Building Balin’s Tomb

(The Chamber of Mazarbul) – Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game

This post is a compilation of the processes that went into my build of a Balin’s Tomb display/game board for use with miniatures from the Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game (MESBG) from Games Workshop.

Inside Balin’s Tomb.

All good things begin with planning! I spent a lot of time figuring things out on paper and on screen. I chose this as my first proper scenery project because of it’s scale. I wanted to make a board suitable for ‘Armies on Parade’ but could also be used for gaming. The Balin’s Tomb game scenario has been a popular one for beginner gamers, and it’s a pivotal scene in the film, so there is plenty of reference.

Top-down plan.

I researched the game scenarios, took a look at the layouts, measurements and game areas. Tried to understand the significance, but it is quite possible that playing on this board isn’t ideal. I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of the rules. In the end I tried to adhere to a few rule sets but never let it totally lead the design.

It’s a 2’ x 2’ board (24” square). I wanted built up walls with a slight edge all around. I took the base sizes of the miniatures into consideration. There are very few places on the board that a 25mm base cannot sit comfortably. I also wanted to make sure there were a few ‘choke points’ where miniatures couldn’t pass each other. So good opportunities to set traps for fights.

Profile plans.

The centrepiece of the board is a resin display stand that Games Workshop released. It is a plinth of Balin’s Tomb with spaces for each of the members of the Fellowship. The idea being that I could remove the plinth if I wanted, and replace it to play the scenario… I added to this idea at the end of the project to give the board some flexibility, but it hadn’t occurred to me at this point.

I Drew out the floor plan on my base board which is a 5mm thick piece of Foamex. This is a high density plastic substrate used for signage. If does have a little flex to it, and I’d probably use MDF in the future, but I have easy access to Foamex through my job working in a print shop, and a lot of hobby-ing is using what you have to hand!

I had to raise the level of the floor so the centre plinth could sit snugly and flush. I also wanted to begin with the 4 distinctive dwarven pillars. I went for a simple geometric design that I think works well to give a sense of identity but isn’t impossibly involved to make. I made the pillars out of 5mm thick foam-core display board. Really light, sturdy enough and very easy to cut. These are the templates for the pieces I needed to make each pillar. I used a hot glue gun to assemble them. This is something I will return to as I think they will make excellent scatter terrain.

Shape templates for the pieces to assemble one pillar.
Early stages.

After this deviations from my plan began cropping up. I decided to make steps going down to each side of the tomb. These would eventually lead to small nooks under the walkway that runs around the edges. If I had no need to raise the floor level for the plinth, I wouldn’t have thought of it. Again, I made sure to keep widths suitable for the miniature bases.

In the next picture you can see my first attempt at a piece to help blend and join the floor with the plinth. This would go through a few more attempts before I was happy with it.

First deviation from the plans.

The main structure of the surrounding walls was cut from high density insulation foam. Not plastic like Foamex. It is hard, but easy to cut and sculpt. Again I used a hot glue gun to assemble the structure. It’s very quick and sets very hard. At this point I hadn’t actually affixed the pillars. I needed them to be removable as I figured out the remainder of the structure. Though they did seat very well into the footings I had made. I briefly considered keeping them as removable features. I eventually discarded that idea as the tops of the pillars were designed to sit proud of the outer walls so a board could be laid on top of the finished piece for storage.

Structural walls. The Bones of the build are complete.

I then moved onto the walkway, with the small nook between the pillars. I like to think of them as small corners or holes where guards might sleep or prepare meals. Oddly enough the board I used for the top of the walkway was actually packing material for the thicker sheets of foam. The texture on it was too good to ignore.

Walkway and nook.

I mirrored the walkway on the other side and made crude steps for the end wall. I didn’t plan to refine the steps at the back, as I wanted the mini bases to work well up them, but it didn’t look quite right for Dwarves. It’s a bit of a jump or climb. At this point I was very happy with the bones of the thing. I was surprised that my plans had worked well, and the refinements and changes made for practicality had improved things, instead of being compromises. One of these was the staircases at the front. I cut them in such a way that the miniatures would be able to sit on them, mostly, but the scale of the steps didn’t seem too out of place. These were made with stacked and cut pieces of foam. I dabbled with scoring a brick texture into the surface as well.

Stairs.

Next stage was the start of texturing. I destroyed one of the pillars and arranged discards and offcuts of foam I had from the build up to this point and laid them out in a way to suggest the pilar had collapsed and fallen through the back wall. This extra access point in the scene is used in some of the game scenarios as an escape route, but I liked how it broke up the geometry of the design. I also used a tin foil pie dish to sculpt the surface of the rubble. It’s a decent material to skin over a base structure. You can also see that I’ve begun to carve into the foam walls to give a cut stone look. This was one of my favourite parts.

Rubble and the start of texturing.

I continued cutting and texturing the walls. I added a well and cut smaller stairs into the back wall steps. They work for the mini;’s but give extra platforms and a bit of variation. This picture also shows a new centrepiece, redesigned to integrate the plinth. I was much happier with the look and fit of this one. This stage was also where I tried to add texture to the whole piece… Again with the help of tin foil. I took a handful of foil, scrunched it into a rough ball and pressed it into the foam. This creates small indentations on the foam getting rid of the cut regularity and suggesting the look and feel of the stone. It took a bit of time, but the effect was subtly transformative.

First cut texture and ruble placement complete.

The next bit was unplanned. I wanted to place a fixture on the back wall to suggest an aperture for the shaft of light that illuminates the central tomb. It’s very prominent in the film scene and well described in the text. I attempted it by using a cluster of LED’s, lined the box with mirror foil and set it atop the back wall. It wasn’t really strong or focussed enough, so I left it as it was and gave it a bit more thought.

Lighting, first attempt.

The next phase really started to pull the build together. I used a cheap wall filler to fill cracks, joins and holes. Not only that, I mixed the filler with water and painted the whole piece. Not only did this begin to seal the build materials for painting, but it gave the whole thing a rough, gritty texture. Perfect for the rock.

Filling, texture and first seal.

The light… Mark 2. MUCH better and how I envisioned it. I purchased a small led torch, mounted it in the aperture, tried to focus the light through a hole and, presto. I was very pleased with the effect.

Mk. 2 Light. Much better.

I continued to add a few more texture details. Floor tiles or slabs with thin pieces of plastic substrate. Rubble around the outside of the board and again a coated of watered down filler. Then additional texture with the help of some sand. I wanted to add it to the rubble piles and suggest dust and debris that had gathered around the central plinth to try and blend into the floor. The close up image gives you an idea of the textures the piece is beginning to acquire.

Filler coat and texturing
Close up of texturing, and the centrepiece blending.

Then it’s a full basecoat. White and black acrylics paint to get the mid-tone, mixed 50/50with PVA glue. This was another attempt to seal the materials for the proper paint job to come. I primed the central plinth and miniatures with spray primer as I would have to give a more measured approach to those.

Basecoat.

All in all the lighting effect was very pleasing, even at this stage!

Dramatic lighting!

Then the real paint job began. I could have simply kept it grey, a bit of drybrushing and called it done, and I was tempted to do that. But I wanted a more naturalistic look, which meant variation and depth. It also meant making the whole thing look a total mess before it properly came together. I began with a sandy brown and tried to paint it as veins of rock, I overlaid that with a mid-brown then a dark muddy brown, mottling the lighter colour and making very dark areas. I made sure to leave some of the grey basecoat visible. All of these were mixed with acrylic paints, by eye. Didn’t matter if there was variance, as it all added to the effect.

Building up tonal variance for the rocks.

Then I did a proper hobby homebrew! I didn’t fancy buying industrial quantities of ink wash, so I did a bit of searching and found a very simple and effective solution. This works well on a large scale, but I’m unsure if it would be suitable for miniatures. The main wash is black acrylic, water (start 60/40ish in favour of the water) and a squirt of washing up liquid. I added a bit of brown to muddy it somewhat and give a earthy, dirty vibe. Mix well and test on a piece of kitchen paper, you will see the tone blot and get a sense of it’s strength. Adjust pain or water to suit… It’s all a bit of a judgement call. So what does this do? It stains the paint job but also, the washing up liquid makes the inks run into all the crack crevices and holes in the texturing so the colour pools in those places giving you shadows for the texture. I initially thought it turned everything a bit dark… But washes always dry lighter as far as I can tell.

Homebrew ink wash.

Here it is the next day. The mottled earthy colours peep out here and there, while giving the whole a uniform tone. I could have gone back and applied a second wash in places but decided against it. The images also show how reactive the paintwork is to different lighting, the look totally changing under harsh and soft light. I found that particularly pleasing.

Dry after ink wash.

Next was drybrushing. Bit dry brush, loaded with grey (same shade as the basecoat) bush into a paper towel until most of the paint is off the brush then apply to the surfaces. It picks up the highlights of all the textures and plays off of those shadows made by the ink wash. Adds detail, lighting and depth. It seems like a small thing, but it always lifts the look more than you might expect.

Drybrushing.

As a final flourish I brewed another wash, green this time. I wanted to suggest some moss or lichen on the walls. This is a cavern that isn’t looked after by Dwarves anymore, it has been forgotten, or used by goblins. It should have a hint of being unkempt or run down. I applied this wash in corners and holes in the walls, anywhere I felt water might run or gather on the surfaces. Depending on the light it shows in varying degrees and I really like how it came out.

Detail green ink wash.
Complete detailing.

At this stage I decided I wanted to make an alternate centre piece for the floor so I didn’t HAVE to use the display plinth all the time. If I wanted to use the board and not play the Balin’s Tomb scenario, it could be used as a generic stone cavern board. I cut a filler piece, tried to get a good fit (it’s not the best fit), then added some rubble for texture and as gaming scatter, then overlapped some floor tiles onto the main board to try and get it to blend.

Alternate centre piece.

I used the same paint process on the floor piece, and a slightly more detailed and refined approach on the plinth to get them to sit well within the environment. I used regular washes and took a bit more time picking out some of the lovely details in the casting, careful to maintain the tone and treatment so it would fit with the wider scene.

Final display plinth.

I went an extra step on the plinth and made textured ‘spacer’ bases. So when the characters move from the starting positions there aren’t lots of holes in the game board.

Spacer bases.
Complete alternate floors.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the result. It’s so far beyond my expectations when I started out. I’ve been learning at every stage of the project, figuring out techniques and trying new things.

Complete.

The next challenge will be to complete all of the miniatures to populate the board! I’ll update with more pictures as and when I can complete them and give a sense of proper finished scene.


Feel free to get in touch or comment below if you’d like to start a discussion.

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