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Cardboard Ruins

by Craig Hardt

Cardboard RuinsEvery so often on the terrain discussion forums this question comes up: "I need to fill my entire gaming table for Wargame X for a gaming session in two weeks but I don't have any money to spend. What do I do?"

To solve such a dilema I decided to set about finding a project that met the following criteria:

  1. easy enough for the beginning terrain builder

  2. creates a lot of terrain quickly

  3. is fun and useful on the game table

  4. inexpensive to build, yet durable

  5. uses common tools and materials found around the world

  6. can be reused in a variety of gaming worlds and settings

Note that "lots of detail" or "historically accurate" is not on the list. This is a project meant to crank out as much useful terrain as possible on a low budget and tight schedule.

I decided that if I could only build and use one type of terrain it would be ruined buildings. Across all gaming worlds, fantasy settings and far future sci-fi lands there are almost always buildings. Small ruined walls can be used as barricades, the individual buildings rearranged into fire bases, create ruined city blocks, or recreate a medevial village ravaged by war.

Materials and Tools

For those who might be using this as a guide to their first terrain project I've included everything you would need. This is by no means a set "recipe" and you'll want adjust the tools and materials to those you already have on hand.

Cardboard ExampleCorrugated Cardboard - If you can find it use the double-corrugated cardboard in heavier shipping boxes. Look at the cross section and you'll see two layers of corrugation. When the double-corrugated isn't available I find it is worth the time to make my own by gluing two layers of single corrugated cardboard together. Single-corrugated cardboard can be used but I feel it looks less substantial in the finished buildings. The picture on the right shows the double-corrugated cardboard cross section(top) and single-corrogated cross sections(bottom).

Thin Cardboard - This can be found by saving product boxes from breakfast cereals, crackers/biscuits, backs of notepads, etc.

Plastic Tubs and a Plastic Spoon - These are needed for mixing glue, filler and paint.

3/4" or wider masking tape - Tape is used to cover the exposed corrogated edges and to add strength to joints in the buildings.

Paint - At the minimum you'll need black and white paint. Black will be the primary base color and using black and white you can archive a variety of shades of grey to do the dry brushing with. Any dark color will work for the base coat. I was lucky enough to find pints of acrylic black, medium grey and light grey paints at the hardware store in the mis-tinted section for a few dollars per pint so check your local store.

Mini Hot Glue Gun (and Glue Sticks) - A small glue gun is actually quite inexpensive and will save a lot of time. The hot glue holds very well, hardens fast, and can be used to fill gaps. Find a model marked "low-temp" so you can use it with styrofoam and the lower temperature glue also won't burn you as easily.

White Glue - Also known as PVA glue, Elmers&tm; Glue, Craft Glue, Weldbond, or Tacky Glue.

Sand - I collect mine at a local beach. Hardware stores also carry 50 pound bags for a few dollars. You could substitute the sand with sawdust or even dried dirt from the garden.

Ready Mixed Filler - This is sold in tubs for repairing holes in walls. The powdered filler that you just add water to is cheaper but takes time to mix. I also found that I would over mix too much filler and have to throw the extra away. The pre-mixed tub saves time, is consistently mixed and you can use just a little at a time.

Medium Grit Sand Paper - Use to sand the edges of the base (if you use wood) and the finish of the buildings.

Utility Knife - Don't try to cut corrugated cardboard with one of those small "X-Acto" style knives, you just can't get enough leverage, and buy the heavy-duty blades if you can.

Metal Ruler - A metal ruler is a great investment and will guide the heavy blade of the utility knife for nice straight cuts. A metal edged wooden ruler could be used but I recommend finding a 12"-16" metal ruler with the anti-slip cork or rubber backing.

Multi-Paintbrush Set - There are some very inexpensive brush sets out there with a variety of sizes. Make sure that you get a large 1/2" - 1" brush with the set and they have relatively stiff bristles that can take a lot of wear. I do not recommend watercolor brushes - these are much too soft. You could get away with using a single 1" brush for this entire project but the smaller sized are nice to have.

Spray Sealant (Optional) - If you can afford it get some matte finish acrylic spray sealant. This will protect all your hard work from chipping and only takes a few minutes to spray a group of buildings.

Base Material (Optional) - A well based building looks good, adds weight, the building will be level, adds structural integrity and protects the finished building from damage. You can design ruins to be free standing without bases to cut costs but for a few dollars you can get enough basing material for your whole gaming table. Any material of your choosing could be used as a base but I prefer 1/8" hardboard as it is heavy, strong, and resistant to warping. MDF is also a popular choice. You'll need at least a hand saw and some "C" clamps to cut the hardboard if you decide to use some. Hardcore terrain builders have a jig-saw handy for cutting out bases.


For this exercise I'm going to create three different example buildings:

  1. a ruined wall

  2. the classic ruined corner

  3. a multi-level ruin

Walls are nice to have on hand when setting up a table to fill in gaps and provide cover in blank areas where you don't want a full building. Ruined corners have lots of cover value for their small size and usually have an area for models to fire from an elevated position. Larger ruins take the longest to build but also can give you the best places to fight over. Placing a critical objective inside a large building is always fun.

For your own project you'll save time by creating several buildings at once. Ruins don't require a lot of planning but you do want to think about the types of games they will be used for. I like to have at least 3" between floors so players can more easily reach in and move their models (and for easier painting). Keep an example model on hand so that doors, windows, and areas of cover are large enough to accommodate the types of models you'll be using. Storage is also a factor - don't make the buildings so large that you can't store them easily.

In the next part of this article we will begin construction.

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