material & let dry. Now you can cut the next layer without it slipping & sliding while you are cutting. If in a hurry, use “tube glue” around the periphery to get an instant tack, and better glue spread in the center for a permanent hold. Can put better glue around the edges later if necessary.”
Here are two examples of basic contour hills in brown and green. The colors are meant to differentiate a difficult or bad going hill (Brown) from a gentle slope (Green).
In the picture below, you’ll note that the contours are not as wide as the figure bases. This does create some risk of slippage. However, by giving the back edge of the base a thin flat surface to stand on, the narrow contour is sufficient to keep the figures/base stable on the slope.
You can also pretty up the hills by gluing on flocking, ground foam, lichen or other ground cover in order to visually reenforce its appearance. Here is a flocked hill for example.
It is also worth noting that these types of hills are cheap and easy to make. You can buy a packet of multiple stiffened foam sheets (sized 9×12 or 12×18) sufficient to create dozens of hills for less than $20. That makes it easy to create hills in a wide variety of sizes and shapes to add considerable variety to your tabletop battlefield.
Give these contour hills a try and let me know if you come up with any enhancements.
P.S., one of my first DBA games was with Doug Rockwell on his wargaming table, the entire extent of which was covered in felt contours. Instead of cutting out and placing individual hills, he would trim and place entire sheets of felt in layers on the table, creating ridges, hillocks, and ravines. He adhered the felt with spray adhesive, which gave the material additional stiffness. The result was something that looked much more like the contours in the Hastings map above.