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3D Map Sheet Information & Instructions

Due to many requests, I've provided some photos, as well as the following instructions, concerning the 3D map sheets we have made for use by our playing group. We find them a lot more fun, and helpful as well, when compared to 2D map sheets, and highly recommend them. Pictures of some maps created with this method can be seen here.


Foam - I use standard 3/4" (19mm) thick construction grade Styrofoam as the core for the levels. This type of foam is far cheaper than hobby foam found at craft or hobby stores, and believe me, you'll use a lot of it!

Map Sheets - We use the standard FASA/FanPro hex map sheets for this use. Of course, you could use any that you like.

Glue - While you can use any white glue like Elmer's, I find that Aleene's Tacky Glue works best. It's thicker, tacks quicker and doesn't sink through.

Foam Cutter - I use the one that looks a bit like a sand jigsaw, with a thin wire in place of the blade, and 2 D-cell batteries in the handle. You can use a saw or knife to cut the foam, but the hot foam cutter is quicker, easier, neater (you don't have Styrofoam fuzz floating everywhere) and it seals the edges as well.

Chenille "Bumps" - They're made like piper clearers, about 12" long, but the "fuzz" on them varies in thickness, from about 1/8" diameter to about 1/2" (3 to 12mm) in diameter. Shades of green or brown are best, but you can actually spray them to get variations. See the picture below to help clear up the explanation.

X-Acto Knife - While you can cut the map sheet levels with scissors, a razor or X-Acto knife works much better.

Heavy Construction Paper - Or construction board, basically thin (or thick) cardboard, used as a base on the map.

The Basic Map Design

Making a 3D map sheet isn't very difficult at all: you just decide how thick you want each layer to be, then cut them around the elevation contours and glue them up. As to foam thickness, I decided on 3/4". Most BattleMech minis are 1.5 to 2" in height, and 'Mechs are supposed to be 2 levels tall, on average (a Level in BattleTech is 5-6 meters, while 'Mechs are 8-15 meters tall). 1" foam would work just as well, therefore, but I found the 3/4" to work well, and it's cheaper and more readily available.

Yeah, but what about Trees?

What kept us from actually making 3D maps for the longest time was having a good way to represent trees. The 3D maps are great, but without trees, they are very lacking. Yet, every idea I'd seen for trees actually blocked entry to the hexes, making the maps useless. What to do?

My son to the rescue

Chris, my son, came up with an idea: why not place the trees at the corners of the map hexes, leaving the center of the hex open for the 'Mechs? That would allow the hexes to be used, as they needed to be, yet would give a forested look to the sheet. What a fantastic idea! This would work.

My idea came next: how about putting trees on every other point of the hex for Light woods, and every point for Heavy woods? That is, 3 trees per hex for Light, 6 trees per hex for Heavy. Of course, neighboring wooded hexes share the same trees, but that works out just fine. This made Chris's idea even better.

So what do we use for trees?

My wife came up with this one. The Chenille "bumps" she had used in the past for crafts were just the thing. These pipe cleaners varied in diameter several times over their length, giving each cycle, thin to thick to thin again, a length of about 3". Thus, we get 4 trees out of each 12" length of bump. We've also used Christmas needle type decorations for a different tree look.

If you like the color of the bumps, use them as-is. I like to lay them out on  newspaper, and overspray green or brown to get some variation in their color, rather than having them all be a very bright green.

After cutting them to length, I bend the top 1/4" or so over, so no sharp wire is exposed. The other end will penetrate into the map paper and foam, so don't bend them over.

The Base

You need to start out with a good base for your map sheet. Unless you have some kind of backing on the bottom of the foam, gluing the map to the top results in the map foam warping, and rocking on the tabletop. Also, the foam I use is only about 14" wide, thinner than the narrow dimension of standard map sheets. Having a paper or cardboard layer on both sides allows you to splice together the pieces of foam, making the result stronger. You can use any material you like for the bottom, from plywood and Masonite, to cardboard and heavy construction paper. I usually use a heavyweight construction paper; it's cheap, and it works.

Cut a piece of the backing material for the map exactly the same size as the map sheet itself, using the map as a guide. This will help everything to together better later on.

Before starting the base, Plan!

You'd think you'd just start gluing, right? Nope, you have to do some planning first. At least you do if your map sheet has any levels at all. Basically, you want to make up only one level at a time. And unless you want to use multiple map sheets to get one 3D sheet (a real waste), you need to plan ahead.

So, take your map sheet, and carefully identify the division between Level 0 (normally any hex which doesn't have an elevation on it). It doesn't matter if it goes from Level 0 to Level 1, or Level 0 to Level 8, that division line is where you're going to cut. You can do it by eye as you go along the outline, watching indication of elevation levels by text or color change, but sometimes it's easy to make a wrong cut. You can use a thin, black pen or marker to plan your cut ahead of time, helping to eliminate the possibility of error.

Depending on the map sheet you're using, you'll end up with a rectangular map with intact outer sides, with irregular cutout areas (areas higher than Level 0) in the center, or sometimes you'll have higher levels at the outer edge of the board, making the map a bit trickier to work with.

Then take the Level 0 area (normally most of the map sheet), lay it face down on a flat surface that you won't mind a bit of glue on (newspaper helps; I use a glass table that glue scrapes off easily). Put the tacky glue all around all edges of the map, and zigzag some extra glue in larger center areas. Then place one or more pieces of foam in place, preferably even with one or two sides. If you're using two pieces of foam here, put glue on the joining edges, as well.

Now put glue all over the top of the foam (which will be the bottom when it's in playing position), and place the cardboard bottom in place, being sure it's even on all sides with the map sheet paper on the bottom. Then put a bunch of books in place on the sandwich you've just made. TRO's and source books work out great for this purpose; what can't they be used for? ;-)

Let dry. Several hours at least, overnight isn't overkill. You need this to remain very flat until it's completely dry, or it will warp, which you don't want. It won't matter so much about later layers, but it does here.

After the map sandwich is completely dry, you can trim the foam that sticks out beyond the map sheet itself with the foam cutter. You can paint, tape or seal the edges, or leave them alone, if you're lazy like me.

Add Level 1

You need to add 1 level at a time, carefully. Do not cut the remaining pieces into multiple levels yet. We're on Level 1 now, and you have in front of you cutouts that represent everything on the map that is not Level 0. You therefore need to have a form base for each area that matches the size of these cutouts.

Take each cutout, and position it on a piece of foam, minimizing waste (scraps work great for small pieces). If the level is entirely Level 1, you can go ahead and glue the map section to the foam. But that normally won't be the case. Where the Level 1 piece also has some higher level areas, rather than simply gluing it in place on the foam, lay it on the foam and use a felt marker to draw the outline of the entire piece. After doing so, you can cut out any areas from the map pieces which are higher than Level 1. These won't be glued on at this stage. (Sometimes, the entire piece is higher; that's okay, the same operation applies.)  Again, when you cut, plan ahead and keep everything higher than Level 1, in that same map section, in one piece if possible.

Then, take the remaining part of each Level 1 map section, put glue on the back, and glue it to the top of the foam. Note that the foam is not in place on the base map sandwich yet; it's easier to cut if it's separate. If a section of the map portion has been cut out because it's higher than Level 1, then use the felt outline on the foam as a guide to its location.

After the glue is dry, use the edge of the map sheet sections to cut the extra foam with the foam cutter. If a section of map, which will be higher, is missing, then use your felt outline to cut with.

Cutting map pieces out this way, even with the foam cutter, can be tricky; the cutter tends to melt the foam, it's difficult to keep vertical, and you end up with lots of grooves and waves in the vertical areas. But that's no problem, they look great. Hillsides do get eroded, don't they? Once painted, they'll look just fine.

After you've cut out the outlines, you can glue all the Level 1 sections in place, using the bare foam exposed through the Level 0 map board as a guide to its location. I like to use books here to hold them solidly in place, but it's not as critical as when you make up the base sandwich.

Repeat for each Level

Go through the above procedure for each level, only doing a single level at a time. Yeah, one some maps, that's a lot of work; but the results are worth it, I promise you. The more work put into a map, the more impressive it will look, and the more fun it will be to play on.

What about the white foam edges?

Well, that's up to you. We started out mixing a matching paint to the map sheet, using only acrylic paint (no lacquer sprays, and watch enamels; acrylics are best on foam), and even painted in the roads and streams. After 4-6 map sheets, we started getting a bit more careless, and I must admit that I haven't even painted some of the latest we've done. But whether you paint them or not, they're just as usable. But you will probably get more compliments if you spend at least a little time painting them.

Finally, the Trees

The trees are the most fun. I like to overspray my trees with brown and green paint, to get more variation in their color, as in real life, but it's not a necessity. This goes real quick if you just lay them out on newspapers in your garage, flip them, and then do the other side. The idea is not to completely cover them as mentioned above, cut the chenille bumps into pieces about 3" long, at the narrowest part of the length. Bend over the upper 1/4" with pliers, or fingers if you're tough, to protect from injury later. You're now ready to place them on the map board.

Through trial and error, I've found that the trees go into place best if you have a hold already started. I use a large pin, with either a T-head or plastic ball, to put the holes in where required. I'll usually go over a sheet, putting the holes in, while my son positions the trees.

It takes just a bit to get used to the hole pattern. If you have a single Light woods hex, choose any "point" of the hex (the exact area where 3 hexes touch each other) and place a hold there. Then, for the Light woods hex, skip the next point, then a put in the second. Skip another, then the 4th. You'll have a total of 3 holes for the one hex. If it's a Heavy woods hex, put a hole in every hex point. Then go back and push the trees in. Usually you end up with about 2" of tree sticking above the surface, which looks about right.

It gets a bit trickier where hexes meet each other. Sometimes it's best to plan your pattern first, but even if you don't, the worst you end up with is a few extra small holes. Obviously, a Light woods beside a Heavy woods will have trees a bit closer on the side that adjoins the Heavy woods. And sometimes you're best, for the sake of tree sturdiness, to put the tree at a higher or lower level that the hex actually is. But you still have the text on the hex to rely on, if it's not completely clear.

So, How do they Play

Your completed 3D map sheets will be a ball to play on. You have to "nestle" some of your larger 'Mechs into that Heavy woods hex, but they fit fine. The sheets look great, and attract a lot of attention. Which was a nice change from everyone gathering around the Warhammer 40K tables at games night. A couple things to watch out for:

You will probably lose some small 'Mechs. They are camouflaged so well, especially in Heavy woods, that a small, green 'Mech can actually be forgotten about. We've had people forget to move them, and we've had people move 'Mechs right in front of a 'Mech that hadn't moved for several terms, giving the hidden unit a fantastic back shot, because they are oftentimes hard to see.

Some map sheets, with narrow, high valleys, are tough, even impossible, to fit some larger 'Mechs into. Try getting that Kodiak between a 1 hex wide valley, with level 2 hexes on either side, and you'll find the 'Mech doing an imitation of a gymnast's performance on the parallel bars, complete with rocking back and forth! A small price to pay for the 3D map, in my opinion, and a fun time at any game regardless.

The trees can get bent over, especially if you stack them during transit or storage, but they straighten back up well. Or, you can imagine as we did once, that a hurricane had just come through.

Other Ideas

Come up with your own ideas and additions to the 3D sheets. We've made some 3D buildings out of foam as well, or used pieces and bits from other sources. We've talked about having a few red "trees" made up to represent fire in a hex, that could be added or removed as required, and even a cotton ball or so to represent smoke. Whatever you do, it's fun, and certainly adds to the enjoyment of the game.

Please let me know of any ideas or solutions you've come up with that work for you.

And if you haven't looked at the map sheet pictures I have posted, you can take a look at them here.


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