Conceptual Diagonality

datetime June 19, 2014 7:39 PM

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I haven’t written a rant in a couple months, so let’s see if I remember how to do that.

I figured that if I’m going to start talking about Infinity, I should probably start with what made me decide to get involved with the game. And it’s probably not what you’d guess.

  • It isn’t the game’s setting, even though I find the setting fascinating and a really creative break from the GrimDark and GreyVsGrey universes in so many other games.
  • It isn’t the sculpting opportunities, though I do really look forward to trying some full sci-fi sculpts.
  • It isn’t the ruleset, even though they could scarcely have come up with rules better-suited to poke my brain’s reward center.
  • It isn’t even the minis line, despite the fact that as far as I’m concerned, Corvus Belli is putting out the best gaming minis on the market– the sheer dynamism and detail in their current line is just mind-blowing to Sculptor Spud.

No, those are all awesome things, and they’re all contributing to my current enjoyment of the game. But the first thing that drew me in, and the thing that has consumed by far the largest chunk of my time since my induction over the last two months, comes down to two words:

Space Buildings.

As soon as I saw people playing Infinity at my store two years ago, I loved the setting design and the minis and was even slightly intrigued with the rules, but I knew I didn’t have time to actually get into any of it. However, even knowing that, I stated flatly to my friends who were playing it that despite having no intention at the time to play, I would make them some buildings. And while that didn’t happen at the time due to a long string of cancelled group terrain days, the ideas never went away. At this point I’ve had Space Buildings bouncing around inside my head for the better part of two years, and so when I finally sat down and started sketching things out, it was less an exercise in design, and more about just transcribing the pictures that I’d long since assembled in my brainmeats and putting them out where other people could see them.

I love making terrain. I probably love it more than I love sculpting or writing or drawing or coding or any of the other taps I use to relieve the creative pressure that builds up behind my face. Terrain is a drawing you can reach into and set things down on; it’s a carefully-geared machine shaped like a beautiful flower. I like to make cool-looking things and I like to make things that work, and terrain is the only thing I do that scratches both itches at once. For me, terrain starts as formulae and diagrams on a page. My brain thinks of a shape it likes, and then projects that shape into a 3D space to figure out what supports and reinforcement it needs to fill out its volume and hold up its weight. There’s never any doubt for me about whether a piece of terrain will work or look good, because the construction is completely finished on paper and in my head before I ever start. Sometimes I do make ugly terrain, but I always know it’ll be ugly when I start– sometimes pretty isn’t as important as just getting something done.

Despite loving it, though, terrain has always frustrated me because while I’ve enjoyed the activity in the abstract, I’ve always had to build things I didn’t like. I started out playing 40k, and was really frustrated that the rules of that game more or less required you to make buildings that were smashed to pieces, because the massive buildings in the art would be totally useless in an actual game where you need to move 200 models across them.

When I moved onto Warmachine a decade later, I had two frustrations. The first was the same as I’d experienced in 40k– Warmachine the game doesn’t work if your terrain makes sense. People at my store react in reflexive horror if I offer to set up boards for their games, because they know I’ll build a scenic village with 14 buildings, roads, fences, a nice forest, a town square, and a little well on a hill. Or I’ll dig out the winter terrain and build a thick forest on one side and an open plain on the other. When I’m constructing my own terrain pieces, I have to build houses that are just square-ish voids in space– you can’t go in them, and you can’t stand on them, and they can’t be more than 5″ on any side or models won’t have enough movement to get around them. The standard Warmachine terrain setup of “two corner forests, one corner hill, one corner building, one teensy rubble pile in the exact center, 95% open terrain” grinds on my soul because it doesn’t look like any environment that would actually exist in our world or the one we’re pretending to play in. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s a tactical snore to play on. But if I build anything more elaborate, it doesn’t get used, because dense terrain isn’t used in tournaments and Steamroller has poisoned so many Privateer players’ minds into an intractable belief that play that isn’t utterly antiseptic practice for tournaments is devoid of merit.

It’s frustrating.

The other (and less bitchy) problem is texture. When I made 40k terrain, the assumption was that pretty much everything was made from concrete, so I could just glue flat cardboard and styrofoam together and it looked exactly like it was supposed to. But Warmachine is a Steampunk-ish setting, and one of the things that draws people so much to Steampunk as a genre is the gorgeous density of texture that we don’t see nearly as much in our modern day. The wood is polished to bring out the grain, and covered in intricate filigreed dragons and flowers. The metal is etched and has open panels to expose whirring gears and pumping pistons. The clothes use intricately patterned cloth, stitched together into redundant panels and embroidered with more dragons and flowers, all lashed together with utterly pointless buckles and snaps.

And the buildings? They’re set on a foundation of layered stones held in by wooden piles, with walls of individual planks hammered together with nails and reinforced by iron bars studded with rivets. The roofs are individual wood or slate panels arranged in intricate rows. The windows are covered by hinged wooden shutters over a wood grid over glass over drapes. The houses are traced with zigzagging stovepipes that let out into cone-hatted chimneys, and the stairs leading up to the house are more layered stone with cast iron railings that spiral at the bottom.

Steampunk is beautiful. We love it because it harkens to a time when things were hand-made and a craftsman was rewarded for spending time on individualized aesthetics worked straight into an item’s function, which is something that’s lacking from our polished plastic present.

But let me tell you– all that beauty is a SUM’BITCH to build.

I love holding a finished steampunk building in my hand, but I hate all the work that’s required to create one. Texture is the hallmark of the genre, so you can’t skip it; but actually attaching and painting all of those goddamned rivets is something that was never fun and only gets worse each time I have to do it. I buy textured plasticard to cover some of the most annoying textures– roof slats, brick, stone, and so on– but those are basically sheets of bubbles, and require tedious manual putty work at every single corner. I build whole buildings out of Starbucks coffee stirrers– which, I won’t lie, is actually hugely entertaining– but they look weird without rivets, and all the ends need to be trimmed to length, and the wood needs to sit on top of a metal or stone foundation in order to make sense. Windows look cool, but unless they’re actually clear and have curtains and rooms behind them, they look bizarre.

Steampunk terrain drives me mad, because the fun part– making functional walls and floors and doorways to match the schematics my brain drafted while I was absentmindedly driving or pooping– is only about 20% of the process. If I stop after the fun part, all I’ve built is a rectangular box. Turning it into a believable terrain piece requires a dozen hours of texturing and painting that wipe out all of the enjoyment I got from the structural part.

But if I making Space Buildings? Well, if I’m doing that, then that rectangular box is a zigzag-shaped craft foam panel away from completion.

After 15 years of making terrain that alternates between ugly ruins and tediously-rendered craftwork, I’m finally looking ahead at terrain that represents exactly what it is: geometric shapes squeezed out by a machine, paneled with more geometric shapes. I don’t need to visually communicate how the building was assembled– foundation, struts, rivets– because some space engineer designed it as an Ikea kit that packs flat and drops from space to be assembled by spacepeople armed with space Allen keys. I don’t need to communicate the materials things are made from– fieldstone vs masonry vs brick vs slate vs boulders (and that’s just the rocks)— because everything is supposed to be plastic. A universe that’s been squeezed out of a 3D printer is much less annoying to model than one that’s been assembled piece by piece.

Space Terrain solves both problems that have frustrated me over my terrain-making career: players’ aversion to playing on complex and realistically laid-out terrain pieces, and the ceaseless drudgery of mimicking hand-crafted materials. With this new game and this new batch of players, I can quickly produce smooth structures without them appearing lazy and half-assed, and people will actually play on and enjoy them.

And that, lady and gents, is why I offered to make buildings for a game I originally had no intention to play. I’ve spent the last two months drawing diagonal buildings in anticipation of a building spree, and I figured I’d share some of those drawings with you today to give you an idea of where I’m going.

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This was my first doodle, and it was mostly me trying to get oriented to the exercise. I started with the road on the left to figure out how to draw elevation changes from an isometric perspective, and added the building on the right to play around with constructing a large volume in that lines up with an imaginary 3D grid.

As I was working on these, it occurred to me that it would be tremendously useful in my terrain adventures to come up with and then stick to a set of standards to let all of my pieces lock into each other. Heights would all be multiples of some number of inches representing a “floor”– in this drawing I used 4″ as my unit of measurement, with the 4″ tier of the road rising up on an S-shaped path to connect to the 8″ level of the building (though I kind of messed up the scale a bit between the two).

Additionally, everything would be set up to use a standard connector to let everything link up. You can see the connector scattered all around the drawing above in the form of the double dots at most of the edges.

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The connector is fairly simple: I’ll be covering almost all vertical surfaces with a layer of craft foam cut into snazzy geometric shapes, and the “male” end of the connector starts out as a simple rectangular void cut into the foam. A pair of pegs is then set at a precise width within the slot.

The female connector slots into it– it’s a rectangular piece of some solid material (plastic or metal, ideally) with holes cut at the same precise width. Once connected to the male side, the two form a relatively flat surface together, and hold well without being totally jammed together (which might cause damage to the terrain when someone tries to unhook them later).

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When building things, I would scatter M joints on horizontal surfaces anywhere I want to create the possibility of a connection point– anywhere a walkway, staircase, elevator, computer terminal, or other accessory might want to plug in. Then, I create a whole bunch of those accessories and stick F joints on them, letting me connect any accessory to any connection point.

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Once I had this basic system in my head, I filled a few pages with really rough drawings of different ways to use it. Mostly I was looking to create connectors– horizontal connectors to go from building to building, and vertical connectors to get models between floors of the same building.

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Even within the same basic idea, there are different ways to implement it with different effects on gameplay. Here I’ve built two different staircases– the one on the left is a straight staircase that exposes the model ascending or descending it to fire from models facing it. The one on the right has two flights of stairs, with railings protecting the upper flight and a solid wall protecting the lower flight. The second staircase is thus much safer to travel across, as only models hugging the building on the left side can get a free shot at models traversing it; on the other hand, it takes a bit more movement to completely get across it due to the landing and the fact that a model will end up right next to the building’s wall when they get to the bottom..

This is one the things I love about Infinity– rather than getting in the way of gameplay like they do in Warmachine and other army-scale games, buildings and terrain features define and enrich a tactical skirmish game. Different configurations of staircases, ladders, walkways, buildings, and so on create tactical puzzles that need to be analyzed and solved, ensuring that no two games are exactly the same.

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At this point I was feeling more confident about the isometric style and the attachment system and tried a few more advanced ideas, and ended up with some awkward components.

For the path piece, I wanted to see how the path system I started the exercise with would connect to the modular buildings; in the end, I think it ends up being a bit complicated, as you essentially need to create a junction piece for each standard height (4″, 8″, and 12″) to ensure that you can link any path to any attachment point. And what’s more, you’d need multiples of each one, as the path will likely have 2-4 termination points at minimum, and any of them can be any height. So if I did create a path system, it would require a really large number of pieces to work, beyond the straight and curved sections I already knew would be needed. This in turn made me realize that the paths might work best with variable-height supports; either ones with removable support sections that let you shove blocks under the various joints to account for whatever height you need to join at (so in this drawing, the support on the right of the path would be separate from the path itself, connecting with pegs or magnets) or some sort of extending/collapsing struts.

So, no matter what, paths become a lot of work.

Another awkward piece was the hanging ladder. For this one, I wanted a two-level drop, with a building entrance halfway down. To do this, I have a ladder dropping down to a platform, with an “undefined” drop the rest of the way by leaving an open slot with a standard joint. This way, I can finish the drop with a staircase, another ladder, a short elevator, or not drop at all and connect the platform horizontally to another 4-height platform nearby.

The awkwardness here came when I realized that I might be overcomplicating things. While connectors within connectors within connectors creates a really fun lego kit for building little cities, it starts to create a situation where I’m building a fractal terrain set– I make 5 buildings with 5 connectors each. Of those 25 connectors, 15 of them branch out into more connectors, requiring 25 more accessories to slot into them. Those accessories also continue branching out, and ultimately I have a terrain set that can’t actually produce a finished city until I have 100 pieces completely assembled and ready for play.

I paused after this drawing because I could see where the exercise was leading me– the very familiar bottomless pit of “OH MY GOD I DIDN’T REALIZE THIS PROJECT WOULD BE SO MUCH WORK BUT IF I STOP NOW THE LAST SIX MONTHS OF WORK WILL BE TOTALLY WASTED”. AKA, my refrain in the middle of every project I work on.

So at this point, I put the modular city system aside and thought about what I could do on a more manageable scale. Coincidentally at this point, I had started replaying Mass Effect for the fourth or fifth time, and running around Horizon at the start of the second game gave me a good solution. As I mentioned already, the infinite terrain set I was envisioning above was mostly a set of connectors to move horizontally and vertically around a set of tall buildings. But in Infinity, height is actually a very powerful advantage, and I was starting to learn in my initial games that it needed to be reined in and used fairly sparingly. So rather than building a jungle gym that requires ladders and stairs and elevators to get around, why not make a system of smaller, shorter buildings that come together to build a maze?

Shorter buildings make vertical transitions much less critical, and focusing movement on one floor (rather than running around on 3-4 functional floors of taller buildings) means that the only horizontal “connector” models need is the ground itself.

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With a clearer idea of what I wanted to build, I set about figuring out what these buildings would look like. The fluff I wanted to reflect was that of “portable, temporary colony buildings dropped from space until something more substantial can be built”. I would building a number of pieces based on a common set of building blocks, with the intention of having them all appear to be manufactured from a template.

This drawing was me brainstorming wall textures. I’m going to be building 20-30 of whatever I decide to make, so I needed their exteriors to look interesting while being fairly mass-producible (in real life, not in-universe). I ended up using bits and pieces of a few of them– I liked the horizontal stripe from Middle Left, the window from Top Left, the jutted-out volume from Top Right, and the repeating hex “mountain range” pattern of Bottom Left and Middle Right.

With these ideas in mind, I did some more sketches and landed on a design I really liked:

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The pear-shaped sections are manufactured in bulk, and then jammed together by colonists in whatever quantity and arrangement that suits their needs. The zig-zagging walls provide cover for gameplay purposes, letting models hug the protrusions as they advance up the side of a building.

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The standardized modules allow me to construct the terrain set in “building blocks”– this would be a straight section with attachment points on both ends, for example. On either end, I can add another straight section, an end piece with a door, or an angled piece to take the building off in another direction…

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…like so. The angled piece here is quite large (taking up 6 “rows”), but I could also make a much shorter one with as few as 2 rows. Making a variety of components in this way keeps the terrain interesting and gives people lots of options when setting the board up.

The landing pad bridge is a useful piece in that it gives me a way to continue a long building while letting models outside the building get across it; bridges over these long buildings would be somewhat annoying to cross, but it’s fairly straightforward to build elevated walkways that models outside on the ground can walk under.

The pieces on the left are examples of top details that would socket into the rectangular slots on the top of each piece. I thought it would be neat to make a large variety of these items and let players socket them in wherever they wanted, but on further reflection and observation of the condition of my store’s current terrain, I think this will likely result in pieces being lost and broken. So in the end, I think it might be a better idea to just attach these types of details straight to the modular blocks, and let players place special details where they want by the simple act of choosing which component to put where– eg, choosing “Mid with solar panel array” over “Mid with ladder” to sit in a place where the board needs a tall piece of blocking cover.

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Here’s a cleaner rendering of a bridge. I’m planning to make these pieces either 3″ or 4″ tall, with the idea that the “floor” within each module is actually about an inch up (lining up somewhere around the top of the black stripe), which will be reflected in the placement of most of the doors and windows. So wherever I want to create a bridge, I’ll need to lift the walking surface a further inch to ensure enough clearance for models to walk underneath.

A bridge piece like this would have a removable roof to let players plonk models down within it.

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Here’s an example of a much smaller bend piece with a room jutting off the side of it. I was trying to decide how the manufactured pieces would be modified to accommodate curves– this one was inspired by two-segment “accordion buses” that I used to ride when I lived in Ottawa– the hard outer shell is gapped by a flexible rubber or fabric piece that lets colonists turn the piece to any angle they need.

I’m still debating whether to go with this “soft material” approach for bends, or to simply make a modification to the hard panels. I’ll need to do some more design sketches to figure out what that might look like.

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Here I’ve started designing the array of “end caps” that will define the kit; the simplest building I can make is just two end caps pushed together, with all the other middle bits just making the buildings longer and forming them into more interesting shapes. End caps will vary in length from 1 row to 3, and each will have different shapes and sizes of doors to reflect their differing purposes– this one is a door leading out to a small cargo deck that I would probably load with a few crates.

I really like the stair design I came up with here; you can see it repeated a few times throughout the other drawings. Not only does it look neat, but it’s fairly easy to build. 🙂

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Beyond adding visual interest, the different permutations of end caps create different movement patterns for models moving around the game board. In Warmachine, you’re generally moving through wide open areas, and movement is usually just a matter of “distance from start to end”. In Infinity, however, the exact path of your movement is crucial, as stepping half an inch too far out while rounding a corner can expose you to covering fire that you might otherwise have slipped past.

This is one major reason why I’ve set the doors an inch off the ground– it’s an excuse to put a platform, walkway, or staircase outside every door, which lets me determine the direction of travel for models traveling through that door. In this case, it’s a T-junction– models entering the building can very easily go left or right, but if both sides are being covered by snipers, they can make a climb check to see if they can manage to vault the debris straight ahead.

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This one, on the other hand, is completely open– it lets models travel any way they like. By having a mix of both restricted and open doorways, I force players to stop and think about every doorway they want to enter, potentially choosing a further entrance into the building that’s easier to approach.

All good terrain should encourage decision-making like that. In Infinity, it’s usually a question of “short path vs safe path”; In Warmachine, it’s often “path I can traverse but my enemies can’t”. When you give players decision points, you give them opportunities to make good or bad plays, testing their skill. Decision points reward good thinking. 🙂

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Here’s a slightly more complicated end piece– not only does it get models from the ground into the building, but it also gives a way to get them on TOP of the building. Through vertical transitions like this (as well as ladders, roof hatches, and so on), my terrain set will essentially have three different “zones” that interplay in various ways:

  • the ground zone that is easy to travel around but leaves you exposed
  • the indoor zone that is very safe, but restricts you to pre-set paths
  • the roof zone that gives you the cleanest firing lines, but has little cover to offer

That last one is very important– most Infinity terrain is designed with guardrails all over the place, letting models gain the benefits of elevation while always keeping them protected from enemy fire. However, in my few months playing the game, I’m beginning to conclude that always combining elevation with cover isn’t balanced. This goes back to decision-making– if a decision point has an “always best” option, then it isn’t a decision point at all because it doesn’t test the player’s skill. Since “where to stand and walk” is half of the game of Infinity, deciding which of the above-listed zones to travel through is a major decision-point; but if elevation is always covered from all sides, then it becomes purely better than traveling on the ground, diminishing the decision point.

In the boards I’ve been setting up, I’ve experimented with stripping cover from rooftops wherever I could, and I’ve found the results to be very rewarding. The three travel zones all have different strengths and weaknesses, and players need to carefully consider where any given model will perform at its best. It varies depending on the game situation, but for the most part:

  • Elevated positions are offensive. Elevation “trumps” ground cover, letting snipers pick off models moving behind crates, or letting a crazy guy with a shotgun or flamethrower ambush an entrenched position from above. But since the roofs will have only sporadic cover, it becomes dangerous to change positions.
  • Ground positions are for speed. The open ground lets you pick your own path instead of following a pre-set one, letting you cut diagonals and cover the maximum amount of distance with any given order.
  • Indoor positions are for protection. While indoors, a model is invisible to the outside until it decides to go base-to-base with a door or window, letting you move a model some distance across the board without any chance of being shot. The downside, of course, is speed– not only do buildings not always “point” in the direction you want to travel, but you’re also limited by where the doors are placed. Your guy and my guy may be 2″ apart, but if there’s a wall between them, you’re going to need to run around and find a door or window before you can draw a bead on him, “wasting” your movement.

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This one started as a bit of a joke. My army are Knights of the Order of Santiago– aka SPAAAAAAAAACE CATHOLIIIIIIIIIIIICS! 😛

Santiago Knights live on space ships, escorting pilgrims between planets and keeping them safe from Space Pirates and other Space Inconveniences. This fluff of this terrain set is based around a recently-formed colony, so I figured that my Knights escorted the colonists there, helpfulling donating a Space Church for the colonists to use.

I knocked this one out quickly at the bar, but on further reflection, I decided that it’s much too small, and doesn’t vary enough from the standard kit. So the final piece will be a fair bit bigger and more elaborate. 🙂

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The last drawing I have for you today was an example of me exploring how this terrain set could be made to link up with larger structures– for example, this big greenhouse/lab/whatever. Including the standard zig-zag attachment point is the obvious first step, but I’ve also continued the black stripe on the main building and repeated some of the shapes, tying the corridors and the large building together and making them appear to be of similar construction.


 

And that, dear readers, is what I’ve been doing for most of the last two months. Infinity is a very fun game and boasts a gorgeous minis line, but for me, the main attraction is an opportunity to produce what I hope will be the best terrain work of my career.

With the design stage mostly complete, the next step is bulk production. I’ve begun the long process of cutting out the hundreds of panels that will compose the set (a process that was greatly helped when I discovered that the bookstore at the college where I work sells foamcore and box cutters 😀 ), and then I’ll move on through detailing and paint. This process is going to take quite a while from start to finish; I’m probably looking at 3 articles over 4-5 months before everything is ready to rock.

It’s going to be a huge project, and I’m sure I’ll be sick of it when I’m plugging through cutting out the 76th window frame, but at this point I couldn’t be more excited as I look at the work that lies ahead. 🙂

-Spud

4 thoughts on “Conceptual Diagonality

  • Plarzoid

    These drawings are gorgeous! I really dig the system you’ve devised.

    Also, I think this project is the prefect excuse to try out and learn molding & casting.

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  • lordbubonicus

    These look amazing. I like the first system you came up with a lot, but I can see where it would easily turn into endless terrain. As for the one you’re adopting, with the modular habitats, it really does remind me of Mass Effect. So good job there.

    I also tend to agree with you regarding Warmachine terrain. Although I enjoy tournaments, the boards do tend to be a little boring. At my club nights we often play with very terrain heavy boards, but there’s still not really much of a story to the terrain; it’s more just stuff thrown on the board at random.

    [Reply]

  • Mrs Goldstep

    fun! I hope the excitement for this that you have now sustains you through the project.

    If you’re set on having flexible bendy bits like the busses you might check out some of the hoses etc available in auto parts stores to see if something there might work & shave off some time/ effort for the right look & functionality. idk just an idea.

    [Reply]

  • Volt_ron

    Sweet JEEBUS! These look amazing!

    I hear you on the WM terrain. The typical “SR setup” bores me to tears, and I’d be lying to you if I told you a little piece of me didn’t die each time someone breaks out felt “terrain” pieces…

    [Reply]

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