Albéric Trancart

Developer, space explorer, dungeon master and more!

#Warhammer 40k

How I Built My Lava Gaming Board In One Week

How I Built My Lava Gaming Board In One Week

This summer as I had some free time I decided to build what my collection of minis missed: a decent-looking gaming board. Having already played with full-painted armies on great gaming boards, I knew that's what I lacked to change cool battles into awesome battles.

What I needed

Here are some criteria I listed in order to plan this:

  • The table can be reconfigured easily to vary the challenges
  • The table is easy to store
  • The table must be bigger than a standard one (4'x6') and can be extended easily (I love Apocalypse-sized games)
  • The table should cost less than 150€ (about $165). Games Workshop's Citadel Gaming Board costs 260€ (or $330)
  • The table must be done in less than two weeks. I knew I would not finish it otherwise. Time-boxing is an important constraint I apply on most of my projects.

Before diving into the "How" part, let's tease the result with some pics :

The table without minis The table with minis

How I did it

Planning the modules

First of all, I chose a lava theme. It goes well with my armies (Chaos and Necrons) and I think that a lava table can provide some challenges while being enjoyable to play on. However, I believe the techniques used here can be used for other themes – lava can be ice on a frozen ground, or rivers on an arid planet, or toxic streams on a wasted land.

Taking the criteria into account, it was obvious that the table had to be modular. I decided to go with 30cm squares (about 1 foot): they are easy to store and provide a lot of possible configurations. Then I sketched the modules on a paper sheet to test some configurations and to balance the surface occupied by the lava rivers.

The plan

There are 32 squares covering a table of 2.4m by 1.2m (8' by 4'). 21 squares are with lava, 11 without. I chose to make lava riverbeds off-center in order to allow more exotic modules.

Gathering the materials

  • Insulation foam. It came in 60cmx125cm (2'x8') sheets, so I got 6 of them just to be on the safe side: 18€
  • 30cm (1') pre-cut plywood squares: 19€
  • 1 tube of subfloor glue: 8€
  • 2 tubes of ACRYLIC latex caulking for the lava: 10€
  • 1kg of plaster: 3€
  • Some play yard sand: free
  • 0,75L of cheap white acrylic craft paint: 8€
  • Yellow and red cheap acrylic dyes: 8€
  • Black latex wall paint: 40€. I used 1,75L of it for a 1,2mx2,4m (4'x8') surface.
  • Some tools, a caulking gun, a plastic tarp, sandpaper… things that I already had

TOTAL: 114€ (about $125)

The materials

Designing the modules

8 modules can be built from each foam sheet. Using a plywood square as a guide, I cut through the foam with a very sharp knife.

8 modules per foam sheet

After that I used sandpaper to smooth the edges of the modules.

Smoothing the edges with sandpaper

Following the plan, I drew the lava channels and I identified the modules. I used a simple template (the blue sheet on the right) to make sure the lava channels would face each other properly.

Templating the modules

Then I cut the lava channels with the sharp knife. To randomize the edges of the lava channels, I took some scissors and I cut randomly in the foam only using the tip of the scissors. After sandpaper smoothing, I got the look and feel that I wanted.

Cutting the lava channels

Time to glue the foam to the plywood! Using the caulking gun to make sure the edges have some glue. This is very funny.

Gluing the foam

Dry time: one night.

Waiting for the glue to dry

After that, checking that the modules fitted in properly before continuing.

Checking that the modules fit

Customizing the modules

I made some custom modules. Two of them were designed to represent some part of the soil melting down (or cooling down). I burned the foam with a match (beware, emanations from burning foam are toxic) and then cut the foam with the scissors.

Melting soil modules

For two other modules I made some rifts with the same scissors-technique, but on a larger scale.

Rifts modules

I also wanted really special modules. To make these, I used the remaining foam to build a mountain in the corner/a volcano in the center of another one.

The mountain module

Then I covered it with paper mache (that's where the plaster has a role to play) to get a smooth and hard surface.

The volcano module

Adding some scenery

As I waited the paper mache to dry, I cut bases in a sheet of hardboard. I already had an Imperial city kit, but I never used it before, so it will be put to great use now.

Using some ruins

From the old buildings I never used, I took some of the floor tiles and I made five bridges – 2 for infantry squads, 2 large enough for a Rhino to cross and 1 capable of handling a Land Raider.

Making bridges

I sprayed them with a layer of chaos black then I took the white spray and used it at a high angle from above.

Basing the scenery

After that, I applied a brown wash on the walls and I painted the details with brown and bronze colors. I love speed painting techniques and here I was satisfied by the ruins painted in less than 20 minutes.

Painting the scenery

Time for some texturing

Here is the trick of this whole project: using the black latex wall paint. It behaves as a glue, a base layer and a colour layer at the same time. The goal is to seal the sand between two layers of paint – and believe me, it works very well. So first of all, let's apply a generous first coat.

Coating the modules with latex paint

I poored the sand on the fresh paint and let it dried 4 hours – enough time for the sand to be "glued" by the paint to the foam.

Applying sand

Working with modules is a real pleasure because you can texture one at a time, and when you finish the last module the first one is dry.

All the modules drying

I got all the loose sand off, then I brushed another thick coat of paint.

Adding another coat of paint

This time I waited one night just to be on the safe side. After that I mixed the black paint and the white acrylic paint, and I drybrushed this grey over the modules. Then I took pure white and did a very light drybrushing on the small "rocks" and the edges of the lava channels.

Painting the sand texture

For the "meltdown" soil, I simply brushed some orange paint (made with the white acrylic paint and the red and yellow dyes).

Painting the molten soil modules

For these modules I used the same technique than for the ruins: I took all the foam scrap I got and mixed them into the sand during the texturing phase.

Texturing the ruins

Adding the lava

With the help of a medium sized paintbrush, I spread a coat of caulking into the lava channels.

Adding the lava texture

Dry time: 24 hours (that's the greatest waiting time of the project so I filled it with scenery painting for instance).

Waiting for the caulking to dry

I also added a Star Wars easter egg!

Private Skywalker trying to swim in lava

The volcano took 48 hours to dry because of the thickness of the coat.

The volcano is drying

I covered this lava with yellow paint, leaving white spots in some places.

Painting the lava, yellow

I brushed some orange and red paint, and I also brushed them on the sides of the channels.

Painting the lava, orange

I finished with a drybrush of black paint on the topmost part of the lava.

Painting the lava, finish

The table

Here is the table with a lot of minis so you can grasp how it feels to play on it.

Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it Finished table with minis on it

Feedback & conclusion

I have played five battles on his table and it's great. I feared that the lava would restrain movements but it's not doing it too much. With friends we count the lava as "dangerously impassable terrain": you make dangerous terrain tests while crossing but you can't end up your movement in the lava. It is more a strategic challenge than a real constraint. In addition, you have the bridges, which are of strategic interest, but not by much.

Looking back at the criteria I was satisfied with the table I made. If there is one word to describe the success of the project, it is "speed". I got friends who began building a gaming board but who never finished it because of a lack of time/motivation (and I think there are similar stories across the Internet). Time-boxing the project in one full week (about 90 hours of work) forced me to simplify the conception and acted as a motivation because I saw the advancement progress really fast.

That's an advice I give to all players who are little bothered by the master quality of the paint but have tons of unfinished models: optimize your processes so that you can paint rapidly. By simplifying the colour schemes and techniques I got good-looking armies in record time. But I think that will be for another blog post?

Sources and inspiration

How to build a lava field gaming board