Dungeons & Dragons is often referred to as one of the first “pen and paper” role-playing games (RPG), meaning that all you needed to play was a pen, paper, and a good imagination. Back in the day, that’s what we used, and we were thankful! *Shakes fist at the sky*.
Actually now that I think of it, we used a lot of graph paper. But not as a mat, more of a map of what we were in… a town or dungeon, or whatever else. As the years have gone by though and RPGs have grown in popularity, so have the accessories. Gamers have found ways to make their gaming more tactile (see what I did there), fully immersing the players into the game with the use of gaming mats, terrain, 3D models, and full-on miniature cities and villages.
Besides Dungeons and Dragons, there are plenty of other tabletop games that use similar terrain and mats: Warhammer, Pathfinder, Cyberpunk 2077, Vampire: The Masquerade, Fantasy Realms, Iron Kingdoms, Game of Thrones: Seven Kingdoms, Shadow Nations, Infinity, Malifaux, and dozens more. There isn’t a single one that wouldn’t benefit from a few additional bells and whistles!
Understanding what makes the best gaming mats
What are Gaming Mats and why should I get one?
None of the base versions of the games mentioned above come with any kind of game mat. Boo! Some games, like Warhammer, use ungridded battle mats with rulers to measure distance. Ungridded meaning exactly that, no grids on the mat. 🙂
Others determine character movement through blocked out squares. Each square is representative of 5 feet. If your character has a movement of thirty feet, you could then clearly mark out how far your character could move within six squares. Additionally, you can see where other characters are on the mat along with any terrain or obstacles that need to be avoided.
Think of it like a game of Clue, where your little piece moves one square for every number you rolled on the dice. They can enter and exit rooms, while also having to go around any other player’s pieces. Having a game mat allows the players to visualize the game in a way that is interactive and engaging.
With the help of dry erase markers, players can see where they are in relation to the big baddies they may be playing against and obstacles in their way.
Whatever type of game you are using, game mats add to the gaming experience, allowing the players to visualize the space their characters are in, measure distances more accurately, and add a certain level of finesse to your gaming sessions.
It’s a great way to expand your perception of the game world and that typically leads to more creative options. Seeing the terrain you can hide behind nearby, allows you to make use of it!
What are the best features on Gaming Mats?
The most important aspect you should be looking for in a gaming mat is flexibility, meaning that you are able to use it for different types of games and scenarios.
For example, I have a D&D Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated folding mat that is two-sided with a wood landscape on one side and rocky hills on the other that works well for the majority of our gaming sessions.
Durability is also important, as you need something that can survive constantly being pulled out and played on. Most mats come on chipboard, cardboard, or thick laminated cardstock. Be careful with folding cardstock as they don’t like to lay flat and get creases that prevent terrain and miniatures from sitting on the board.
If you do get one of these, you may need to also purchase a piece of plexiglass to sit on top. The same would apply for mats that roll as they typically don’t like to lay flat. This also gives the ability to draw without ruining the board. Any mat that uses a dry erase marker will allow for much-needed reusability.
Of course, you want to be sure that the mat that you are using is appropriate for the type of game you are playing and the space. D&D mats don’t work for Warhammer, however, they can be used for Pathfinder. Whatever mat you get, you need to be sure that it fits your table, as you want there to be room for your players to sit, interact, and play comfortably.
Finally, make sure that you have an easy way to store your mat or pieces, to keep from damaging them.
What are the different types of game mats?
The simplest form is gridded mats, resembling graph paper, that comes in a range of sizes. They aren’t anything fancy, but most work with dry-erase markers and like the Battle Grid Game Mat are made of highly durable material. You can also print your own through companies like Gamemats.com. These typically have some fancier art on them, but obviously wouldn’t be dry erasable if printed on regular paper.
If you want to add a bit more pizazz to your gaming, you can up the ante with gaming mats that feature specific terrains. Games Workshop creates great mats for Kill Team, a smaller scale skirmish game based on the Warhammer 40,000 game mechanics.
The game mats are 22”x30” and include terrains like an abandoned city, green meadow, badlands, cobblestones, shattered soil, and many more. Pathfinder Flip-mats also come with a variety of gridded terrains including battlefields, falls and rapids, desert ruins, wasteland, as well as basic terrains that include grass, dungeons, deserts, and woods. Whatever type of game you are playing there is probably a terrain for it.
Recently, I backed a Kickstarter project for a book of immersive battle mats created by Tanner Yaro. There are 30+ mats in one book, are all dry-erasable, and (perhaps my favorite part) come with a selection of peel and stick clings that represent terrain. It’s one of the more exciting projects I have back recently.
The next level is what is typically called, tiles. These versatile sets allow players to create their own boards, configuring the small tiles to their current gaming needs. Companies like Red Dragon Tabletop Gaming, Stratagem, and Roll 4 Initiative, all have puzzle-like tile pieces that maximize play and can be used in a variety of tabletop games.
After getting back into D&D a few years ago, one of the first things I did was to try and create my own tiles. If you are a bit crafty this can be done fairly cheaply. I am a particular fan of Black Magic Craft and DM Scotty whose step-by-step tutorials offer a variety of tips and tricks to impress your friends and level up your gaming table.
Even Black Magic Craft admits that tiles can be limiting though and has switched over to battle mats for most of his gaming needs.
Adding Terrain to your Gaming Mat
To be clear, gaming mats are typically the flat surfaces that go directly on a table while terrain is the elements that go on top to help augment the gaming mat. Terrain can be anything from a house to trees and even castles. Some are a blend of the two. For example, Dark Lord Miniatures created a set of modular 3D printed gaming tiles that serve as both game mat and terrain. I own a set of these and although they are perfect for dungeon diving adventures, they don’t work for every gaming scenario. Although, we do use the doors and steps that came with the set all the time.
Dwarven Forge has fully modular pieces from cities to haunted castles, combined into countless variations that are detailed and realistic. An artist from Weta Workshop (of Lord of the Rings fame) built his own complete village, based off Jim Henson’s movie The Labyrinth.
He first introduced his Hagglethorn’s Hollow concept on Adam Savage’s YouTube series Tested. With the immense amount of positive feedback he later created a Kickstarter that allowed for anyone to get their hands on his incredibly detailed and versatile terrain. There are also companies that create fully 3D elements for specific campaigns, like Tabletop Things that designs incredibly detailed but fully playable ships with two and three levels, along with docks and bridges.
You don’t have to go all out and spend hundreds of dollars on terrain though. Simple solutions for terrain can include making your own trees using wire and hot glue, rock walls from foam mats, or rivers using cloth, paint, and clear caulk. I’ve also had great luck at hobby shops grabbing up trees from Christmas village sets and small houses that were meant for fairy displays in a garden.
If you are into high tech solutions, then there are battle mats available for gamers that incorporates both tactile and digital interaction. With the use of a flat-screen television or computer monitors plus a little engineering, players can make use of fully customizable and interactive battle mats on a screen.
I’ve seen several ways in which players can do this, the easiest being to build a small box for the display device to sit in with a glass or plexiglass screen on top to protect the monitor or television. A more expensive option is a custom gaming table with a built-in screen. Either choice allows for digital terrain and mat and eliminates the need to store dozens of small pieces.
Once set up there are several websites that provide downloadable mats. There are Reddit threads, Patreon memberships, open source downloads, along with dozens of gaming websites where you can purchase bundles. Some, like Manny Sykes on YouTube include ambient noise and moving landscapes.
Whether you decide to go all out with expensive 3D models or try some DIY solutions, adding in some kind of gaming mat and terrain is sure to enhance your tabletop experience.