On the Building of Zones Mortalis

For me, Warhammer 40K has always been about void war. It’s what got me into it, it’s what my Heresy army is themed around, and I think it’s what makes for really amazing looking tables. Zone Mortalis is my jam.

I also spent about 9 months last year on a labor of love table to enable me to play either a 6×4 table or two 4×4 tables worth of void war action. This was a massive investment in time, and money, and hobby resources, and it wasn’t even a Forge World table (RIP). But between that, playing a fair number of ZM-style games, and the new terrain set making it more accessible than ever, I thought it would be useful for future hobbyists for me to write down my thoughts on constructing a ZM board.

Decide on Your Scope

For me, there are two scopes here – a practical, playable board, and a Magnum Opus.

The board to end all boards. An 18×6 layout of the gunnery deck of a Cobra destroyer with a bank of batteries and a Raspberry Pi hidden in the floor plates to control the LEDs and sound boards to simulate the guns firing – and controllable via your phone. A four foot tall decaying hive spire with furniture and moldy wall paper and improvised barricades. A multi-story promethium mining rig the full size of a table, it’s support pillars rising out of a good 9 inches of clear cast resin and wave effects, with water vapor machines hidden in some of the machinery (this last one is mine).

If this is what you’re doing, I have no advice for you. The world is your oyster. American Express would like to verify you haven’t been kidnapped.

Now, for the rest of us, working on actual, playable boards, rather than testaments to mankind’s hubris…

Decide on Your Style

I’d argue there’s actually two styles of possible Zone Mortalis board, even though we often don’t talk about one of them. They are:

  1. The traditional winding walls and corridors of a void ship, secret lab, underground mine, etc.
  2. Just a ton of scatter terrain.

I don’t have a whole lot of advice about that second one, save to say I think it’s worth considering. Why? Because I think it’s actually one of the easier and cheaper ways to build a board. And why is that?

Shipping containers. Just tons and tons of shipping containers.

Tight confines, sharp corners, effectively impenetrable walls…sure, they come in nice, orderly rows in actual life, but there’s no reason to build a board like that. After all, most laboratories have long, straight, well-lit hallways, and I very much doubt that if we ever have relatively mundane space travel that the engineers in question will go “Now make it all twisty and get rid of like…75% of the lights.”

Some scatter terrain and a ton of cargo containers could make a serviceable board if one wanted to go that way. And I actually think it would be fairly unique. I got this idea from playing on a Narrative Guys table at the LVO many years back – even with a relatively sparse set of structures, there was definitely the beginnings of the type of movement restriction and longer-term planning required for a “proper” ZM game.

Just imagine using like…five times as many containers, and you’d be set! And if you’re part of a club or have a local tournament scene, they could easily pull double duty for a number of other tables most of the time. And most of all, they’re cheap. Laser cut MDF shipping container designs are…myriad. Toss in some industrial style scatter terrain and a few chunkier LOS blocking buildings, and you’ve got I think a decent approximation of a board.

Then there’s the traditional way, which is what we’re going to talk about for the rest of the article.

Decide on Your Scale

Just how big do you want this thing to be? Honestly, to start with, I think a 3×3 table or a 4×4 table is perfectly workable. It’s easy to go “No, I want to go BIG” but the advantage of most ZM style systems is that you can mix and match and expand over time. For example, if you have a 3×3 terrain set, and want to use it in a bigger game? Use the ZM table as a sort of “sub-table” for a narrative mission, where first you have to breach the zone before you can fight in it.

But you should have an idea of what you want to start with – because I found in building mine that I always needed more material than I thought I did, and it felt good to be building toward an idea, rather than just “Bulkhead Door 17 of 28”. It’s also a good way to help define what you’re looking for. If you’re going for a 6×4 table, you have plenty of room for “and” – as in “…and a detention block and a hanger bay and the plasma generators”. With a 3×3 table, like the one above, you’ve got to be more focused. Your board will be about just one thing, maybe two. That will help inform what scatter terrain and other little “features” you want to add alongside your board.

If I were doing it again, despite my ambitions to the contrary, I’d probably start with a dedicated 4×4 table.

But there’s another aspect of scale to consider – how dense you want your terrain to be. The conventional Forge World-style Zone Mortalis layouts are remarkably restrictive in their movement. A single Contemptor-class Dreadnought is easily able to block an entire hallway and create a bottleneck. Anything larger than that is genuinely going to have a hard time moving around. That can be awesome for tactical decision making and adding some complexity to the game, but it can also be confining. For example, if one of your local players does a lot of “Big Scary Monster” armies – Tyranids, Battlesuit-heavy Tau, Iyanden Eldar or certain Coven-oriented Dark Eldar lists will have genuine trouble moving around. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing that you should consider. An easy way to do that is to try to figure out what’s the largest model you want to have be able to move freely?

And don’t forget you can mix it up.

For example:

Looking at this board, it’s a fairly open layout. The upper and lower parts of the board (as well as the left bit, which is off camera) are organized very much into conventional fairly confined hallways with limited room to move. The “landing bay” on the right side, as well as the room next to it are, on the other hand, deliberately designed to be open spaces. Both because it matches with the mat underneath in a way I like, and because these are intended as points of a last, heroic struggle one way or the other. They’re also more open to allow the Dark Angels who will be playing this particular game room to teleport in (as we decided would fit the Deathwing best) with plenty of room to do that.

Separating these is something of a “Zone Mortalis Sniper’s Alley” which I actually really liked. Keeping to cover means a fairly long trip, but in two turns with some good Advance moves you can be across the board – but you’re exposed to that Vindicare assassin. This was intentional to give said Assassin something to do, and actually had a huge impact on the game. But this board layout also confined those War Walkers to certain areas – they could operate with impunity in the larger hangar-type areas, but were ineffective when it came to trying to intervene to assist in some of the smaller rooms. You could also considerably tighten up this board with the addition of scatter terrain – a few Sector Mechanicus pieces, a Goliath truck, etc. could turn one of the larger rooms quite small.

But again, this is a decision to make – this board, for example, didn’t even really need “Zone Mortalis” style rules – it was just very terrain heavy. But with the addition of a lot more doors, bulkheads, etc. your complexity grows.

I would, for the record, keep the board mostly, if not entirely, single level for the purposes of 40K games. If you’re hoping to pull double duty with Necromunda, things might be different, but in my mind multi-layer setups add a lot of complexity, difficulty of construction and room for disagreement for not all that much payoff.

Decide on Your Color Scheme

Obviously, you’re going to have to paint all of this. And Zone Mortalis terrain is a lot of terrain. It’s exhausting, and it’s monotonous in many ways, and it took me a very long time. So keep it simple. To my mind, a simple prime, zenithal highlight, basecoat, and some bit of shading will do you just fine. For me, that was black primer, white ink, Minitare Concrete Grey, and then a spritz of Payne’s Grey ink on top and some Burnt Umber ink on bottom. The “OSL” lights are just white and red and not all that carefully done. The metal bits are Scale 75 Black Metal or Victorian Bronze. No shades, no careful blending, no extra-extra layer of highlights.

Other options, of course, abound. You can get a lot done on plastic or resin terrain with oil washes (I haven’t had the courage to try it on MDF) in a particularly economical fashion. There’s some great tutorials out there, but that will let you establish some depth and patina affordably and quickly. I think two points are particularly important though. The first is don’t go wild with the details.

Consider this GW Necromunda Bulkhead. There are screws. Metal frames. Bolts. Pipes. A cogitator. A vent toward the bottom. Wires. The light. The protective cage around the light.

You could lavish this with detail, and it would look great. But you’ll go nuts. That relatively open, not particularly wall heavy layout above? It’s got 50-some sections this length. Plus other parts. This is also true for weathering products – would some dirt and rust weathering powders make things look really great? Yes. Could you use the dot-filter technique to really bring some depth to the metal? Also yes. And chipping fluid would have a field day with this stuff. But it’s important to remember that while this is expensive terrain, it is still terrain, and the purpose of terrain is to be painted moderately well. It shouldn’t ever overshadow the miniatures themselves, and going utterly ham on detail work will get in the way of actually using this for its intended purpose.

So pick a nice scheme, a couple ways to draw visual interest, and go from there. One nice bit is after awhile you’ll have pretty good muscle memory.

This is also definitely either airbrush or rattlecan work, for the record.

Decide Not To Try to 3D Print It

Alright, I’m going to deviate from the apparent pattern this article is taking in terms of headings now.

“But you love your 3D printer!”

I do. It is my precious terrain-producing child.

But 3D printing is slow. Zone Mortalis-style terrain is especially bad, because it’s got lots of details, and is fairly thin, so the way most filament-based printers work, they don’t get to use many of the things that let them speed up, like going in straight lines or using infill (filling the interior space with a less-than-solid lattice of plastic). I don’t have a lot of Zone Mortalis-style digital files because I sometimes follow my own advice, but I do happen to have a “Space Hulk Doorway” that we’ll use as an example. In comes in two pieces, so the door can slide out. Lets print it at my standard “Good enough for Terrain” settings.

It’s going to take six hours by the time the printer cools down (it’s also an optimistic time due to some technical reasons about me ignoring that that door is hella skinny). And if you want to save time and load up your build plate, trusting your printer to do a lot of these in one go so you can say, go to work and let this humm away?

A set of 11, which fills up my fairly large build plate, will take about 64.5 hours.

And there’s a couple assumptions here. There’s no failures (when, according to AstroPrint, there’s an average failure rate of about 25% on all their user’s prints for various reasons). And if there is the wrong kind of failure, you’ll lose not one door, but all 11 of your print, and the two and a half days that went with it. We’re also assuming here you don’t run out of filament. There’s no cleanup or assembly to do (like sinking magnets into pieces to get them to go together). And assuming those failures don’t result in something like a blob of doom, which will at best take a lot of time to undo, and at worst can take your printer out of commission while you want to spare parts to fix broken thermisor wires or other things that come along with failed printing misadventure. People who follow me on Facebook know that one such mishap resulted in a snapped timing belt and probably a week and a half to two weeks of downtime while I sourced replacement belts, disassembled the print bed, installed them, etc.

3d printing is…just bloody slow. In that amount of time, you could have assembled an entire MDF set, or one of the new Games Workshop plastic sets, and been done. Rather than just being the proud owner of…11 doors. That’s not to say it won’t potentially be worth it – I’ve seen some spectacular tables made this way, from industrial zones to shanty towns. And they look great. But they inherently kick things into that “magnum opus” category, and most of this article isn’t intended for people just looking for a multi-year labor of love.

My advice? If you’ve got an unlimited budget, take a look at the GW kits. If you don’t find a local purveyor of MDF (Deathray Designs is my favorite) and buy one of their sets.

This is not to say that 3D printing doesn’t have a place on a Zone Mortalis table. There are great uses for the scatter terrain I’ve mentioned. For what some people call “gubbins”, etc. Want to put a big Mechanicum symbol on a door? 3D print it. Want your layout to be a gun deck and want a bunch of Macro Cannon turrets? 3D print it. There are tons of files for chemical tanks and orbital cannons and void shield generators and the like that are readily printable and will breathe life into your board. In my opinion, those kinds of details will really make a board pop. Cogitator banks on the “bridge”, piles of cargo in the loading bay. Things like that.

Those can come from kits, those can be 3D printed, but those will really elevate things without bogging you down in spending the next 9 months printing instead of painting, let alone playing. It also helps with consistency – I’ve found that for lots and lots of terrain, it’s easier to bite the bullet and do it all at once, even for someone who is, admittedly, not a fan of batch painting.

The exception to this is if you want something that genuinely doesn’t exist in a kit form, and even then, I’d try to convert something rather than print it. That Geiger-esq inside of a Tyranid hive ship? Probably a good candidate. But if you just want an infested Space Hulk? Buy some green stuff and one of those tentacle maker kits and corrupt-up an Imperial design.

Decide on Your Play Surface

This will change things a lot too. You’ve probably noticed in the shots of my own stuff that there’s an awful lot of F.A.T. Mat style mats. They’re my preferred surface to play on, and at this point I have a ton of them for different projects and tables. But this will also impact the time aspect of things – if you want the full Forge World tile floor experience, you’re going to have to figure out that as well. For me, that was out of the question because of the space flat tiles take to store. But your surface will impact a lot of the other choices involved as well. Especially in the case of a mat, you want to coordinate the feeling of the surface with the feeling of your terrain – there’s a lot of “Sci-Fi” that can still end up feeling discordant – dirty, industrial walls with a more polished “Infinity-style” aesthetic on the floor being the one that springs to mind immediately.

It’ll also impact your layout and painting schemes. Consider this Frontline Mat:


First, it’s very clean. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s definitely a decidedly cold grey/blue color pallet, which would make weathering harder. You’d have to lean more on Payne’s Grey, and the quick and easy Burnt Umber patina is less easy to pull off. But it’s also extremely linear, with a few clear visual open blocks like the “C1″/”D1” landing pads, etc. and strong, long open lines. That would make the twisty, confined ZM layout most people are looking for hard to pull off without clashing with the surface underneath – as cool as it is for a more open style of void ship table.

Alongside this issue is if you want your layout fixed or movable. Frankly, I would almost always go for movable, but fixed positions are especially good for those “Magnum opus” layouts mentioned above, where you’re not willing to sacrifice detail for modularity, you want the bloody footprints you’ve stamped onto the deck to go in a particular direction, etc. Those can be powerful narrative boards, and really cool to play on, but that’ll take some careful designing.

Project Management

Or: Decide to Use Trello.

I’m kidding, but only a little. A full-scale ZM board is a big project, and inherently a pretty expensive one. This goes double for MDF, where things are expensive to ship. And it’s easy to lose track of where you are – and the motivation to keep going when you’ve got three dozen more short wall pieces left to work on. And it goes triple if you’ve ignored the advice about 3D printing – what you really don’t want to do is spend 48 hours waiting for a new wall section to come off the printer only to discover that you don’t need one.

If you need a cautionary tale, the Samurai board I’m on? It does take about 24 – 36 hours to do a section of those. And while I had the impression I needed about eight corner wall pieces, as it turns out I only need like…the two I’ve already printed. And definitely not eight. Really glad I figured that out before I printed out another six.

Take the time to lay out your board, figure out what parts you need, etc. before you wade in.

And then build yourself a little slack. I’ve got a few sections of MDF ZM walls that…just got screwed up one way or another.

Building a table like this is a major hobby project, and it’s probably worth spending some time at the outset to map out the path.

This will also help for the inevitable course corrections that will happen. Something is going to go wrong. Be prepared for that and take it in stride. Have an idea of what you can flex on, and what you absolutely can’t. This also helps with incorporating new ideas that strike during the project – where do they slot in? What needs to change? Does the project have room for your new idea, or does something have to change?

Weathering Covers a Multitude of Sins

In the pursuit of moving quickly – don’t overlook weathering. Oil washes are, relatively speaking, cheap and not very difficult to do if you’re doing them in volume. A small smattering of the right type of weathering powders make for quick…everything from rust to industrial buildups to glowing fluorescent goo.

The key with a ZM board is to balance that idea of detail and eye catching effects with not overshadowing the models. Subtle weathering can actually do really well at both of those things, adding a lot of depth and complexity to a model while allowing hasty paint jobs (like a basecoat and then sponging a highlight color on) to actually look really great. And because weathering, traditionally, relies on fairly muted colors, most armies will still pop when put on a table in a way they might not when there’s a bunch of highlights meant to “pop” (Iron Warriors and Death Korps being obvious counter examples).


So there it is – my thoughts on how to approach building a Zone Mortalis table. Now if only the the Floor Tile set was ever in stock…


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1 Comment

  1. So it might be worth checking out Hirst Arts molds, in particular their Sci-Fi Projects section ( https://hirstarts.com/projects.html ) . I’ve got most of the molds for the Robot Factory project (AKA Roborally) as well as a few other molds. At some point I want to do up a nice 3D Spacehulk set.

    Casting out of Dental Plaster has several advantages over 3D printing, though it can still be quite tedious (especially when you need like 10 runs of a particular mold) it’s in general a fair bit faster. One run (ideally of a bunch of different molds) can easily be accomplished in 30-45 minutes.


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