Probably the most common piece of wargames terrain in almost all periods is the ubiquitous “road” or “roadway,” which often helps define entry and exit points for our miniature forces entering and exiting the battlefield and creates crossroads and other objectives over which our miniature battles are fought. In the De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) ancient/medieval wargame rules, for example, roads were a mandatory terrain type for all armies classified as having an “arable” topography.
How best to depict roads on the gaming table is a subject on which there is a great diversity of thought, and an equally large number of solutions that can be employed. Cost is one consideration. At the low-cost extreme, simple masking tape provides a very inexpensive and adequate approach to putting down a road, with the added benefit that its adhesive will hold it in place in normal game use without damaging your gaming surface. It also lies flat across slopes and can be cut or folded to create corners and curves. Or you can Google or Paintshop up a road of the desired type/appearance and print it out on heavy paper or cardstock that can be cut out and placed on the tabletop. I’ve even seen players put down actual scatterings of dirt or sawdust shavings on their tabletops to represent roads.
At the other end of the cost spectrum, there are commercially available roads for the purchase that are absolutely lifelike and beautiful, manufactured from latex or MDF board, and made three dimensional with the addition of recessed wheel ruts, raised medians, and/or scrub brush, foliage or other debris. Crafty gamers can create their own scratch-built versions of these masterpieces using salvaged or cheap materials. It just takes patience and practice. I’ve seen several experiments on YouTube done with window and gap caulking compounds whose end results are both visually appealing and which appear to be fairly resilient to wear.
Whatever road solution they eventually migrate to…most miniature gamers start out with simple roads cut from sheets of felt. A 9×12 or 12×18 sheet of plain brown or tan felt from the craft store can be purchased for a couple of dollars. After a few minutes with a pair of scissors, you’ve got all the roads you would ever need. Unlike roads made of solid materials like MDF, felt roads also have the advantage of conforming to your hilly terrain (most of the time) and can be easily stored between games with little/no risk of damage.
The downside of felt? It looks very plain. For gamers who aspire to life-like gaming set-ups, a plain brown length of felt can be jarring to the eye and feels more lazy than utilitarian. Like green felt cutouts used for “woods” or the brown felt “bad going” pieces that are popular in the DBx world, plain felt roads can subject the gamer to disapproving looks and occasionally the scorn of that population of fastidious gamers who frequent wargaming blogsites and conventions in search of things to criticize.
The balance of this post looks at my attempt to retain the cost, flexibility and storage advantages of felt roads, while adding a visual appeal that would pass muster with the more fastidious crowd. I also wanted to create roads that would work in various periods from ancients to at least American Civil War…so what you see here are basically unimproved dirt roads. No Roman stone causeways or modern asphalt highways here. My attempt owes its inspiration to an illustrated posting on Felt Roads for the Tabletop at the Blunders on the Danube blogsite.
First you need the felt. Its cheap enough to buy in 9×12 or 12×18 sheets at the craft or hobby store, or you can buy a yard or more from a roll at your local fabric store. Don’t buy the “stiffened” felt….it won’t drape over your slopes.
I picked out three colors to experiment with, a regular brown, a lighter brown, and a tan. I almost bought black in order to try making some modern asphalt roads, but don’t have any active gaming need. I ended up experimenting on the lighter brown…it reminded me of the red clay dirt roads in my old home state of Georgia.
With a pair of scissors, I cut the felt sheets into strips. I had several sheets of each color, so I resolved to try cutting out a number of shapes and curved pieces. Here you can see samples of cut-out intersections that can come in handy in your layout – a Y junction, 3-way and 4-way being the most common.
Width of the road is an important consideration. I cut my road strips and pieces 40mm wide, the same width as a standard DBx base in 15mm scale. From a scale stand-point, that is outrageously wide, but I don’t like the look of having an element overlapping a road, especially if the rules allow for element-wide road movement.
For scale purists, a two lane wagon road with side clearances depicted in scale to a single DBx element representing 1000-1200 men deployed in multiple lines would be about the width of a strip of dental floss. Dental floss would be a cheap, but not particularly visually appealing road solution. But if you want to minimize the visual scale discontinuity, you could try cutting your roads 20mm wide.
In addition to your felt, you’ll also need acrylic or craft paint in two or three lighter, but complimentary colors to the color of your felt road pieces. The analogy is to dry-brushing figures, where you add successive layers of slightly lighter shades of your base color to highlight the figure’s detail. In this case, my three highlight colors were Raw Sienna, Territorial Beige, and Trail Tan (Ceramcoat acrylic craft paint).
After experimenting, I concluded that I really only needed the beige and tan…but the sienna came in handy touching up areas that I had over highlighted. Lastly, I found a nice shade of Apple Barrel’s Vineyard Green in my paint rack, not too bright and not to deep a shade of green.
The third requirement is a cheap (thin) kitchen sponge of the sort you can pick up at your grocery or home supplies/dollar store. Sponge thickness is important…you want the sponge’s painting edge to be approximately the same thickness as the worn rut of the road caused by passage of wagon wheels. If the sponge edge is too wide…it can be trimmed to size with a pair of scissors. To create a 40mm side road, I wanted the width of my sponge edge to be about 12-15mm.
With all your supplies and materials assembled, then its just a case of spreading a stripe of paint on a non-permeable surface, firmly pressing your sponge’s edge into the paint to get good coverage, and then carefully applying it to your felt road with a dabbing motion in two parallel strips (i.e. the wheel ruts).
Start with light pressure until you are comfortable with the amount of paint being deposited on the felt. Once you finish with one color, shift to the next lighter color, and continue until you get the desired affect.
I finished mine by carefully stipling green along both edges of the road, using the opposite edge of the sponge. That green stiple made a huge difference visually in terms of helping the road edges blend into my gaming surface, so try to find a shade of green that matches or compliments your gameboard or cloth. The green stiple also visually narrows the appearance of the road, which also reduces the scale discontinuity.
It you wanted to take it a step further, you could even apply some white (PVA) glue and flocking to the edges and median of the road, along with gluing in an occasional rock or stick/branch. I decided not to take it to that level. I felt my painted version was good enough, and worried that a flocked version would gradually show signs of wear and damage in normal storage and transport.
I can’t claim any credit for this technique, which has been perfected by countless others before me. But I’m hoping that by illustrating how easy it is to do, and how well it transforms the look of ordinary felt roads, that other gamers may be inspired to make the leap and give it a try. Let me know what you think, and if you decide to do your own experiment, let me know how it comes out.