Book Review: Terrain Essentials, by Mel Bose
I watch a ton YouTube videos about making terrain for tabletop wargaming and roleplaying. Some of the best are Black Magic Craft, Geek Gaming Scenery, and Terrainosaur, but there are so many more, and I learn something from each one.
But there's the law of diminishing returns when it comes to these things: the first time that you watch a video about how to make wargaming terrain it seems foreign and weird and you don't know the lingo or what the materials are. Eventually you learn some of the words and maybe have bought a few of the supplies and tried things out on your own. Maybe you've started to follow along with a project they're doing and--hey--you're getting pretty good at it. This is where the diminishing returns comes in: you start getting less and less out of each video.
Don't get me wrong--I love it when a new Black Magic Craft video comes up in my YouTube feed, but I'm also at the point where Jeremy is doing stuff that I can do. He does it differently, with his own brand and style, and that's what makes it so much fun, but the skills--the skills I've got down.
Which brings me to the subject of this article: Terrain Essentials: A Book About Making Wargaming Terrain, by Mel Bose, The Terrain Tutor.
Mel Bose is next level. While other channels know a lot about wargame terrain, Mel Bose IS wargame terrain.
I kind of compare it to my skills with modeling to the skills of a professional model railroader: there is such an exponential difference in ability and knowledge that I can only stand in awe as I watch the trains go round and round.
I make wargame terrain that looks like wargame terrain. Mel Bose makes wargame terrain like he's captured a mountain, shrunk it to miniature scale, and laid it on the tabletop.
Is Terrain Essentials An Accessible Book?
With all of this praise of Mel Bose you would think that I'm going to tell you that he's nothing but advanced techniques, and, while he has a LOT of advanced techniques, I have to admit that it took me a long time flipping through this new book to get to them. So much of it was pure basic craft knowledge: what paintbrushes to use, what glue to buy. But it gets even more basic: he starts with terminology, like what does he mean when he says "element" and what does he mean when he says "feature".
He does this because he is writing a common language that we both can speak. We have to understand the alphabet before we can read Dr. Seuss, and we have to read Dr. Seuss before we can read Charles Dickens.
The beauty of Terrain Essentials is that it takes so. much. time. in leading you along the way that there's no way that a terrain noob can fall behind. 12-year-old me could have picked up this book and begun to use it. 43-year-old me can pick up this book and begin to use it. In other words, it's comprehensive.
It's got 191 pages of pure content (plus some additional pages at the end thanking his many, many Kickstarter backers).
Does Terrain Essential Look Good?
I am stunned by how good Terrain Essentials looks. I'm a writer, and I know a thing or two about publishing, and I know that it must have been a gargantuan effort to put this book together. There is so much original photography: good, clear, illustrative photography. It doesn't ever look like he was taking screenshots of his many (terrific) YouTube videos. It looks fresh and new and crystal clear.
And the book design is good, which almost certainly isn't something that Mel Bose would have done himself, but which I recognize as being really top quality, from the type face to the layouts. It really makes me wonder if they made any profit off this book at all. (I hope they did.)
What Blows You Away By This Book?
The attention to detail. Just as an example, when discussing the making of trees, there are step-by-step instructions for painting bark. Okay, you say, that makes sense. But there are step-by-step instructions for painting the bark of six different species of trees: European Oak, Silver Birch, English Beech, Pine, Red Maple, and Sweetgum. And this is the level of intricacy that Mel brings to everything in this book.
Yes, the first hundred pages are explaining what the heck XPS foam is and what filler is and what kind of knife to use. All of that is to be expected. But the second half of the book is how to pour different colors of resin into the same puddle so it looks like some of it is contaminated with ooze. It's explaining the differences in various types of snow, from slushy to powdery, and how to recreate each. It's taking absolutely terrible-looking teddy bear fur and somehow transforming it into the most realistic-looking thatched roof I've ever seen on a tabletop.
I don't know how he does it. I know that Mel does a lot of these wargaming boards on commission, but where he learned this absurdly advanced level of skill I don't know. I'm sad that his channel rarely puts out content anymore, but I truly believe that every wargamer should have a copy of this book on their (virtual) shelf. (I don't know if there's a print version; mine is a PDF.)
And lest you think that this overly-glowing review is tainted in any way: I don't know Mel Bose, I paid full price for this book, and I was not asked to write a review. I just love it.