Review: Battle Mats, by Cigar Box Battle

By Bill Gray 07 Sep 2016 0

You likely won’t see a lot of new product reviews from me on wargamer.com, because let’s face it, companies are introducing new rules, new terrain types, and most of all, new figure lines all the time in just about every scale imaginable. If something out there in toy soldier land warrants a review from me, it has to be really, REALLY good or really, REALLY unique. Well butter my butt and call me biscuit, darn if Cigar Box Battle out of Nashville, Tennessee hasn’t come up with something that is both. The firm calls them Battle Mats.

To show why, let’s step back in time just a bit. An article or two ago I wrote about how tabletop historical miniatures gamers use board and computer games to support their hobby, particularly in the research department, with locating good maps of various battles being important. That process is only half the equation, however, as now that a gamer knows what the battlefield looks like, he then has to build the terrain board to match it. Obviously you could do a marginal job and call it a day (and having exquisite miniatures yet subpar terrain seems to be an affliction far more rampant in the Colonies than the UK), but given how visually oriented this hobby is, that seems a bit gauche to me. Nevertheless, building a battlefield from scratch is not easy and does take time.

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Let’s use yours truly as an example. I have a very large 6 x 10 foot felt cloth that I liberally sprayed with water based glue, and then even more liberally sprinkled with some sort of turf product from Woodland Scenics. I cut Styrofoam in the shapes of historical hills and drop them on a wooden gaming table, then drape the felt on top, tacking down the edges. Roads are also Woodland Scenics, but simply fine ballast that I pour in a thin line to duplicate whatever trail or highway I need. On top of that comes a bunch of other terrain articles that I normally grab from Doug Kline’s Battlefield Terrain Concepts company, and these include various type of trees, some on round bases and some in multiples, river sections, as well as pastures, crops, fields and the like. Often the latter have to be cut to properly fit between roads or forests. Then I grab tacks, a LOT of tacks, because in many cases the terrain simply will not lay correctly when it has to bend to run through a defile or up a hill. A tack, with some blue tacky stick rolled into a tiny ball popped on top, for example, will hold a single tree securely in place after you press the evergreen down on it. And then comes some foliage for ground cover, along with houses and rocks and fences and redoubts. And it only took three hours!

Before you ask, no I’m not kidding. It takes me about three hours to properly set up a game at a convention, one of the reasons why convention directors roll their eyes skyward when they see me coming, I’m sure. The terrain pieces noted above are very well made and look great, but cheap they are not. Right now I’m looking at Wild Grass Savanna 45 x 17 mm made by the German company Heki that I purchased from Doug last convention. We are talking $15.99 folks, and boy that field looks small for the price.

Enter Battle Mats from Cigar Box Battle (have no idea on the name) courtesy of Chris and Corey down south. What they produce is hand drawn, designed and illustrated terrain printed on sturdy felt sheets. In doing so the image is a top down view and has been specifically styled to mimic tabletop gaming wargame terrain as regards fields, rivers, roads and other features. These illustration types can actually be used without any modification as the feel and texture of the felt looks quite authentic, almost as if you are looking at the battlefield from an airplane or satellite.

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Indeed, the entire mat can be used as is, in a 2-D mode and look perfectly fine, but that was not the intent. The mats also include illustrations for forests, towns, hills, walls, bridges and a plethora of other fixtures, but these are really indicators for where the gamemaster needs to place his own 3-D forests, towns, etc, etc. For example, forests come illustrated as circular objects, so the idea is to place one tree model (with the convenient round base) on top of each tree image. You do the same for walls, foliage, buildings and so on, but hills are a little different. This is where a person uses the mat to cut a piece of Styrofoam to exact specifications, and then slides it underneath the mat to the section where the printed hill formation resides. Done correctly you will have a 3-D hill formation with hilltops colored to look like hill tops and slopes likewise. And because many features such as fields or roads are printed on the map, there is no problem involving model terrain features that won’t conform to a 3-D landscape.

Currently the company’s Website shows 77 products listed which run the gamut from apocalyptic ruins, to star maps, to cloudy sky backdrops to the entire battle of Waterloo. Most maps are 6 x 4 feet “Plus” and will run you about $ 69.00 US plus shipping, while the smaller 36 x 36 inch mats run about $ 55.00 US for each. Mats are made on demand, so expect a three or four week turnaround and overseas shipping is available. The scale of the mats indicate they are produced primarily for 15 and 10 mm figures, but many have versions for all those folks who remain as roadblocks to progress with 25 and 28 mm. All maps are machine washable so long as bleach is not used, certainly an advantage over my own system.

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Most of the maps are generic terrain types that allow for a variety of semi historical scenarios to be played. For example there are two types of European maps with forests and fields, and another with fields only. There are also other generic products for wooded American terrain, city fights, desert warfare and one for World War I no mans’ land. There are also some multi-mat combos, such as a seaborne invasion which not only includes water, but the beach and inland terrain as well. This thing is a whopping 12 feet in length, 6 feet wide.

There are several mats based specifically on historical battles, however. There is a complete line of American Civil War maps for use with the late John Hill’s Osprey published Across a Deadly Field rule set, to include Shiloh and Nashville. Obviously Gettysburg is covered, and there is also a mat for Waterloo and another for the Spanish American War engagement of San Juan Hill for all you Rough Rider and Tom Berringer fans out there. The Website also mentions that licensing is available, so I would imagine creating additional mats for other specific battles would not be out of the question.

Nothing is perfect, however, and I am sure that to many the price might well be a turn off. But in this case I wonder if the numbers can be deceiving? If you remember the Wild Grass Savanna from German was pretty pricey. If you need eight or nine of those things to make your tabletop set-up look right, then you are coming close to the purchase price of two Battle mats. I think this is a wash at worst.

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For me of course, the big limitation is the fact that I almost always host games about historical battles, rather esoteric ones at that. There is no way any company can cover all battles, even all the most famous or most popular. Then try something like the battle of Lule Burgas from the 1912 Balkan Wars. My guess is the odds of Cigar Box producing the necessary mats for this behemoth fall into the “not so much” category. Well, actually, I doubt anyone but me has ever heard of the battle to begin with. Yet then again, we have San Juan Hill. Really, guys, San Juan Hill? You have a mat for San Juan Hill?

But for a lot of folks this product will be the proverbial God send. If you think about it, there is a solid potential for saving some shekels to spend elsewhere by using Battle Mats. Likewise, time savings will be quite significant, and for those gamemasters who have had to pick up their toys after an eight hour slugfest now roll this all up and combine it with my own SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) that most tabletoppers play generic mission based vice history based games anyway, and then the popularity of such a product becomes quite evident. Most people are unlikely to host a game of the battle for Leipzig, but a lot might host a game of French and Allied advanced guards colliding somewhere in central Europe. For this, Battle Mats are perfect. It’s a niche product for a niche hobby, and it performs its role quite nicely.

The verdict? Well done gentlemen, very well done, and oh by the way, have you two ever heard of the Russo-Japanese War and the often overlooked battle of Telissu?

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