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Water Terrain: Cheap and Easy

(Artist: H.R. Millar, 1903, The Brethren)

For a while now I've been contemplating a variety of ways of creating a large body of water on which to play out scenarios with miniatures. I can imagine scattering some islands about and having players sailing out to explore them, not too dissimilar from the games Steve Braun likes to put together for cons (see my recaps for Historicon 2017 and Barrage 2018). Part of my dilemma has been that my dining room table is narrow and long (3'x8'), which does not lend itself to investing in a heavy pre-printed mat that's going to awkwardly hang over the table's edges.

About a year ago I bought a dark blue tablecloth and some paints with the intent of trying to make an ocean/sea mat myself but timidity about my ability to pull that off pushed other projects ahead of it in the queue. In the meantime, I came across some nautical-themed plastic disposable party tablecloths on Amazon (here, while the link lasts). When they arrived a couple of months ago, they were a bit thinner and lighter than I hoped, and the deep wrinkles from being folded up in their packaging were off-putting to my eye for game play.

A couple of months later, however, I found a photo posted somewhere online by Pulp Alley-creator David Phipps of him using the same disposable tablecloths but mounted on linoleum tiling. I'm not sure why I hadn't thought of this since it was the exact same approach I used to make paved roads for my zombie apocalypse game last October.

To be honest, I was a bit dubious as to how these would actually look on the table, and so didn't rush to create them myself. But curiosity got the better of me while I was at Home Depot today on a separate errand, and I decided to buy a dozen of the cheapest linoleum floor tiles I could find (about .45 cents each). When I got home today, I dug the cheap plastic tablecloths out of the basement, where I had thrown them with my other project materials.

I admit that I am surprised by the results, and I now have a nice 3'x'4' modular expanse of water to incorporate into one of my future games. This really couldn't have come together faster or more easily. I would say from beginning to end the whole process took a little over an hour.

Here are some pictures and tips...

Folded up, deeply creased plastic ocean party tablecloth from Amazon. 

In and of itself, a bit too junky looking for me to want to use in my game.

The cheapest linoleum floor tiling I could find at Home Depot...something like 45 cents a tile (1 foot square). I bought a dozen. And because the white backing peels off revealing the adhesive underside, you don't even need glue for this project.
I spread out the tablecloth and carefully fit each tile, adhesive-side down. I used some heavy books as I went to help pull the cloth taut and flat while I placed each new tile. Note the grid and numbering I hastily added to the back of each tile. This will allow me to quickly place them on the table in a way that preserves the pattern of the waves. I used a sharp cutting blade to then separate all of the tiles along their borders.

Even though I was gently pulling the plastic taut while placing each tile, there were some inevitable bubbles and wrinkles. These may not bother everyone, but my perfectionist streak couldn't abide them.

Fortunately, the tile's adhesive isn't that strong and hadn't set yet, so it was easy enough to pull free a corner to try to work out some of the more egregious wrinkles.

I have a handful of bone folders around the house. They are useful for all sorts of things, and I first bought them for folding and fitting protective sleeves around the my book's dust jackets. They were useful when laying the tablecloth back onto the adhesive, helping to smoothly reapply the plastic sheet to the adhesive backing and thus prevent the bubbling from reappearing. To be honest, though, a lot of the bubbling could easily be worked out by hand, too, especially if it is near enough an edge. The plastic tablecloth is thin, and the bone folder will actually shred the plastic while trying to smooth out bubbles if you're too aggressive with it (I found that out the hard way with the first tile I made).

Using the same cutter, I trimmed the excess along the outer edges of some of the tiles. 
An overhead shot of my dining room table where yo can see how much nicer this ocean tablecloth looks when mounted on linoleum tiles.  I ended up with almost as much tablecloth material left over, and could have easily made another 12 tiles. As it is, I now have 12 easy-to-store one-foot square water tiles. Now to get working on the Kraken I want to inhabit these waters. 

Every project, even one as short as this, should end with a tasty beverage. This particular root beer has quickly climbed in the hierarchy to become one of my favorites. Oddly, I can only find it in a funky hardware store in Takoma Park. (Frosty mug from the freezer is optional but suggested.)


  1. Thanks for posting and came out really nice. Great job!

    1. Thanks, Stew. I've benefited so much from other folks crafting blogs, that I'm glad if somebody gets something out of one of mine.


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