Volcanic Island 3-D Hex Map

[This project write-up was originally published on TerraGenesis.com on Aug 17, 2009 . What appears below is mostly a cut-and-pasted copy of what was on that site at the time, including some of the readers’ comments. As this was early days, the descriptions and images were a bit rough.]

This is my first attempt at creating maps or terrain. I wanted this project to be a test project where I could experiment with different techniques. I decided to make a map for my group’s Battletech games. Battletech is normally played on either flat hex-based maps or larger 3-D free form terrain. I wanted to build a 3-D hex-based map. This would combine the simplicity of hex-based rules with the attractiveness and intuitiveness of 3-D terrain. This map would act as a teaching board for new players, so I wanted as great a variety of terrains and heights as possible.

I decided to build a tropical volcanic island, as this was terrain my group had never played on before. It would offer up different land heights and water depths, as well as the potential for lava! Unfortunately, I was denied access to my camera for almost the entire building phase of this project, so I only have a few pics from the very beginning and a bunch of completion pics.

I first used Google SketchUp to plan out my layers. Starting with the bottom layer, in each pic below the white area represents the foam shape that will need to be cut for that layer.

The overall plan is that of an island with a volcano with steep cliffs at one end (upper right in the pics) sloping down through palm tree forests to beaches at the lower left. This island used to be larger, but it exploded like Krakatoa. The remnants of the ancient caldera can still be seen in eroded rock formations and arches to the south and west. A shallow lagoon that allows for water combat takes up the south west, and just offshore is an abandoned refinery platform.

I chose to work in foam, specifically extruded polystyrene insulating panels, as it was a material I had never worked with before. I was able to justify buying Hotwire foam cutting tools and making this practice map in part because I am a teacher. Every year our students have a Geography Fair where they research different countries and display what they have learned. 3-D maps and structures are popular parts of their displays. I plan to take the techniques I learn from this map and teach them to my students so they can use them in their projects. 

Using templates made of poster board and custom made graph paper downloaded from this great site , I was able to use the hotwire scroll saw to easily cut out the complex shapes of each map layer. A small fan helped disperse the fumes.

The hot knife tool came in handy for cutting out the interior voids of the layers where the lagoon and volcano were. Once the layers were adhered to each other, I used the free hand router bent to match the hexagonal contours to sculpt the cliffs and other rock formations into more eroded shapes while maintaining the hexagonal theme. I then softened all the edges with the engraving tool. The engraving tool also proved to be excellent at reproducing the slightly melted effect of cooled lava surfaces. By rapidly dragging the tip and sides of the engraving tool across the surface of the foam, I could partially melt and smear the surface to get the desired effect. I used this effect extensively across the map on the exposed rock. After I was done sculpting all the foam, I covered everything in a layer of PVA glue before adding textures or paint. This helped make the foam a bit tougher and insured better adhesion of the paint and textures.

All the foam was attached to a base made from a sheet of 1/4-inch thick luan plywood with 1×2 framing.

[Original Descriptive Write-up]

The island has no official name, and those factions that have deigned to record it on their planetary maps have given it different alpha-numeric designations. The island itself is the remnant of a once much larger volcanic island that blew itself apart in a titanic explosion over six hundred years ago. The eroded remains of the former island slopes form a perimeter of interesting rock formations which enclose a shallow lagoon. The land slants upward from the lagoon to the northwest, peaking at the caldera of semi-active volcano which has formed over the former islanda’s slumbering vent. The rich volcanic soil encourages wild plant growth which covers the island. These plants range from exotic flowering shrubs to dense palm forests covering the northeastern part of the island. 

(Build Notes: The entire board has been designed to use hex-based rules. A hex grid has been added to any part of the board where the hex pattern is not clear. Clues to elevation levels are scattered around the map to make calculations intuitive. A large variety of terrains, cover, elevations, and water depths have been included to maximize potential tactical possibilities. The terrain types and elevation clues have been designed to be as clear and unambiguous as possible while still maintaining a sense of realism. The map is designed so that the action can coagulate around different parts of the map for completely different play experiences with each battle. It is also possible for individual engagements to take place isolated from the main action.)

The volcano which forms the northwestern part of the island is semi-active. Most of the time a plug of cooled lava seals the caldera, but every decade or so a fresh eruption breaks through and forms a lava lake. The inner slopes of the caldera are raw places subject to frequent landslides. The high level of erosion and occasional releases of toxic gasses from hidden fissures have kept the island’s verdant growth from gaining a foothold here. Around a century ago, the back portion of the caldera wall split off from the main volcano forming a rift quickly claimed by the sea. This steep prominence is rapidly eroding away and in a few more centuries will likely resemble the formations around the periphery of the island.

(Build Notes: The cooled lava plug is removable, exposing the lava lake below. The plug is one of only two parts of the map not made of foam. It’s a piece of ¼ inch luan plywood covered in a mix of thicker non-Elmer’s PVA glue, drywall mud, and sawdust. This gave it a more liquid appearance than the plant covered land which used a similar formula, but substituting the runnier Elemer’s PVA glue on the plant covered areas. Loops of black ribbon act as nearly invisible handles.)

Abandoned Research Platform
To the far southeast a burned-out abandoned research platform is slowly rusting away. What the builders were looking for or if anything of importance still remains is unknown. The original spiral access ramps have long since rusted away leaving access to the upper levels exclusively to jump capable units.

(Build Notes: The pipes around the base supports mark elevation levels, as do the platforms themselves, and the rusted yellow emergency paint stripes. This structure is the only other part of the map not made out of foam. It’s a combination of cardboard tubes, speaker wire, luan plywood, and Plastruct I-beams, trusses, and 1/100 diamond plate.)

The Stacks
The southwest part of the map is home to eroded rock columns and arches. These formations were formed as waves pounded volcanic rock layers of differing hardnesses.

(Build Notes: The formations form a “forest” of hard cover for games of hide-and-seek similar to urban warfare. They also provide protected bunkers to fire at the rest of the map. Jump capable units can get on top and move from stack to stack, all of which are colored to show they are elevation level 4. The tops of the stacks show the engraving tool melt/spread technique for igneous rock layers.)

Palm Forests
The island is home to many clumps of dense palm groves. These palm forests are concentrated on the northeastern slope where they form the dominant terrain. Areas of dense forest give way to lighter tree cover intermixed with dense shrubbery.

(Build Notes: Instead of standard trees, I wanted to do something more exotic. The palm trees were made from Sugarcraft cake decorating palm trees. The fronds were separated and trimmed substantially to bring them down to scale and the trunks were pruned as well. They were both then spray painted to give them more realistic colors before hot gluing them together. The hot glue strands that show in the pics were removed later, though some were painted and left as vines and cables. Bushes were made by pulling tufts from green scrubbing pads.)

Reef Islands
On the east side of the lagoon are three solid mini islands formed by the remnants of the former island slopes before the massive explosion. These have not eroded as much as the stacks and form terraces instead of columns. The north-most reef island has suffered a collapse forming a land bridge to the main island over a small sea cave.

(Build Notes: The reef islands, along with the other peripheral terrains, are arranged such that a jump-4 capable unit can encircle the map without ever getting its feet wet. The elevation levels of the northern most reef island display the color coding for the rock levels two through four that are used throughout the map. The islands act as hard cover for units trying to skirt the open sightlines of the lagoon and unforested land. The semi-eroded tops of the islands provide partial cover to protect mech legs.)

The north and west sides of the islands are home to steep cliffs. Hardy plants cling to these slopes.

(Build Notes: I used the free hand router to maintain the hexagonal contours as I made the eroded layers of ash and rock that form the sides of the map’s rock formations. This pro-level Hotwire tool has a thicker cutting wire that can be bent to shape. The wire is then rigid enough to keep that shape while cutting the foam. I was able to form the edge into half a hexagon and carve the foam.)

(Build Notes: Plant covered land was formed by mixing PVA/Elmer’s, drywall mud, and sawdust. The sawdust came from getting wood-based cat litter wet until it swelled and crumbled apart. I wanted a surface texture that would look like shrubbery when painted while still being hard enough not to erode when played on and flat enough to not tilt any units placed on top. After the mixture dried, I rubbed my hands over the surface to find the spiky bits and crushed them down with the edge of my thumbnail. 

Water covered terrain was made by mixing PVA/Elmer’s with drywall mud and spreading it around with my fingers. I tried to keep my fingers roughly parallel to the shorelines and nearby rocks.

The beach was made by gluing down fine model train ballast, then giving it a wash of dilute paint to match the exposed rocks.

The tumbled rocks at the base of the rock formations are simply glued large and fine ballast left unpainted.)

[doubleoseven said] – all i can say is WOW! that looks amazing! i can’t imagine having the patience and steadiness to cut all those hex edges.
super impressive work!

[ableman 33 replied] – Thanks 

Using cardboard templates with the Hotwire scroll saw really helped. I was able to just slide the work so that the wire moved along the edge of the cardboard. The table kept the cuts nice and square.

It did take a while to cut the foam, but it didn’t take a lot of mental focus thanks to the templates.

I got sneaky too. After I was done with the largest template (the one for the bottom layer) I then cut the next layer out of it. I was able to cut the one template smaller and smaller, using it for all the layers.

I was then able to lay the cut apart templates on top of my completed map. This was really useful, because I was able to punch holes in the corners of each hex of the template and mark dots on the map below with a thin marker when I was done painting so that I could draw my hex lines neatly.

[Dentatus said] – Really well done. I am hugely impressed at the consistency and quality. Is a tropical island a common battleground for B-tech?

[ableman 33 replied] – No, a tropical island is really unusual.

Normally you play on clear ground with a few clumps of trees and some scattered low hills.

This board is the size of four regular Battletech maps arranged 2×2, a fairly common arrangement for our games. The variety of heights, types of cover, and depths of water found on this map very rarely comes up. That was part of the intent for this project, to have examples in play of some of the less common rules. It shakes things up for regular players and serves as teaching examples for those new to the game.

Plus, making it an island helped make it logically self-contained.

[littlemonk said] – What a fantastic first post!! Lots of info on how you built it, fantastic photos, etc. This is one of the best looking hex boards I’ve ever seen. The hexes are incredibly precise, the paint job is vibrant, the board is an interesting layout. Well done! One random question: how did you adhere the poster board to the pink foam while you were cutting it on the hotwire cutter? I’ve used this method in the past and wondered if you had a better way of adhering it than I’ve done (with poster tack or masking tape).

[ableman replied] – Thanks littlemonk. 🙂

To stick the posterboard to the foam sheets while I was cutting with the scroll saw, I just placed loops of scotch tape on the back of the posterboard and pressed it firmly into the foam. That held the posterboard in place quite well. I made sure to have plenty of tape loops near the edges and along any long fingers to hold them down.

Once I had cut away enough foam to get some exposed edges where the posterboard and foam lined up, I did tend to keep an off hand holding the edge so I could detect if there was any slippage. I never did detect any movement. 

It helped that I was able to spread my sheets out over some large tables. The tables, along with scrap foam shims underneath the sheet I was working with, kept my sheets nice and level so there was no bending or forces trying to drag my materials out of position.

[threwolftats said] – thats a sweet hex board….. congrats… i love the palm trees might have to find some of those…..

[ableman replied] – Thanks threewolftats. 🙂

Here is a pic of the palm trees before and after. The original trees were quite large and a bit brightly colored for my purposes. After trimming off the unneeded bits, I trimmed back the fronds fairly severely before painting and reassembling. The lighting for this pic isn’t the best I know and doesn’t show off the colors very well.

The original trees had three sets of fronds each, with the middle one inserted upside down, I guess to make them seem fuller. When I put mine back together I only used two sets of fronds and kept them both upright.

[ned-kogar said] – This is fantastic! It shows that beauty can be achieved outside ‘super-real’ modelling, even in a formal, schematic set-up like a hex map. I’d love to see some in-game pics..

[ableman replied] – We did have some pics taken during our first trial run with the board ned-kogar.

Again, the lighting and focus aren’t the best (we were more focused on blowing each other up). The captions are from an after action report we put togther.

We had a great time trying it out and had lots of people who had never played the game coming over to check out the map and ask us what we were playing. We even had the store owner come over when we first brought it in and ask if he could take pictures. Exactly the kind of interest we were hoping for.

(Side note, some of the tallest mechs we were playing with from the newer sets wouldn’t fit under some of the arches in the stacks, but we had fun there anyway. Next time I’ll use thicker foam.)

[ned-kogar said] – Excellent – thank you. It really does look a lot of fun to play on… What are your next plans?

[ableman replied] – First, I’m going to clear out and organize my garage and order a bunch of thicker foam. With as much inspiration as I’ve gotten here I’m going to need someplace better to work than my school’s library and my tiny living room floor. 

I plan to keep working on hex-based projects for a while. They are what my group can use most, and I am intrigued to see just how far I can push the degree of realism and detail while staying within that framework.

I’m thinking of trying some more modular style terrain instead of fixed full sized game boards. Making the pieces modular would help with storage and transport while allowing us to mix up the arrangements for a greater variety of play.

I’m considering making some desert terrain next with canyons, spires, and arches like in the pics below. I may even make it so that some of the pieces can be stacked on top of each other if we choose to get crazy with the vertical elements.