Historicon 2019 & The Rise of the Cigar Box Battle Mat

By Bill Gray 01 Aug 2019 3

Looking last week at what to write for today, the Boss asked me if I noticed any trends in miniature wargaming coming out of HMGS Historicon 2019. It didn’t take me a second to respond, “yes indeed,” and that the big trend was the significant proliferation of the Cigar Box Battle Mats terrain system, and something I first reported on back in 2016. What happened, why and where the trend is going forms the subject of this week’s epistle. Read carefully because there will be a test at the end.

The Issue

Miniature wargaming is at its heart a visual heavy type of gaming, with 3D terrain and military forces that physically look like the real thing from a distance. As one designer told me, when your miniature recreation of Gettysburg looks like the 100th anniversary reenactment of the battle, you done good. Obviously there are commercially manufactured figures, buildings, forests foliage, waterways plus the hues to paint them, but the base ground cover is another matter. Normally this was put together manually by the gamers themselves in the not so distant past.

Cigar Box 1

There were many ways this was done, to include the pathetic practice of just dropping a florescent green sheet down and saying, “this is grass.” Ancients tournament games are a lot like this, and the scheme is sadly much more prevalent in the Colonies than across the Pond. At the opposite extreme, and notably Bruce Weigel’s Franco-Prussian battlefields are an example, gamers would recreate the exact historical real estate for play, carving out Styrofoam and plaster to make hills, gouging out long lines and filling them with dark, clear liquid resin for streams, creating crop fields with paint, grass and foliage. Unfortunately, such work takes talent, time, resources and produces a product applicable to one battle only (because trust me, Spicheren isn’t close to Manassas). Also, easily portable it is not.

In the center are folks like me, who use a large sheet of medium green felt, soaked like crazy in Woodland Scenics water based spray glue, dusted with various shades and textures of the same company’s railroad turf, then spray glued again. Since the dusted turf tends to shake off a lot, repeat every month or so, though some folks will refrain from using any glue at all. They simply dust with grass, turf and foliage, roll it up, then do so again for the next game, and again, and again. This evidently produces a mixed ground covering that can just build up and be spread out for each game, effectively but potentially disastrously messy. Hills and elevation can be commercially purchased Styrofoam pieces, or custom cut by the scenario designer, then slipped underneath the cloth for hills, ridges and other elevations. The old GeoHex system is also occasionally seen.

Cigar Box 2

This last option was cumbersome, but was portable and generic enough that you could use accessories to recreate just about any battlefield going. And it was certainly a lot better than getting a huge swath of military cloth in 1980’s NATO desert camouflage, plopping it down and proclaiming, “See? Kuwait!”

The Cigar Box Solution

Cigar Box Battle Mats popped up around 2016 as the result of a successful Kickstarter. The concept was simple: Replace everything I said above by one of a variety of professionally designed and illustrated terrain mats. Various types of ground cover was represented, with both generic and specific designs available. You could, for example, purchase a map inked to look exactly like scrubland, or one exactly like Waterloo with all roads, fields, streams and more precisely imprinted. The color was a much more subdued tone, and thus looked more lifelike. Many mats had positions for tree placement and standalone graphics for crop fields and the like. This last design point solved the standing problem of how to get a commercially purchased piece of terrain that was made to lie flat, conform to the rolling elevations found on real ground. Likewise, maps like Waterloo had unique terrain for hills printed on the map, so all you had to do was cut out your resin or Styrofoam to the correct shape, then place it under the mat.

Well evidently, the concept worked because from humble beginnings the product line has grown to 100 items, the latest being an exact replicable of Stalingrad. Most are four by six feet plus (a couple of extra inches to allow for off the table hang), though you can also get many in three feet square. The size choice is logical because six feet is the max table width to allow players to reach the center, and length is usually four, eight or twelve feet. The material is washable plush felt, white on one side, terrain on the other, with the cost of the larger size a pricy $ 74.99 US, tho there is a sale on right now.

Cigar Box 3

Designs range from specific battles such as Gettysburg to San Juan Hill (and I have still no reason why) to generic landscapes that can be used for a variety of engagements, although terrain types may well be mixed in on a single sheet. Typical of these types are Grass Lands and Beach Heads. There are also some mats in-between in that they depict typical terrain settings with fields, roads and streams of which Winter and New Europe are examples, while some are produced for specific games such as Johnny Reb – Across a Deadly Field or Flint and Feather. Subject matter ranges from Medieval Town Squares to the Futuristic District 51 and anything in between, on this planet and elsewhere, in the air or on land or sea. A hex grid can be overlaid if desired and a circular mat is also available, as well as sheets with cut out terrain such as roads and fields.

Investing Historicon

And that’s what I pretty much saw a lot of at Historicon 19. When I am not shopping or gaming, I will be lurking throughout the entire con looking to snap great pictures that showcase the hobby in the most favorable light. This means excellent figures and top notch terrain, something I notice instinctively since I do this for Joe thrice a year. If there is a big change, I will likely catch it and this year the change was the terrain getting better, particularly the base ground cover. Well, lo and behold, upon further examination I noticed a lot of terrain maps with white reverses and... wait for it... the Cigar Box logo in one corner. No, I can’t tell you a specific number, but it was quite evident from an empirical perspective. A lot more gamers were using this product than had been in the past, including me.

Cigar Box 4

Also evident was the type of terrain mat used. I did not see a lot of Cigar Box stuff that was specific to a scenario, historical battle or rules set. Instead I saw a lot of generic coverings such as the revised Grassland mat, Scrublands and a lot of desert themed products. Likewise, these generic mats seemed to lean heavily on those patterns where more than one terrain type was printed on the sheet. In other words, Grasslands with its mixture of green grass and dirt areas devoid of vegetation, or the New Desert or Arid sheets with multiple shading. The Beach Head mat was likewise a winner, and I also concluded most gamers preferred to supply their own roads and streams vice those printed on the product. The exception was farm fields, which I saw a lot of. Not so things like Medieval Town Square or the Hive SciFi. Not that some mats like this weren’t there, but they were not the rule.

As to why the sudden popularity increase, speaking with a few folks it seems their reasoning was the same as mine, and price was not a selling point. These things are expensive. However, having to continually glue and dust with grass and turf was certainly not inexpensive, and after all, historical miniature wargaming is a resource intensive hobby. The big selling points were convenience and looks. The mats are not nearly as thick and bulky as regular felt sheets, so they fold up small yet seem strong. They also seem to lay flatter and conform to changes in terrain slopes and depressions far more realistically as well. And let’s face it, a Grassland mat professionally decorated with multiple ground coverings just looks better and more like the real thing. I found this especially true as regards the way hills and ridges turned out, and the plush map design does seem to give the illusion of actual turf. I used the new Grassland multi-turf mat for the two games I hosted and was very pleased.

Cigar Box 5

Marching Towards the Future

In fact I was so pleased, when I got home I ordered two more maps, the regular Grassland type, and not less than five minutes ago while checking out the company’s Website for this article, damned if I didn’t order two more. In this case it was the Mixed Terrain mat, and I have my eye on both the Scrubland and Winter Scrubland sets as well. Yes, they’re pricey, but the look and convenience factor outweighs this for me, and given my... distinguished, age plus how long it takes to paint an army to begin with, time is a big deal.

Will Cigar Box be there? Well it certainly seems so, as the experiment has proven such a success that the firm has announced yet another Kickstarter for September. In this case the project is funding for a new process that will print maps to order on both sides of the felt. Thus you if you want New Europe printed on one side and Arid on the opposite, you should be able to get it at a price substantially less than if you purchased the two mats individually.

Now add to that new designs on the way and shipping that habitually takes only a few days vice weeks as stated. Seems to me we might not have a trend here, but a full scale revolution.

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