There is an easy appeal to playing games with miniatures. Miniatures immediately focus the imagination and allow players to literally push the boundaries of their gaming experience as they eagerly march their miniatures to and fro across the board. But the interface between 3D miniatures and a flat gameboard, however beautifully illustrated and professionally produced, frequently creates a nagging disconnect between the elements that are flat and the elements that are 3D. It’s almost like straddling a glitchy connection between two diametrically opposed quantum worlds. Of course, the fun of the gaming moment isn’t diminished so much as it could be so much more fun. And how does one add more fun to a miniature-based game? By adding more 3D elements to the game, of course!
Such a prospect shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, as 3D enthusiasm might quickly overwhelm gaming storage and subsequently litter shelf space with an array of stunning objects that rarely see time on the gameboard, let alone blowing a hole in one’s gaming budget. So, if curating a collection of 3D elements is fraught with sundry hazards of self-indulgence, what then does a 3D enthusiast concentrate their power of acquisition upon? That query’s answer is inextricably tied to what games are going to be enhanced by the inclusion of said items.
My miniature collection includes Conan and Batman by Monolith, Agents of Mayhem by Academy, and Star Wars Legion by Fantasy Flight. So, when I’m casting about for 3D elements, I want stuff that can smoothly crossover between ancient and sci-fi genres and that can be utilized by miniatures from 28mm to 35mm size. I aim to add elements that are structural in nature - walls, doors, windows, and staircases - that give a sense of the domestic or the ordinary to the fantastic as foes fight for supremacy of these spaces. My quest came up hard against products that were either artistically unsuitable or exorbitantly expensive. Instead of tossing lucre at unsatisfying products, I brooded and wracked my feeble brain for an adequate solution to my miniature gaming conundrum, and before too long a solution did congeal in my cerebellum. Create thy own!
I began with a staircase. Staircases hold a particular fascination because of both their universality and inherent dangers associated with them. We know lots of people who have stubbed toes, twisted ankles, broken ribs, or worse on staircases. Movies are replete with fights on staircases; remember Captain America and Winter Soldier fighting the Secret Service in that stairwell in Budapest, or if you're a hardcore cinephile, how about Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and the mother chasing her baby in the pram as it bounced down that huge staircase during the riot? And, staircases present a problem to miniatures as miniatures stand on bases and those bases need to be accommodated in the layout of a flight of stairs. I wanted miniatures to stand on every stair in my staircase, so I started making sketches and drawing plans.
Instantly I opted for wood as the material, basswood specifically. The local hardware store had a nice selection of basswood before the supply chain issues arose. Having both experience and the tools to shape wood, this was a natural choice. Next hurdle to overcome was the scale decision.
Almost immediately I embraced the need for modular structural pieces. Staircases would eventually require walls and conceivably doors, and everything would need be interchangeable and to allow for a quick reconfigure if needed. Since these miniatures are already using the metric system, I followed suit and made all measurements in centimeters and millimeters. Arbitrarily I determined that 5cm would be the height of a floor in my miniature building, and also therefore the height of a staircase would be 5cm. So a one level flight of stairs would be 5x5 cms, a two level flight of stairs would be 10x10 cms, etc. Adding a landing on top would be an additional 5cm extension to the length of the staircase. Making the width 5cms keeps everything nice and square (although truly rectangular). Settling on the final dimensions of 10x5x5cm, I divided the staircase into four treads (steps) including the top landing, but purposefully excluded risers, the back of the steps, and stretched the treads into the staircase to allow bases to be pushed under each tread until stopped by the figure’s legs and thus more resembling an actual person ascending or descending a flight of stairs.
Once sketches were approved, plans finalized, and union contracts signed, construction commenced. Turns out a staircase requires lots of supporting pieces. These were all hand cut using Japanese saws and Yankee ingenuity. A chisel helped clear the half lap joints. Gluing the carcass square proved to be the biggest small challenge of the project. Everything else fell together as envisioned.
Sturdiness was the overriding goal, hence the wood and not cardboard, so the staircase was in essence built around a carcass, or frame. Using ⅜” square basswood dowels and half lap joints, the carcass was constructed. From a 1/8x4x24 basswood plank, the springers (supportive sides) and treads (steps) and back were cut and shaped. In the picture above it’s Sheriff Aubrey from Last Night on Earth astutely inspecting the work and checking the authenticity of all required permits.
As the project progressed, the process was refined and some steps (not treads) skipped. I had enough wood to build two staircases simultaneously. These are not the same as the method evolved during the creation. And other refinements were omitted due to the constraints of time and project exhaustion. Once the cases were constructed and squared and obvious flaws artfully hidden, then all that remained was to finish the staircases. They being made of an infamous softwood, it was only natural to stain them proper. I used Old Masters Special Walnut wiping stain without pretreating the wood. I was pleased with the result and put a coat of Zinsser Amber shellac over that to seal it up. Now it was ready for some serious duty.
So now that the staircase experiment is completed, it’s time to reflect earnestly, mark what was done well and what improvements can be included in similar projects going forward. The wood really adds a classical feel to the miniature gaming experience. The ongoing supply problems have made basswood tricky to procure. A deep internet search has opened up a couple of new venues for basswood. Wood will continue to be a feature of my miniature gaming. The real downside is the amount of time required to prep, assemble, and finish these pieces. It does take time, a lot of time, so keep that in mind as you set out to budget your hours in the furtherance of your miniature gaming experience.
I’ve got plans for modular wooden doors, walls, and walls with windows, but what I really want to build is more staircases, including circular staircases for fancy structures like a lobby entrance for a hotel, a theater, or government building. Tables, desks, bars, counters, and shelves made of wood are another overdue source of creative consideration. What fiendish plots could be launched or foiled in a restaurant, bar, or tavern? Although chairs are superfluous in a miniature gaming situation, and I won’t waste a moment trying to manufacture them. But the addition of foam, particularly XPS foam, does bring in another world of more creative possibilities to miniature gaming.
Miniature gaming breeds 3D surroundings. They were meant to go together. Miniatures inspire further 3D surroundings for a semblance of reality in the tiny worlds wherein they battle their foes. I tend to think of miniature gaming as a movie with all the elements of theatrical action happening as fast as the dice or cards fall. I try to build what in essence are props and aspire to build ostensibly movie sets for all the action that my miniatures find themselves in the middle of.
My fellow miniature gamers, may your adventures be further enhanced by the inclusion of lavish elements in glorious 3D! Be creative and exercise your inspiration this coming year!!