Terrain in Warhammer 40,000: Three Schools of Thought

More than any other element outside of list building, terrain influences the outcome of a game of Warhammer 40,000.

The exact positioning and type of each piece can make an objective easy to defend or easy to take, make entire units immortal or instantly dead, and turn a close game into a rout.

Frustratingly, the game is played on three distinctly separate styles of terrain – player placed (popular in the Western USA and anything in the ITC circuit), GW Open Standard (played at GW Opens) and WTC (favored by most of Europe).

Each of these favors different kinds of armies, different play styles, and different ability levels. Very few people have played on all of them, and very few places talk about the different varieties and how they change the game.

Player Placed Terrain:

This is the wild west of terrain sets, varying greatly from store to store and event to event. Player placed terrain tends to be as loose as “everyone has the same number of terrain pieces in approximately the same size” to “everyone has literally the same amount of every piece that is identical”.

Non-standardized player placed
Standardized player place

In both of these cases, a good deal of the game comes down to who can successfully manipulate the battlefield before the game starts in order to get a big advantage in the game.

Obscuring terrain typically cannot be placed within a certain number of inches of other obscuring terrain, and no terrain can be placed closer than 3″. This leads to the ability for the person who places the first piece (the defender) to bully the opposing player off the central objective pretty easily (see the right hand pic, the Knight player has guaranteed a massive sightline by putting a big piece central on their half).

This makes the roll off for who deploys first almost more important than the roll for who goes first, and adds another layer of complexity to the game which can be trapping for new players.

Here you can see the Custodes player has done a MUCH better job of protecting their game plan of take over the center and mess with the top side of the table than the Knights player has. The bottom floor of the obscuring terrain on the central objective means the Knights cannot interact with that unit of guard, and the Knight player boxed in their War Dogs badly with their own awkward terrain setups.

Proponents of player placed terrain like how easy it is to acquire a board worth of pieces and how much it lets them make the table work for their army. It also makes each game play out extremely differently, as each table should, theoretically, be very different.

Critics don’t enjoy how variable each game is, how much each individual terrain set changes the game, and how difficult it is to play against some of the more oppressive gunlines when they don’t have to put down blocking terrain in relevant locations on half the table.

GW Open Terrain:

GW open terrain is extremely standardized. There are two layout options:

The blue pieces are about 12″ x 12″, the red ones are approximately 5″ x 10″, and the yellow squares are 5″x5″. These are all area terrain, which means the entire footprint follows the specific terrain rules listed there, and then each piece has 3 dimensional components on the top.

Here you can see a layout 2 game about to start, with the clear acrylic bases marking the full area of each terrain feature and the 3 dimensional portions above them adding additional height and interest.

Here’s an example of table layout one. The walls facing towards the center of the table works really well for some scenarios and really badly for others.

Proponents of the GW terrain system like how standardized it is and how easy (relatively) it is to set up a full table worth. People also like how much obscuring area there is and how much light cover armies can get against punishing gunlines.

Critics would argue that these table are very difficult for non-infantry, non-flying lists to maneuver around on, and how same-y the games can be. It also makes deploying extremely difficult on some scenarios where you want to influence more of the table but have to deploy behind/in specific squares on the table nowhere near those objectives.

WTC Terrain:

WTC Terrain is an intense mix of the strictness of GW Open terrain and the variety of boards that can be achieved with Player Placed terrain. It uses by far the most amount of terrain on the table out of all three types, and is designed for 8 player teams in mind. That said, most of the maps are still totally appropriate for single and tournament play.

Their boards use five distinct terrain features.

Credit: WTC Terrain Packet

And there are 24 specific terrain layouts that cover each scenario with 8 potential layouts per scenario. Here is an example of what they look like:

With 15 to 16 pieces of large terrain per table, these boards are dense, highly obscured, and reward planning ahead and practice immensely. They also have highly detailed placement diagrams like this:

I have yet to play on these tables yet – more on that in a minute – but I can see the appeal. Lots of obscuring terrain to make oppressive gunlines less powerful, plenty of angles to move around the map, a few very long firing lanes on each side, and lots of space to hide in deployment zones will make for perhaps more interactive games. I have serious concerns about how much better this makes going second vs. going first in general, but I am ready and willing to test that hypothesis.

The Plan

This article kicks off an experiment that’s going to take a couple of months to fully complete.

First, I’m going to be making some WTC standard terrain out of foam core. I was initially going to try and make it out of something a bit more solid, but it looks like that’s what the official WTC terrain is made out of anyway. I’m likely going to freehand it all, but that might change and if I make some templates I’ll likely upload those to our Patreon.

If I can find some deals, I will mimic the GW open terrain to the best of my ability, and I’ve already got the acrylic panels they use for the bases on order.

In the meantime, my local opponent and I are going to play a pair of games on player placed terrain, take a ton of pictures, and write or talk about the experience in videos. Then, we are going to do the same thing on GW standard terrain and again on WTC terrain, and compare notes.

Along the way, I’ll be writing about the process, and dropping mini-updates on YouTube as well when things crop up.

If that sounds like a good time to you, you can follow the progress in a bunch of places!

As always, if you want to read more content about Warhammer: 40,000, Conquest, or Marvel: Crisis Protocol there are many articles to be found on this very website! Consider subscribing to the Line of Sight Youtube Channel, and joining our Discord! Finally, if you want to support our content directly, check out the Line of Sight Patreon.

2 thoughts on “Terrain in Warhammer 40,000: Three Schools of Thought

  1. Great article on the differences of terrain. I am looking to have a fair and balance terrain set up at home and there is not much out there i can find on what format is best. WIth 10th edition released can you do a follow up article? also interested in where you found the acrylic panels for the footprints of your terrain. Feel free to reach out to me via email or perhaps direct me to a more recent article. thanks for writing.

    1. I’ve only played one game of tenth, but when I’ve got some more experience I do plan on releasing a follow up article.

      What I’d probably do is wait for the WTC to release their tenth edition terrain packet and then just do what they are doing, I’ve found their layouts to be really good.

      The clear acrylic panels were from a GW open, but if you have a local machinist or know someone with a laser cutter they should be able to hook you up.

Leave a Reply