Mixed Terrain Types on Tables, Rad or Risky?


Hey everyone, Reecius here to talk about a topic that comes up from time to time: is it fun or fail to have very different terrain types for a 40k tournament?

Frankie and I were discussing this topic on the last episode of Signals from the Frontline (our podcast, for those who have not heard of it). The gist of the topic is: do you enjoy having wildly different terrain types at an organized event, or do you prefer standardized terrain?


Pros for Variety in terrain set-up:

Well for one, you get what it says on the can: variety! I LOVE a fully themed table with awesome terrain that matches the table…or one of our F.A.T. Mats! Muahaha, had to plug them! But back on topic, this creates really cinematic games that immerse you further into the play experience. I dig it. By not restricting yourself to a terrain template, you get more creative freedom. You also reduce the odds that someone builds their army to maximize efficiency for a specific terrain set-up through list tailoring to that predictable set-up.

A city table, for example, can have more buildings than other types. An Alpine or Field type of terrain set up may have less. This creates unique play experiences wherein players can find themselves playing a dramatically different game than they are used to with a more even distribution of terrain.

From a meta perspective, this also forces players to consider what wildly varying terrain can do to their list. If you have a full blown alpha strike shooting army, then a dense city table may be rough for you as you won’t be able to shoot as much. If you have a nasty assault army, a more open terrain set up may be your nemesis as you will take more shots on the way in to combat. If you have an army that relies on cover save tricks, you may find yourself in rocky waters without area terrain type features to hunker down in.


Cons for variety in terrain set-up:

When you have standardized terrain–assuming it is fairly implemented–then you get predictability in terms of the impact terrain will have on the game. By implementing the right terrain pieces in the right locations on the table, you make movement an important part of the game. By allowing players to hide, you minimize the power of both assault and shooting. You also allow opportunities for creative tactics like setting up ambushes, flank moves, etc.

You also have fewer situations where the terrain may play a large part in dictating the outcome of a game. I can say from experience, when you play a game in which you pull a really tough match on a crummy table, it can feel like you got cheated. The classic example of this is playing vs. a powerful shooting army on a table with very little terrain. You may find yourself getting shot off the table before you had a chance to do anything, which is no fun. While you may be able to appreciate the bigger picture of trying to encourage balanced list building through varied terrain set-ups, if you had your tournament run cut short due to a crummy terrain set-up, you are still likely to have some hard feelings about it.

What do you all feel about this quandary? Vive le variety or would you prefer predictability? Personally while I love a beautiful table, I would rather have consistency in providing a relatively level playing field for gamers to test themselves based on luck and skill as opposed to terrain. That said, you still have room for customization and theme, but for tournament play it should be applied within a framework of standardized parameters.


About Reecius

The fearless leader of the intrepid group of gamers gone retailers at Frontline Gaming!

39 Responses to “Mixed Terrain Types on Tables, Rad or Risky?”

  1. Fagerlund January 14, 2015 12:48 am #

    Variety is cool as long as there’s a certain density. Open tables are pretty much never fun. Not even if you’re the shooting army. 😛

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 4:24 pm #

      Yeah, unless you are playing a themed game, open tables are not much fun for a tournament.

  2. Chad Thornton January 14, 2015 12:49 am #

    As a TO, this is something I struggle with every time I run an event. The reality is there is just no way to have enough of the same type of terrain to make all tables equal. So for practical purposes I try to make each table work as a theme for that table. I also try to rotate players across different tables as much as possible to make sure everyone gets the chance to play on different terrain set ups.
    To me, A battle has several parts. Your army, your opponents army, the table, and the scenario. You have major control over your army and little to no control over the other elements. It is these other elements (those you cant control) that make the game a fun event and not just an exercise in math.

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:34 pm #

      Good points. The artistic part of a game is really important.

  3. Bassface7 January 14, 2015 2:20 am #

    I get people wanting variety but i’m of the opinion that 40K needs lots of terrain to be played properly. Difficult and dangerous terrain tests, line of sight, impassable area’s and such all force people to think and play smarter. An open table is much less interesting.

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:35 pm #

      I’m with you, terrain is super important to making a game about movement and not just maximum efficiency shooting. The trick is to do that AND have an aesthetically pleasing table.

  4. TrueKnight January 14, 2015 5:17 am #

    I prefer more terrain, I like really dense boards. In a tournament I think it needs to be consistent, there’s already so much randomization.

  5. Molath January 14, 2015 5:18 am #

    Something that I would love to see (but is incredibly difficult to do) is have a tournament where they have a set number of published table set ups.

    One of the best parts of narrative campaign play (I find) is learning the battle field of some hotly contested zone. It’s kind of neat to look at the upcoming battle and be able to start planning in your head “Ok, I learned the last time I was here that that sniper nest is too vulnerable to out flankers, and I’ll need to take the far side of the bridge by turn 2” etc.

    It’s also one aspect of RTS games that I would love to see more of in table top games.

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:42 pm #

      Yeah, I like varied maps/boards too, but they have to also be balanced for competitive play which can be tough to do.

  6. rexscarlet January 14, 2015 5:30 am #

    The amount of terrain should be whatever the edition calls for in start up games, scenarios/themed/fluff/etc. games it does not matter.
    Types (in the rules) of terrain should definitely be mixed.
    7e is pretty vague on both amount and type. (6e was great, just take turns picking out and placing all types of terrain on the table until it filled 25% (1/4) of the table, then take turns spreading it out, simple.)
    No matter what the decision, the terrain pieces cover saves and what type (ruin, or regular building, or rubble, etc. especially if there are “special” rules) should be gone over before the game even starts.
    (many times we see post it notes on confusing terrain from someones previous game, which imho is a good idea)
    I do not know how many times we have seen a LR (whatever) get immobilized hitting the tiny edge/corner of a piece of terrain it could not squeeze past, lol… good times…

    • Adam (Thediceabide.com) January 14, 2015 7:33 am #

      Actually 6e was D3 pieces of terrain per 2’x2′ section, which led to about 1/3 of the table when using A variety of GW terrain pieces. The 25% rule was 5th edition. Personally I’ve found that about 1/3 of the table worth of terrain really begins to balance the game between shooty and assault armies.

      • rexscarlet January 14, 2015 10:40 am #

        ty yep 5e, 6e was around for such a short time I got them confused, … 😉

        yes, I agree; 1/3 is a good amount.

  7. Lardus January 14, 2015 5:32 am #

    I like a variety of terrain, but for a tournament there should at least be a framework that all tables should fit in. Like the examples given, it could wreak havoc with your army, play style or both.

  8. Adam O'Shovah January 14, 2015 5:37 am #

    I actually think there is a solution for this. In other sports, like cycling or golf, there are varied terrains that all players have to compete on. Some terrain suiting some riders and players more so than others. That’s part of the fun. That being said, you are correct when you say that varied terrain keeps things interesting and fun but standardized terrain helps to keep things “fair” so to say.

    I think it is realistic in a two-day, six-match tournament that there are three standardized tables. Table Type A : a building heavy urban setting, with lots of LOS blocking pieces, Table Type B : a mix of ruins and buildings, lighter on terrain with maybe a mix of hills and levels with maybe on or two true LOS blocking pieces and Table Type C : no buildings, maybe hills and trees and one major LOS blocking piece. All of the designated Table Types will have similar pieces of terrain in roughly the same positions as to keep them standardized within the Table Type.

    I believe this would provide a good range of terrain, to keep things interesting for players. It also limits list building that could take advantage of the traditional one-standard terrain setup. Just like we try to develop missions that will favor some armies and lists in some instances and others in other instances… I believe terrain should also be a part of that discussion. In my gaming group, we are always debating over what if OP, what is shenanigans but the one true resonating theme that we all believe is that good terrain can separate the boys from the men, no matter what list they are bringing. Lots of terrain could tone down Serpent Spam in some instances, it can make Invisible Guard blobs harder to function and makes a Tau player really think twice about bringing a castled up gun line army but those same armies may or may not be at more of an advantage when they get to a different table or different mission.

    Any one can bring a power list, but I believe mixing good missions with good terrain forces that player to REALLY play the game and not rely on their list building skills alone.

    I would love to see LVO and BAO implement something similar to this in the future. Might make a cross-country trip worth my while. 😉

    Great article Reece!

    • Joshua.Dearth January 14, 2015 11:42 am #

      I whole heartedly agree with this. The only downside I could see is it would make it that much harder for the TO’s to do pairings in the tournament. Either they would need the tournament to have a certain number of all 3 tables and make sure they are seeding players into the right terrain type, or they would have to “swap” terrain type between rounds. Either way it would add that much more to the TO’s plate than they already have (which is quite a bit already). If there could be a way to easily implement it via good logistics than I think this idea has a lot of potential.

    • winterman January 14, 2015 12:03 pm #

      Have had similar ideas for my own events. Problem is the logistics of table assignments. Swiss pairings have to take precedent over terrain types. So there’s no way to absolutely guarantee an even 2 games for every type — if say top player’s last game should be on Type A and his opp on Type B.

      • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:45 pm #

        Yeah, you’d have to build a table randomizer into the pairing software to avoid that.

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:44 pm #

      That’s a really cool idea, actually. Have some terrain archetypes that are published in advance so everyone knows what to expect and isn’t blind-sided, but, you also get some variety that encourages list diversity.

      • Adam O'Shovah January 15, 2015 5:25 am #

        Thanks guys. It would totally be a burden on the TO, for sure. But the way I see things happening on the national tournament scene between the big tournaments and the TOF rankings, etc… It’s totally doable. Tournament 40K is still strong in North America and I think our community truly has the resources, skills and will to do this and I think it could help “level the playing field” but more than that, help take Tournament 40K to the next level.

        Reece, I sent you a schematic via email. Did you see it?

  9. Arrias January 14, 2015 6:22 am #

    My white whale for terrain set up remains having an asymmetric terrain layout that through careful design grants the same advantages and disadvantages to both players. For inspiration, I usually wind up turning to competitive FPS’s and examining their level design. When done right, you can see the clearly defined fire lanes and ambush points. The biggest issue with taking cues from FPS level design is with the 40k model’s ability to move through walls, making it a bit like playing a game with no-clip turned on.

    Additionally, I think a piece of overlooked terrain that has the potential to drastically alter the game is the bridge or raised plane. Currently (with limited exception for ruins and hills) our battles occur on a single plane, ground level. Having something akin to a sky-bridge which extends for a significant distance could provide assault units line of sight protection from most ranged threats at the expense of somewhat dictating their movement. From the other side, placing a ranged threat on an upper level of a nearby ruin would allow them to threaten a coming assault unit at risk of exposing them further to return fire. The terrain pictured at the top of the article is a perfect example, but I so rarely see terrain of that type used in actual games.

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:46 pm #

      Yeah, multi-plane/level terrain is awesome but can be really difficult to build/transport/store. However, if you could pull it off on a large scale, that would be killer1

  10. Kevin Kucharski January 14, 2015 6:32 am #

    I like my tables (in whatever miniatures game) to be representative of a place. What i mean by that is that most wargaming tables are kinda the same, a couple forests, a ruin or two and some hills. I don’t know about you but that does not look like a place i’ve seen.

    Besides being more visually interesting, a table that is more like a real place offers a TON of tactical options. In most places worth fighting over there is plenty of cover and corners to watch.

    • Reecius January 14, 2015 7:47 pm #

      So you are more of an aesthetics first type player, which is totally cool. I dig that. I think that perhaps in a friendly/narrative format, that could really be the best choice.

  11. Chris Hadden January 14, 2015 9:43 am #

    Our Tournaments we have plenty of Terrain on the 12 Tables we use, however we change it up per table. We use around 8 Fat Mats, 2 GW boards, and 2 just Felt *spelling*. The terrain is changed up depending on the scenery on the mat or the board. Most have a good mix of buildings and some Area terrain, and every table has some LOS blocking terrain as well but not overdone.

    I like it from a narrative point of view. Nothing irks me more than seeing a piece of terrain with a grass bottom on a snow mat or vice versa. We paint our models for the reason to make them all look good on the table.

  12. iNcontroL January 14, 2015 10:14 am #

    terrain rewards strategy and planning. Getting cover saves, lining yourself up to avoid giving the opponent 25% and moving in a way where you can negotiate the terrain etc ALL are trademarks of a stronger general. Open field tables reduce a portion of the skill it SHOULD take to be a good WH40k player.

    Outside of that it just looks bad btw lol.. which who are we kidding? Actually matters a LOT to a lot of us.

    • Joshua.Dearth January 14, 2015 11:46 am #

      I could not agree more with you on this Geoff. Maintaining the aesthetics and feel of the game is obviously a high priority for a lot of us, and anything that takes away from the skill aspect of the game (especially in a tournament setting) I think should be looked down on.

  13. Thomas January 14, 2015 10:53 am #

    I love themed terrain tables. I have 15 tables for my event I run and looking to add more. Desert, jungle, mountains, forests, cities, ork themes, savannah, world war 1 fortification, purgatory, and many others. Nothing (except 1statue) is store bought. Go check out AK Battle Brothers on FACEBOOK for tons of pictures.

  14. Thomas January 14, 2015 11:00 am #

    I also provide Terrain Data Slates for each table with special rules and what each piece of terrain does. With a fluff short background for the world theme of that table. For instance, the Purgatory table is a world close to the Eye. Pretty open area but lots of small islands of rocks and platoes and special candle lit smoke markers out of stuffing that provide Shrouding to any units nearby and all psychic phases are assumed to have a 6 rolled. That sort of thing. Fluff players loved it, and I keep density near equal on all tables, challenging the players by the terrain and the mission.

  15. Valhaal January 14, 2015 11:09 am #

    I think the big thing about terrain is the shift in rules from 6e to 7e. Having to be in cover to get a ruins bonus (4+) as opposed to being blocked by cover to get an area terrain bonus (5+) should have seen a shift in terrain being built. Area terrain should have started becoming larger with chunks and LoS blocking situations,and ruins should have been more flat and easier to see. Ruins are just too powerful given the larger cover bonus for just toeing in AND being the primary means of blocking LoS from the majority of terrain. I’ve watched a lot of battle reports and have played tons of games and hardly see much of a difference since previous editions. It creates a ruins “vacuum” that makes some of the more powerful things in the game just that much more powerful. The first picture in the post is a prime example of “terrain abuse” for a lot of armies. Eldar are just going to be that much more powerful if they can get to the top of those buildings, since almost anything on the ground level won’t see it easily without it being blocked by ruins for a 3+ save. So why jink?

    It seems like the best way to manage terrain is just to limit it, regardless of whether you are doing a theme or not. X amount of LoS, X amount of Ruins, X amount of area terrain, etc. Terrain is a huge part of the game and can really spell out how easy or difficult a match up could be. With that, what sort of set ups there will be in a tournament should probably be secret (if they are designed ahead of time) since it can be easily abused if there is too much or too little.

  16. Canadianbrit January 14, 2015 11:13 am #

    In my opinion the reason table often end up barren is that most buy-and-play terrain is A) small area, or B) low. Even the big expensive GW buildings are either long and low or skinny and tall. From my experience unless you scratch-build or find suitable terrain elsewhere you will most likely end up with a lot of 1-2 inch tall “hills”, 1-2 inch tall fences, and 1-2 inch tall buildings.

    The best option for pre-built seems to be the GW cities of death buildings but even then they have so many gaps and windows that real line of site lets you see and shoot pretty much anything. Additionally they aren’t cheap, so most of my boards have 1-2 max as sort of “premier” pieces.

    • Canadianbrit January 14, 2015 11:17 am #

      Another thought, you guys should talk to inControl about the starcraft brood war mapmaking scene. In SC:BW units were rarely buffed or nerfed, so an entire niche market was devoted to building maps that were balanced or could give an edge to races that were doing poorly in the meta

  17. DCannon4Life January 14, 2015 11:58 am #

    The Renegade Open had player-placed terrain. When that came out in the primer packet, I thought it would be ridiculous and add a ton of time to the pre-game. I was wrong.

    Allowing players to set the terrain mitigated what was, on the whole, average (tournament) terrain: 6 pieces per table. Granted, the 6 pieces were of decent sizes (nothing smaller than a large blast template), but even so, that doesn’t cover a lot of table.

    In my first round game I was so grateful to be able to choose a piece of terrain and set it where *I* wanted/needed it. I was up against a Lynx (on a Skyshield Landing Pad) backed up by 2 Wraith Knights, 3 Wave Serpents, and an assassin (the one with instant death CC attacks on 6’s).

    If I had to walk up to a pre-set table, where the terrain is typically set up symmetrically (and very evenly spaced), I’d have lost before I even deployed. As it was, I won the roll to choose terrain, grabbed a hill big enough to hide a Wave Serpent and a Venom, and stuffed it as far into the corner of my DZ as I could. I survived until my reserves came in on turn 2 and took out the Lynx in one go.

    All of this adds up to an argument not necessarily for MORE terrain, but for more player control over the placement of whatever terrain there is.

  18. winterman January 14, 2015 12:14 pm #

    I am fine with both styles but I do believe a certain minimum density and LOS blocking is best regardless of aesthetics. I kind of like variety better though and feel like that is keeping more with the whole hobby idea rather than pure focus on comparative evaluation of winners. But there’s a place for both styles for events.

    Should note also that table consistency should also include variety. I see a lot of tables like the ones at NoVa where every terrain piece is huge. Scatter terrain is almost non existent. And i get it, when you need to fill up a table quickly scatter terrain is by far the least efficient way to do it versus a big block of hill or ruin. But variety is good also both.

    Final point, I think consistent terrain is only going to happen at certain events and that’s ok. For FLGS or events starting out you are going to get what you get from the store and community. And its going to run the gamut of size style and whatnot. Bigger events that take the time to make and store terrain in bulk can and maybe should go with set table terrain.

  19. bigpig January 14, 2015 2:03 pm #

    So long as there is ample terrain, I’m not concerned about exactly what it is (though I do like ruins much better as a Tryanid). For a multi round tournament, I actually like to have a table of ruins, one of alpine, jungle, etc. So long as they are covered sufficiently and there are a few pieces of LoS blocking and area terrain I think its great.

    I think I told you about getting aced out of the third round at LVO last year due to table setup. It was a table that seemed like a “this is what we have left” table with very sparse terrain. Vanguard strike, opponent picked sides and put me to start in the corner with one 2″ x 2″ piece of ruin in it and nothing else. He was running Taudar and with no true LoS blocking or area terrain he wiped me hard with shooting with nothing I could do. A better table would have made it a game.

    Variety and themed tables are great, just keep them covered. As a TO it must be tough to make sure you have enough to account for 4 different deployments (Vanguard having 2).

  20. westrider January 15, 2015 7:30 am #

    I definitely like the look of themed set-ups. My ideal would be to have themed tables, but where each covers all the bases (LoS blockers, Area Terrain, some open fire lanes, some linear pieces, etc.), but in their own way.

    So you’ve got City table with some big LoS blocking ruins, some lower ruins or ruins with more holes in them that can provide cover, but won’t block LoS, some makeshift barricades, and some open streets. And then over here, you’ve got a wilderness table with a couple of good LoS blocking hills/rocky outcrops, a couple of woods and/or areas of 3/4-1 1/2″ tall rocky ground that can basically function as Ruins, some clearings, maybe a water feature or road or something.

    Both those tables can be set up to be functionally pretty much the same, but provide a very different aesthetic experience.

  21. DCannon4Life January 15, 2015 9:13 am #

    Player-deployed terrain makes the best use of whatever is on the table, no?

  22. TinBane January 15, 2015 6:47 pm #

    Another potential solution, is just to constrain the amount of variability.
    I don’t think anyone should ever play 40k competitively on just an open field with no LOS blocking terrain. 40k is a game designed around having a decent amount of terrain.

  23. bigwebb January 17, 2015 8:20 am #

    Im of the opnion that terrain doesnt need to be even on both sides of the table even at a tournament. Part of the game is choosing which side of the table you deploy on. Choosing the right side for your army is part of the “skill” it takes to play 40k. I prefer a table be built around a theme with no thoughts to deployment zones and more towards the asthetic view of the type of terrain your fighting in. Even in a tournamanet a player should be forced to adapt to the table and choose the best side otherwise why roll for it.

  24. fluger January 27, 2015 4:27 pm #

    Dense terrain is best (as DiceAbides already mentioned), 1/3rd of the board is great. LoS blockers are critical as well.

    The real issue that you’re speaking of has to do with tournaments, and I know for a fact that making terrain to make enough tables DENSE with terrain is really hard. I appreciate NOVA’s attempt at standardization, but it can lead to exploitation as well (IMO). In a perfect world, we’d have variety AND some kind of standardization.

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