Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Frugal Terrain for a Frugal Game – Necromunda Experiments

Excuse me for a minute while I ramble on a bit, to introduce a new project...

My second frugal year is going extremely well so far, as I’ve managed to squeeze in a few games of Necromunda recently. Part of that is helped by (finally) being able to drive across the country to visit family, and be able to catch up with old gaming friends. Technically, the petrol is expensive (oh boy, is it expensive) but it’s a cost I’d be shouldering anyway. As a bonus, I could play against my wife while our first gamer-in-training was being watched by his aunt. For my goals so far this year – I am a couple of hours behind on my painting, but that should be sorted later this week thanks to the Royal Wedding. The gaming budget has been used up till June, because I am a complete sucker for a Dawn of War game, and used up five months on it near the beginning of the year.

All this Necromunda has re-inspired me to work on some scenery for the game. It might just be what I’m used to (my original opponent had two box sets, two Outlanders sets, and the Imperial Bastion, Bunker and Firebase card scenery), but it just doesn’t feel right playing on a flat table with a single level of scenery. I much prefer thinking in three dimensions, trying to get up and down very specific points (the house rules are quite unforgiving about ladders and their usage) to get good covering positions. With only a Gorkamorka fort and ‘blocking’ terrain (hills, rocks, crashed spaceships), it’s not quite the same at all.

This is one thing that makes Necromunda – a free-rules game with a limited model requirement – less than frugal, for my preference. Don’t take this as a frugal game review, however – the game is far and away (if you consider Gorkamorka to be ‘merely’ an awesome variant, as I do) the best and most frugal wargame I’ve found. The problem is that the game improves amazingly with more scenery, to the point that reducing that scenery rankles slightly.

We’ve made do in a pinch with Lego terrain – multiple levels, ramps, and infinitely configurable, but the nightmare industrial Underhive will always look exactly like Toy Town. This never really bothers me any more than unpainted models or scenery bother me, but it’s still something I would rather correct.

Alongside the Lego, I’ve tried some of the Hexagon and Platformer sets – as many people have discovered, this is almost perfect for Necromunda. It’s even in a nice dark grey plastic that doesn’t necessarily need to be painted, so it can be disassembled for storage or reconfiguration. This, however, is hardly frugal at all. If I recall correctly (it’s been a while since I got them), the sets cost around £13 each and each make a single medium-to-large structure (as tall as the original card buildings but not as big a base area) with spare parts. To reproduce the original box sets cardboard scenery would cost at least £50 – incidentally, looking at the prices of the original terrain on eBay aren’t far off.

Next, I took the advice of every beginners terrain article through the years and got some expanded polystyrene – rather, I convinced the wife not to throw away the cupboard full of polystyrene that was delivered with our white goods. I cannot say for other modelling projects (they probably make good bases for hills, block buildings or other solid terrain) but this was a bad idea. We had perfect shapes in the polystyrene to create a ruined building with exposed elevator shaft, around six storeys tall. However, to make the polystyrene stable it couldn’t be cut thinner (it was almost two inches thick), so each floor of the building was nearly five inches high – an original Necromunda bulkhead was three inches high, and the cardboard floor is of negligible thickness. I compared the half-finished scenery to the original stuff, and placed it on the table to think about how we’d play it. It didn’t look good, since it obstructed so much line of sight both from within and without – effectively cutting the table in two. Even shortening the piece wouldn’t work, since it had all solid walls. That’s something very different to the cardboard scenery, which is quite open.

I’ve tried things that looked wrong, felt wrong, or cost too much. The kits were quick and beautiful, but small for their cost. The Lego was similarly quick and cheap (I’ve got buckets of Lego older than I am) – but would never look right. The expanded polystyrene was cheap (it’s rubbish), but would take a lot of time to produce something that didn’t work well enough.

Making all these comparisons to the original scenery has given me my next experiment. I’m no great designer, but I am great at criticising. Criticism, turned around, is constructive as a list of requirements. To make new scenery in the spirit of the old, it needs to have:

  • Large-ish flat surfaces for plenty of movement
  • Open walls
  • Minimum of vertical usage
  • Ability to attach walkways and connecting pieces
  • Cheap

As I said, I’m not a great designer, so I have a scan of the original cardboard stuff and I’m going to copy it. I even believe I can improve on it for a small outlay of time and money – by building it out of plasticard, it will be more durable than the original scenery (good for someone like myself who throws all the scenery into a box and stuffs it in a corner). It will also let me model with it slightly better – I wisely lost a bottle roll early into a long multiplayer game on Saturday, and spent the rest of it examining the terrain for tips and ideas. There are some great touches added to the graphics, like exposed panels, thin pipes/hoses and vents, that could be modelled without making it too difficult to stand on.

The difficulty comes in that, as Von has discussed before we must watch the temporal investment of the hobby. I’ve saved a lot of time over the years by not painting models, but now I’m trying to correct that. It’s also a time when my time is more in demand – as a student, I thought/pretended I was busy, but as a full-time employee and father, I would slap that younger self for being such an utter nit. There is, however, a solution for this. As I come back to being in credit (see above, regarding Dawn of War) with my gaming budget, I can afford some of the more exotic plasticard I need (L-shaped angle lengths, thinner for decoration, etc) to make it look like a quality reconstruction and not just a thick cardboard knock-off. I technically come back into budget in the middle of June, but I might take an advance on that as I’ll be near a hobby shop before then getting supplies for ‘macro-modelling’ (aka DIY), and just accept that winter will be devoid of any new modelling goodies.

Writing this, I’ve also noticed that it’s something I can write about similar to the completely unrelated (except it also has the word Necromunda in it) ‘teach myself unit testing’ experiment at my own shameless plug blog (warning: I am a programmer in another life, this is not about gaming).

Next month, I’ll try and describe how I think I’ll solve the problems that reproducing the terrain in plasticard sheets will cause...


Tristan said...

Pics! Necro articles need pics lol. Fully agree on needing multiple levels. Have the firebase and power plant cardboard scenery as well as some custom stuff a buddy made. We just started getting back into Necro for 2011 (played a fair amount in 2010) and are planning some terrain building days. Keep us updated (with pics next time ;) )

Von said...

Let me know how this works out. I have an old Warhammer Townscapes scan I'd like to get carded up and built at some stage...

pete the pagan-gerbil said...

Yes, I thought about 2 seconds after I posted it 'hang on, what about pictures???' - considering that another of my resolutions is 'more pictures on blog posts' I'm being a bit lame on that.

Then again, as the polystyrene monster was destroyed to make my last house move easier there isn't really much to show for all this effort yet...

@Von - Yes, I also have that Warhammer Townscapes. We'd (collectively) printed it on paper, and it was serviceable (if you were careful), but I think the paper size ratio was slightly off. Don't know if it's worth going for plasticard or balsa wood, since it's not going to have to support models (unlike Necro stuff). Maybe after this lot I'll try, but I don't play many terrain-heavy fantasy games.

Frugal Dave said...


What an awesome game, by far GW's greatest. I'm glad you're getting into it, I really enjoy the terrain making myself as it's a game where the terrain is an integral part rather than just an obstacle to be worked around.

Great post Pete, I look forward to seeing how you get on :)

da Gobbo said...

love necromunda and have saved about a dozen pringle tubes to create my scenery as I foolishly threw out my old cardboard terrain in a house move. the pringle tubes with some plasticard walkways should give you plenty of scope for multilevel games plus you get to eat the crisps - how frugal!

Frugal Dave said...

I agree Gobbo! I'd recently built up a reasonable collection of Pringles tubes to turn into terrain, however I'm moving house so I had to get rid of them. I'd love to have kept them, but by the time I'd got round to using them, I'd have been able to build up a new collection anyway. Yum yum yum!

arabianknight said...

Necromunda (style) terrain is indeed the bees-knees. I too have the poly-packaging peices painted grey, and some poorly designed platformer pieces. I can never seem to get the right multi-level structures made though, so I look forward to SEEING your results ;-)

pete the pagan-gerbil said...

Points definitely taken on board ;) If you all tell my wife to excuse me from chores for a weekend, I'll make sure there's more pics next time!