Don’t Forget the Struggle, Don’t Forget the Streets: Building a Modular Ruined City

So at the end of April we gathered in San Diego for our first official Corehammer West Coast Chiller. A month or two before that I had gotten the crazy idea of building a modular ruined city for the event so that at least I’d wander up with something to add to the festivities. I ended up only having something like 3 weeks to build the thing starting at the beginning of April, but in the mad dash to produce something I did manage to document the process so I figured I’d share it with you all now. That way you can learn exactly what I did, ignore it, and make something way cooler on a normal human schedule. I’m going to describe what I did, and not go too far down the rabbit holes of ideas not considered or techniques not used. Feel free to ask questions in the comments about anything you want though. Corners were cut, designs were simplified, but in the end, I had a table that can host a number of games in all sorts of different setups.

First things first I needed a plan. I knew I wanted the table to be a little modular, be about 3’ x 3’ and useable for skirmish games of all types. Nothing on it could be overly period specific. So I wouldn’t glue down anything that forced it to be modern, medieval or Sci-Fi. I could add all those bits as scatter terrain. This already set a few rules in my mind that would influence designs throughout the process. I ended up opting to make a 4’ x 4’ board as my local hardware store sold 2’ x 2’ pink foam panels that I used as my base. I also decided I wanted to build essentially a blasted out / ruined complex, something like a wizards university that had suffered a catastrophic accident possibly related to demon summoning, some kind of super vortex or some such catastrophe. So I took my base pink foam, and drew all over it with different colored sharpies to make my initial map. Couple pieces of advice. One, keep a couple figures of the scale you’re playing with around. This helps you check the size of things like path ways, openings, ruin heights etc… against the figures you’ll be actually using. Two, keep a tape measure around and measure out the common movement distances and shooting ranges. This helps you know how far cover items are away, what kind of risky situations you’re creating and how figures will move around the board. You don’t need to obsess over this, but it is good to know what you’re doing.

I decided I wanted cobblestone paths on the board, and to get those done I did a very simple but labor intensive process. The best way I could find to do what I wanted, was to take a wooden pencil, pull the eraser out, flatten the sides of the little metal eraser holder to make it square shaped instead of round, and then just used that as a punch to stamp individual cobbles into the foam. Now if this sounds boring and time intensive, guess what, it fucking is. But it also gives you ultimate control over the size and shape of what you want, which was important to me. Honestly, I did all the cobbles in one weekend while my wife was feeling sick and watching some weird scientology exposed documentary series. Just sit there, put something on the tv, and stamp out cobbles, they will eventually be done. I had all the cobbles start and end at the same central points on the boards, so they could be rotated any direction and still line up.

For height variations, I cut out rough shapes of foam and glued them down on the board. Remember, if you’re skinning the outside with blocks, material, rocks etc… to plan for that when you cut the original size in foam so it is still the size you want when you’ve covered it in stuff. I decided on a big rocky hill and used dried bark chips hot glue gunned to each other to make the rocky outcrops. I left some room for stairs etc… as I hate when people make terrain in a city with no actual human way to scale it.

Once I had the height variations lined with either stone blocks (Hirst Arts) or bark, it was time to fill all the gaps. I did this with spackle and a flat putty knife. Just glob it on where you have unseemly gaps and then smooth it out with the knife. I used this to cover all the seems between the blocks and the foam, as well as the bark chips and the foam. It was also added to some empty spots of the board I planned to put trees on to give a little ground height variation and interest. After that, I moved on to roughing out buildings and ruins. Since I was somewhat short on time, I used a combination of cast blocks from Hirst Arts molds, store bought plastic kits, store bought finished terrain and individual foam blocks. The plastic kit is the Lord of the Rings ruins kit and is damn wonderful. I split it up to a few locations and it worked great.

The individual foam blocks though I think turned out some of the coolest looking and most versatile stuff. I really wanted to get some good crumbling walls and buildings that I had control over their height and placement. To do that, I bought some foam sheets off of an RC Plane building website and started making blocks. I laid the sheet out on a cutting matt, used a sharp blade to cut the sheet into long carrot stick shaped strips. Then when I had enough of those, I’d cut those widthwise into little blocks filling up a Tupperware container as I went. Once again, this is a truly boring process that is highly repetitive. I threw some movie on and just cut away till I had a big stockpile of the little buggers. What was actually a huge pain is that the little foam blocks would cling to you with static electricity meaning transferring a handful of them into the container involved shaking your hand about like a weirdo trying to direct them into the little plastic tub. Then it was just about laying out PVA glue, and gluing the blocks into some semblance of walls and buildings block by block. I’d lay out a bead of glue as the shape, put one whole layer down and then build up layer by layer from there. This is how I made almost all of my irregular walls and ruins and it made it a lot more personalized and fun laying them out block by block. Remember, when you have a crumbling wall, those blocks have to fall somewhere so put plenty of blocks on the ground around it. You don’t have to show all of them, just a representative pile or selection of loose blocks helps sell it.

This is also a good time to lay it all out and make sure you have enough on the board and it matches your vision. Check the pre-made terrain works with it and that this is a board you want to play on. Most of the rest of the steps are cosmetic, after this so make changes now, it is much easier.

After all of my ruins were in place and glued down, I moved on to the texturing phase. This is best done outside, but if that isn’t an option for you, I’d suggest laying down some plastic sheeting (for painting or whatever) to catch all the rogue sand, and then just rolling that up and throwing it out when you’re done. I took white glue, mixed it with a little water to thin it and make it flow a little easier, then spread it all over the board being careful to avoid covering the cobblestone sections.

I had 3 different sizes of sand, larger granules, mid-sized granules and really fine ballast. I would stand back with the larger granules, take a small handful of it and sort of toss it at the wet glue from a short distance away giving it a good sort of random spread. Then I’d take a bigger fistful of the mid-sized sand and repeat the process from a little closer with a little more control. I’d generally try and avoid the inside of the ruined buildings with the larger granules, and tried to put only a little mid-size in those. Finally, I’d take the fine sand and sort of spread it all over the place, especially inside the ruined building foot prints in attempt to show the more cared for indoor nature of those buildings. I also used the fine grain sand to mark out more well-traveled paths on the board that I hadn’t bothered cobbling (like in the graveyard). You could also just stand back and throw the stuff all over the place randomly, choice is yours. I would paint a section of the board with the glue, do the sand, paint a different section with glue and so on. The main thing is not doing so big a section that glue is drying before you can get the sand down in on it. Once this is done and totally dry (I give it a day or two) paint another thin coat of glue over the top to try and seal it all in.

When it came time to paint it, I started by just laying down a couple of big thick coats of black paint. This gives a solid base to build up from and lets anything you don’t paint just sort of show up as shadow. Use a big brush and get yourself something cheap and hopefully matte. After that, I just dry brushed up from a really dark grey, to a lighter grey in steps. On the buildings I tried to do more of the grey and lighter color higher up the vertical facing to sort of give a gradual fade from dark base to light heights, but really you’re just aggressively dry brushing everything and it takes forever. I also wanted to make sure the ground is a little darker than the buildings to keep the ruins noticeable even though it was using the same colors. Don’t rush it, because this ultimately can make your board look good or amateurish. Once all the grey was done I went back in with a smaller brush and did browns for wood or any other colors that were needed. I wanted to keep the whole thing a little monochromatic and desaturated on purpose, as it matched some of my other terrain and works for the limited timeline and theme. Basically, I just thought it made it look pretty cool and it was easier so it was the best course of action for me.

Once it was all done I set it up in the dining room, took some quick pictures, and then packed up for an 8 hour drive to San Diego. I demoed Frost Grave for a handful of nerds at the convention, and got a lot of positive feedback on the boards which was awesome. The chiller was cool, hung with some old friends and met new ones. It was sort of a mad dash to finish the project, but now I’ve got a fun skirmish board that works for all periods. It can be fantasy or medieval filled with wooden barrels and other random stuff. If I had religious statues and sandbag fortifications it could fill for a destroyed monastery or something in WW2. If I put in oil drums and technical barriers it works for 40k or Shadow War. I tend to get the most done under tight deadlines so I keep setting them. Next up, a 3 month Kings of War undead army painted as detailed as I can.

If you have any questions on the construction, techniques or materials I’m happy to answer anything I can. Just leave a quick comment or hit me up. Happy to help.





3 thoughts on “Don’t Forget the Struggle, Don’t Forget the Streets: Building a Modular Ruined City

  1. Nicely done!

    Fairplay on the dedication to the cobbles, gonna have to give your way a bash as i drove myself insane using lentils to achieve a similar effect for about the same price…

    That said one thing I’m yet to try but don’t see why it wouldn’t work is to cut a cobble pattern into a vinyl tile and make a roller for it

  2. Looks awesome. I like the way the brickwork in the tower reflects the cobbled streets. I could see how it could work with loads of games depending on the scatter terrain. Great work!

  3. Wow, what a great set up you made. Never tried the “carrot stick” brick making before, but it sounds easy enough to do while watching a movie. Have had some luck with sand basing and painting like that, too.
    Only thing to add is something we’ve tried here at home. For generic small rubble, we just found a $5 hand cranked food grinder and fed old sprue lengths into it. Nice head sized rubble. Easier that getting hand cramps cutting them with a snips. And reusing them is good for the environment (even if it’s a ruined cityscape).
    Love the cobblestone pencil eraser punch!

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