Building a skirmish table (Part 1)

The skirmish table was to represent a backwater, down-on-its luck community in the desert. Ruins, shanties, and industrial buildings dominate the barren landscape.

Building a dedicated game table for the Shorehammer Convention in Ocean City, Md., was a major project for this past year.

In June, I wrote about a storage box I built—designed specifically to protect and transport this dedicated table. The months that followed saw me devote an inordinate amount of time to actually building said table.

The Design

On this side of the table, it was tempting for players to advance along the table’s edge and take advantage of the shanties to block enemy fire. But a savvy defender could bottle up an advancing force if he rushed models into position.

As my table was designed for skirmish play, it was crucial that the landscape be built to facilitate the unique dynamics of skirmish fighting. For example, there had to be a significant amount of cover for individual models to hide behind—but not so much that maneuver was hampered and models simply stood in place and fired their guns.

(There’s nothing more dull than a game that’s just about die rolling.)

What I wanted was a table that encouraged three basic tenets of warfare: maneuver, concentration of force, and use of cover. Thus there had to be areas of dense cover (blocking fire but slowing maneuver) as well as open areas (easy to maneuver but vulnerable to enemy fire).

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Insulation foam and MDF sheets formed the base of the skirmish table.

The table also needed key points that created tactical situations that challenged the players. For example, along one edge of the table was a concentration of refinery towers and shanties that created a tempting route for an attacking player to advance in cover. But, at the same time, an astute defending player could use the same terrain to as a choke point, either to stymie the enemy advance or funnel them into a kill zone of fire.

In another location, an above-ground pipeline provided sturdy, if dangerous, cover where a defending force could set up a firing line. In those games where players “saw” the potential of the site, they were able to create a defensive line with great cover that caused attacking players to rethink their line of attack—and sometimes opt to redirect their advance to flank the position.

It also was important to create contrasts. I wanted some players to struggle with the challenges of urban fighting, so I included several two- and three-story city ruins to the table.

Elsewhere, players had to contend with crossing an open area, knowing full well that enemy units were entrenched on the far side. This forced players to consider flanking maneuvers, a softening up of the enemy line through ranged fire, or a suicidal charge.

Starting Construction

The base of foam is cut, and the MDF side walls are glued in place.

My table needed to be big enough to show off a lot of scenery, but small enough to fit in the back of my SUV. It also had to be light enough to carry.

My solution was to divide the table into two. Using 2-inch-thick insulation foam, I cut out two 24-inch by 56-inch sheets, then cut strips of 1/8th-inch-thick MDF board to create a sturdy edging to protect the foam corners from the inevitable bumps and scrapes—and to provide a nice “frame” for the terrain.

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Additional foam has been added to the base, creating a rolling landscape. In this photo, the slopes haven’t been fully shaped, but buildings have been placed to begin determining the final “look” of the table.

As you’ll see in the above photo, these side boards were contoured. I didn’t want a flat tabletop, but I also didn’t want the MDF siding to rise above the ground level. Aesthetically, this approach worked well.

The next step was to glue additional levels of insulation foam to the base to build it up in some locations—to make a kind of “rolling” terrain.

With the foam glued down, my next task was to use a Surform (see review) to shape the foam edges into slopes that, for the most part, models could be placed upon without toppling over.


Palm trees, generators, chain-link fences, ruins, shanties, a shattered road— the details go on and on.

Table Details

With a lot of scenarios planned for the table, it was necessary to have some terrain that could be moved about. So, not all the terrain could be built into the table. Still, as much as possible, I wanted the terrain to “rise out” of the desert sand. So many tiny features were “built in.”

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By cutting out the shape of each building’s base from this thin foam, then gluing the foam to the table, I can “sink” the building bases into the ground, and they won’t look as if they’re just sitting atop the table.

To make the ruined buildings’ foundations look realistic, I put the bases of the buildings on a thin layer of foam, then traced and cut out the shapes. My thinking: By gluing this cut-out foam on the table, there would be small indentations on the table surface, into which the buildings’ foundations would slip into. (See adjacent photo.)

With the bases sunk into the foam, I could use sprinkled sand to hide the joints, and the buildings would look like they rose out of the sand like real ruins.

In other locations, I created rubble by cutting 1/4-inch-thick insulation foam into tiny squares and rectangles to recreate the piles of concrete slabs that typically surround modern buildings. (Tragically, there are plenty of photos from war-torn regions around the globe.)

I also dug deep into my bitz box, pulling out an old Star Wars toy with lots of panels and cables cast into the plastic. Using a chisel to break the toy apart, I created a lot of small boxes and consoles that I glued onto the foam to represent above-ground controls.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article.

The Corvus Cluster is a Warhammer 40K blog documenting our gaming adventures in the fantastical sci-fi universe of Games Workshop.

Categories: Shorehammer, Terrain

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