Fighting 40K in lush rural terrain

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Astartes bikers weave their way through a forest as they seek to outlfank their opponent. Even rolling for difficult terrain, I find that troops move relatively quickly, and the visual impact of all this terrain helps bring the battle to life.

TheGM: If anyone looks closely at some of the battle reports of the past six months, they might notice that some of my battlefields are quite “terrain intensive.”

There are several reasons for that. For one, I got into this hobby as a historical miniatures gamer. So, if a historical gamer decides to replay the Battle of Gettysburg, there’s a lot of terrain on the table: hills, fences, woods, stone outcroppings, buildings, etc.

I’m used to terrain-heavy battlefields.

Another reason for my terrain-heavy battlefields is that I’ve put a lot of work in recent years on building terrain. I like to see all this hard work displayed on my game table.

Hold on, you might ask. . Such a tabletop looks great, but how can you play a respectable game of 40K when you’re rolling for difficult terrain and bogging vehicles every turn? How do draw a line of sight for your Lemon Russ tank when, everywhere you turn, there’s a line of brush and trees obscuring what’s in front of you?

Well, how do you think an Allied tank commander felt as he was fighting in boccage country in Normandy during World War II? War sucks.

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Roads, orchards, a vineyard, crops, rock outcroppings, and fences and walls lined by trees, brush, and overgrowth are all featured on this table. Yet, despite all the difficult terrain, my Knights of Altair Space Marine Chapter managed to cross the table and smash the Tau army.

Besides, many 40K players already play in heavy terrain. Remember City of Death? Lines of sight are short; fighting is up close and personal. It’s a different tactical situation, requiring a different set of tactics.

Isn’t that a part of its appeal?

So, I’ve taking this logic and started building some scenery-rich battlefields with a rural theme. I want a battlefield that looks like the real world, with terrain packed tight and overlapping—with fences and walls overgrown with bushes and small trees, ponds, copses of woods, croplands, and rock outcroppings.

Now, of course, there is a place for a traditional 40K battle board. A lot of terrain can put a shoot-heavy army at a disadvantage. It can interfere with armor-based armies. It also can make it difficult to wrap up a game in traditional five to seven turns.

What’s more, if you think about many Napoleonic or World War II Russian Front battles, open space is equally realistic.

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As in real life, terrain defines a battlefield—and the tactical decisions that need to be made. Do the guardsmen line the stone wall for its defensive value? Do the small trees and brush lining the walls interfere with line of sight? Does the Death Guard tank wish to risk damage by pushing through the wall with its dozer blade?

Still, I think there is a place for a “lush” battlefield. For one, rural terrain is  just “pretty.” There’s something about a wood-lined stream, undulating hills of corn and wheat. and stone walls lining a road.

There’s also something thrilling about putting miniatures in a more “realistic” setting. My imagination comes to life when I move my figures nervously across an open field, and I take great releif when they reach a sturdy stone wall where they can set up a strong defensive position.

What I really like about a lots of rural terrain is the tactical headaches it creates. There’s nothing quite like setting up a tank at a crossroads, with what appears to be a line of sight over the crop fields that dominate the battlefield—and then, when you’re ready to shoot at an enemy tank, you put your eye down to the model’s level and realize your line of sight is spoiled by an outcropping of small trees and brush lining  a plank fence.

Why didn’t I check my line of sight as I was deploying? Now the stupid enemy gets a 4+ cover save!

One nice thing about a terrain-heavy battlefield is that you can adapt the terrain’s impact on your battle to your heart’s content. Not all of it has to have an impact on the fighting.  I occasionally put out terrain and say, “these walls are for just for show,” or “the trees lining that road can be ignored.”

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Some of my favorite terrain utilizes a 3D battle mat. If you look closely, you perhaps can make out that the ground cover includes individual stones and grass flocking that stands upright. Add all the details atop it, and you’ve got about as realistic a tabletop battlefield as you can get.

Of course, I sometimes enjoy making every bit of terrain count. Want to cross that stone wall? Roll for difficult terrain. Crop field screening the enemy advance? Guess you better come up with a plan.

(In these situations, I may add a turn or two to the game, as the terrain can slow down how quickly troops can close. It’s not hard to come up with the house rules that accommodate how you want a battle to go.)

You may wonder how I decide what terrain goes where. I do it “artistically.” I put no thought into how the terrain will affect a battle. War is very random. So, I set up what I think is a realistic-looking, aesthetically pleasing battlefield, and then roll for battle mission and deployment zones. Then players have to deal with the terrain they’re stuck with.

If anything, I find lots of terrain creates fascinating tactical challenges. I recall one battle involving Confessor Guidonis Bernard where the Death Guard used a sizable forest to screen their force as they moved close with the Imperial Guard. It was a great advantage for the forces of Chaos.

But, after the battle, it occurred to me: As the Imperial Guard player, I’d sat there with a dullard and let the Death Guard use that terrain to their advantage. I could have pulled back and forced the servants of Nurgle to waste their time advancing, while the rest of my army moved forward against the rest of the Chaos scum.

But I was fixated on what I couldn’t do, I didn’t think about how I could have used the terrain to MY advantage.

In another game, I did a little better. My Space Marine army had to race down a narrow road, force their way through a gap between an orchard and stoned enclosed field, push some Tau out of a vineyard, and race to the far corner of the table to seize an objective.

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Two Death Guard Rhinos used the cornfield (top of photo) to screen their advance on the Tallarn. But then they are forced to roll for difficult terrain by crossing the stone wall and must risk leaving cover to cross the open wheat field. That’s a lot of tactical decisions created by a a terrain-intensive battlefield.

Outflanking wasn’t an option because of a pond and orchard dominated on one flank, and heavy woods dominated the other. So up the middle I went, sacrificing troops to shield the flank of my vanguard, using artillery and close-assault troops to grind my way up the middle.

Meanwhile, the Tau had invested a lot in a flank attack, but by falling back to different defensive positions (a copse of woods, a stone wall, a line of trees), the Space Marines defending that flank managed to use cover, whittle down the Tau, and eventually stop their powerful attack.

Lesson learned? George Patton of World War II fame said it best: Terrain defines the battle you must fight.

So, I want to give a shout-out to the concept of a terrain-heavy rural tabletop for your 40K games. While there’s nothing wrong with fighting a battle that’s reminiscent of the World War II fights in the North Africa desert or the open steppes of Russia, there’s a whole new experience for you when fighting on a battlefield that’s similar to the bocage country of Normandy or the rough terrain of the Hürtgen Forest.

The view—whether your eye assumes the helicopter perspective of the player or the eye-to-the-ground perspective of your miniatures—is lovely. I highly recommend giving it a try.

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

Categories: Terrain

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3 replies »

  1. Cool!

    One interesting feature of hilly terrain can be that it is sometimes easier to see something 600m or farther away in a field, but then lose it in the treeline as it gets closer. Hard to replicate on a gaming board.

    Regards, Chris.


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