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Econ-Urban Terrain
by James Holloway

Combat Zone practically demands an urban (or at least semi-urban) play area.

This means lots of great tactical opportunities, with tricky lines of sight, varying heights and plenty of cover.

This is all great for the gamer, but it can seem a little tough from a modelling perspective. A green sheet and a few trees isn't going to cut it for this project.

Because I'm on a budget, I resolved to make as much of my city out of junk and things from the pound store as I possibly could.

The first thing to do was to gather materials. Almost anything can be used to make scenery, but the things you really want are polystyrene foam, cardboard, light wood, plastic card, and wire.

I was fortunate enough to work in an office that discarded huge quantities of polystyrene every day, so I scavenged up enough of it to last me a lifetime with just a few trips.

Cardboard came from the usual places – cereal packets, boxes, the backs of notebooks and so on. The very thin corrugated card you get in some pizza boxes is particularly useful.

I also saved bits of plastic packaging that had interesting shapes, grabbed handfuls of coffee stirrers from restaurants and coffee shops, and kept a keen eye on freecycle.

If you're not paying attention to Freecycle, you're missing a trick. Freecycle is a network of internet mailing lists where people give things away free to those who can collect them.

I scored a large quantity of MDF, dozens of partly-used “tester” paint pots, and even a big box of miniatures and terrain (although that's another story).

The secret weapon in my terrain-building arsenal was simple ready-mixed filler. I bought two tubs of this from a pound shop and have used them on nearly everything to cover up the distinctive appearance of cardboard and polystyrene.

For maximum coverage, I find that mixing the filler liberally with PVA glue until it becomes a smooth, sticky paste is best. I apply it with a piece of scrap cardboard or a craft stick, then sand it down once it's dry. The dust from sanding does get everywhere, so I'm always careful to lay down some newspaper before working with it.

I've chosen a set of buildings for this article that demonstrate a variety of different approaches.

This military installation is the simplest kind of building: it's essentially a solid block of foam. The domed shape on the roof is a blister pack from an “Androidz” toy I bought at a pound store, while the satellite dish is part of a broken toy from the same shop.

The body of the building is made of three thick layers of foam, carved into the shape of the blister pack with a utility knife. This was by far the hardest part of the whole process, and if you were to see the building on the tabletop, you could tell that its walls aren't always quite straight.

I glued the layers of foam together with wood glue, then slathered them with filler and PVA. After letting this dry (and you will want to allow a day or so for this process), I sanded it to a rough, stucco-like finish, then added some doors and other features cut from card.

The numbers are a spare decal from an old model kit, and the warning sign was downloaded from the internet and printed out. The total cost of the components was probably less than £1.

For buildings like this one, it's important to keep the footprint quite small – this method doesn't produce a building with a playable interior, so you don't want it eating up too much of your battlefield.

When you're putting a battlefield together in a hurry, a good ruined building is an asset. I made these bombed-out walls using two different methods. The grey ones are made of sections of polystyrene foam, while the tan ones are corrugated cardboard. Two layers of card are glued together, with the corrugations at right angles to reduce the risk of warping.

The open edges are covered with masking tape, and then the whole thing gets a coat of the filler/PVA mixture.

On balance, the cardboard method produces thinner, more durable walls, although it takes longer. The fiddly process of taping off the edges can be a particular pain if your walls are a little ragged. After painting the walls, I printed some propaganda posters to give them a little more visual interest.

I wanted to create a ragged shanty-town for my scavengers to inhabit, and the cardboard technique came to the rescue again. The wooden doors are made of coffee stirrers, while the corrugated metal sections are thin pieces of corrugated cardboard from the insides of pizza boxes.

Window gratings were made from aluminium car body mesh, which costs less than £2 a sheet at my local hardware shop. I'm still on my first sheet. Plankings and railings were made from coffee stirrers and craft sticks.

The building with the counter was my most ambitious project – its awning is kitchen roll soaked in PVA glue, while the pipes that hold it up, and the chimney, are plastic tubes from a craft store.

I'm not completely satisfied with them – they are very flexible, and as you can see in the photograph the paint has begun to flake away from them. Next time I think I will use the more durable – and only slightly more expensive – styrene rod, or bamboo skewers from the pound shop.

The tarpaper roof of the shack (which I imagine as a bar or taco stand) was made from coarse-grade sandpaper sprayed black. This makes a great roofing material, but must not be touched while drying; the sand becomes loose and can rub right off. It will be secure again once it's dry.

Buildings aren't the only kind of terrain you'll want for a game of Combat Zone. Taking inspiration from a previous article on the Combat Zone Chronicles, I took a toy car from Poundland, tore out the wheels, seats and innards (throwing them all into my parts box, of course – waste not, want not) and mounted it on a card base.

As with all cheap plastic toys, I gave it a good wash and a sanding before spray priming it and painting it in beaten-up, rusty colours.

I wish I could take credit for the idea of making industrial barrels and drums out of Diet Coke bottle caps, but I found the idea on the internet and quickly made a few dozen. Ink washes give them a suitably grimy appearance, and spare decals and warning signs help add a little variety.

Whenever I'm out and I pass a charity shop (a thrift store to our American readers) I take the time to step in; although most of the time you won't find anything useful, one find every now and again can justify all your efforts.

The police station here came from a charity shop for 80p. It was originally part of a child's toy of some kind, but I have no idea what – it has speaker holes in the roof, which can't be seen in the photo. Whatever its origins, I slapped a few coats of paint on it and now it serves as a base for my guardians of law and order.

These are only a few of the pieces in my terrain collection made from junk and cheap toys, but I hope they've given you some idea of the possibilities of budget terrain-building. There's something very satisfying about receiving a compliment on a piece of scenery and being able to say that you made it from rubbish.