Here at Forward March Studios, we use a hybrid gaming surface that combines the best traits of maps and traditional wargame terrain. We do this by drawing roads, rivers, and elevation lines on Plexiglas map panels, then adding 3D trees and buildings on top of the Plexiglas.
The following techniques are cheap, easy, and require no special skills, equipment, or even much time once you've painted the buildings. All of the terain pictures you see on this website utilize this exact method, which can be mastered in a few minutes by anyone.
Start by placing your Plexiglas map panels together. Here we are using (6) 36" x 24" panels set in a 6' x 6' square.
It may be useful to tape the backs of them together to keep them from sliding around. If you are playing on a dark colored table, it may be a good idea to place a natural colored backing cloth beneath the panels. This will brighten them up and unify them. In this how-to we didn't bother with a backing cloth because we had some light grey tables to set up on which did the trick.
Begin by drawing rivers. These will always be the low points on your map. After drawing rivers, draw elevation lines. Finally, draw roads. The type of game you are playing will dictate the terrain you draw, so keep that in mind. You don't want too much, but in general the more terrain on the board the better the game will be.
You can write details about terrain features directly onto the Plexiglas. If your rules call for distinguishing between passable and impassable rivers, or mild and steep slopes, or wooden and stone buildings, you can annotate the map accordingly.
If possible, have at least one significantly large built-up-area (BUA) on the map. This will provide a visual anchor for the table and provide both a sense of scale and context to the game. It is best to place this area away from the center of the table. Place this city near a crossroads, or on both sides of a river to give it some additional structure and presence.
The more buildings in a BUA, the better it looks. In fact, the more buildings on the table, the better the table itself will look. Try to paint as many as possible; having a large collection of buildings will add immeasurable value to your games.
Each larger BUA on the map should have some sort of visual center if possible. The Library contains a cathedral model that is particularly useful for this purpose. Place this in the center of your largest BUA, and spread buildings out from that central point. European cities in the early 19th century had winding, narrow streets, so pack the buildings in tightly, especially around the center of the BUA. The buildings will gradually spread out towards suburban areas. Use clump foliage to create windbreaks and boundaries between fields. From a low angle (like on the other side of the table) the combination of many buildings and foliage will trick the eye into thinking that it is looking at a real village from a distance.
Use loose clump foliage in two different colors of medium green. Dark green foliage tends to be too dark and clashes with everything around it. You may have to break the foliage up the first time you use it, but it is worth the effort. This is otherwise a fast, re-usable way to create very realistic looking terrain.
In this picture you can see the effect discussed above. By placing foliage on both sides of the BUA, a realistic sense of depth is created. The more detail, in depth, that you can give the eye to process at once, the more pleasing the overall effect will be.
You can also see that we've placed a chateau outside the city somewhat, which gives us another distinct feature on the board.
When you have an isolated terrain feature such as the chateau above, always try to integrate it into the map in some way. Foliage is an excellent way to do this.
Don't overthink the interaction of terrain while setting up the map. Real terrain is complex, so the overlapping streams, hills, and forested that you will see when setting up are a sign of realism. The fact that it is clearly marked will make it easier to figure out modifiers during gameplay.
There are other features that benefit greatly from the addition of clump foliage. Rivers and streams are typically lined by trees or some kind of shrub. This was particularly true in the 19th century before industrialization allowed for massive infill projects. Line these to the extent it seems correct, but bear in mind that not all rivers and streams are lined with trees! Roads were also often tree-lined to provide protection from the sun, so be sure to create a few of these too.
If your rules allow or require it, you can use foliage to mark off where rivers are impassible.
Remember that you will be looking across the table at a low angle, not down at it at a high angle. Close is good enough. In this picture the foliage looks broken, but if you look back at the last picture, you'll see that it looks solid.
Create a small village the same way you create a large town. Grab a handful of various buildings, and at least one larger structure. I this case, there is a church, a bridge, and a mixture of different buildings. This creates variation in the BUA which makes it more pleasing to the eye. The bridge especially provides context and is also a feature of importance during a game, which adds context.
Here we've added clump foliage and also some additional buildings to the BUA. Keep in mind that a BUA is not only the buildings themselves, but the densely developed agricultural areas around villages. Orchards, vineyards and many small farmfields can hinder an army as well. Wargames using larger scale models often abstract BUAs into one or two large buildings, which serves to obscure the reality of this type of terrain. It is actually highly complex, so your table-top should reflect that, visually at least. You can always abstract the outcome of fighting in an BUA, depending on the rules you use.
Here is the same village seen from a distance. You can see how the depth of the terrain and all the little details create a very different effect when seen from a low angle, such as you'd see during a game.
Notice the use of clump foliage to highlight the fortified bridge on the stream. It looks much nicer than if the bridge were placed there by itself. As as aside, fortified bridges such as that were often manned by soldiers who collected tolls for the use of the bridge.
Be sure to add in the small details that really add character to the table top, like bridges and windmills. The European diet in the early 19th Century was bread-based, and bread required flour, which in turn required windmills. The European countryside was therefore filled with windmills. A battle field without windmills is truly incomplete, so the Library contains not one but TWO different versions.
Also notice that we went back and added another village with a stables next to the chateau, which creates context between them.
Windmills look best arranged in staggered lines, with all of the windmills on the table facing the same direction.
This picture was taken with a 50mm camera lens which has a depth of focus similar to the human eye. Notice how both the foreground and background are out of focus, but the cathedral in the mid-ground is focused. Remember that the eyes can only focus on one thing at a time, so by filling the table with detail you can create the sensation of looking across real terrain.
And that is that! The table is done and you can start setting up your armies.
This 6' x 6' table top took about forty-five minutes to set up.
One final note Although we've been saying that "more terrain is better terrain," that's only true to a point. Make sure you leave enough open space for your armies to maneuver. Depending on the conflict you are re-creating, you might need more or less terrain; many American Civil War battles occurred in dense woods. European battles tended to be fought in generally more open terrain. Let your general understanding of history be your guide, and if you ever feel stuck, don't be afraid to jump online for some quick research.
Google Maps and Google Earth are both excellent sources when trying to understand the terrain on historic battlefields. Just bear in mind that many changes may have occurred.