February 9, 2010

Gaming Setup 101: A Portable, Cheap, Kick-arse, Battle Map or Homemade Tact-Tiles, the Lazy Way

UPDATE 7/6/10 - Great Victory Widgets seems to be no longer in operation (their Web site is down at least).  Also, Longtooth Studios does seem to be producing its version of Tact-Tiles.

I wrote up how to make nice, huge white board battle map before. The problem with that thing is that it's not going anywhere (it's 4 ft x 8 ft). This is fine for me since I host the D&D games I play in, but if you are a traveling DM, it's not much help.

If you're fine with using a vinyl battle mat, then that is the easy way to go. Personally, I've grown to dislike these because they only work with wet erase markers. Wet erase is old-school in the bad way. It's messy and a pain and, if you're clumsy (like I am), you're bound to get water all over your precious gaming books and notes.

A few years back, a company called BC Products made Tact-Tiles, puzzle-like white board pieces that you could assemble for battle-map goodness. A lot of folks really liked these, but they must not have sold well enough because BC Products stopped making them. That is a shame because they are a great idea. In addition to being a portable, dry erase surface, a lot of DMs like them because they can pre-draw battle fields for upcoming game sessions. When it's go time at the table, the DM just puts together the puzzle and, tada, place your minis and start rolling dice. On top of that, the DM can lay out the map bit by bit (e.g., as the party explores the dungeon) for the ol' "fog of war" effect. Personally, I don't have that kind of prep time, so I have to stick with "ok, everyone go get a beer or use the bathroom, I have to draw the huge temple you're going to die in."

Great Victory Widgets is now making a product under the Tact-Tiles name, but it doesn't appear they have any direct link to the original makers (given the "Don't get your knickers in a knot" trademark disclaimer on their site). Unlike the original, these new ones are clear and wet erase. Again, wet erase stinks. On top of that, these things will run you $95 for a set of 8 (although FRP Games has the same set for $85.00). $95 or $85 - that is a damn hefty price, especially for wet erase.

To be fair, some might say that $95.00 is not all that bad when you consider the amount of use you could get out of these. Hell, if you're a video gamer, the price is less than two video games. Ha, double hell, as a table top gamer, you've likely spent more than that on RPG books that see little use. Still, it's hard for me to plop down that kind of cash for something like this. Maybe it's because when I buy RPG books, it's at $20 or so a pop, and not in the $100 ballpark.

I'm guessing the new Tact-Tiles are made of plexiglas. For some reason, plexiglas doesn't appear to be suitable for dry erase, but only wet erase. The Great Victory Widgets site explicitly says their tiles are wet erase (they toss in a free marker!). The Avenger Ultimate Game Table uses plexiglas and its makers also explicitly state they use wet erase markers. I don't understand this as other folks use dry erase on plexiglas (see this ElephantStaircase DIY Dry Erase Board article). However, I'm assuming there is a reason or else people would be doing so

On the other hand, plexiglas is transparent. That is why the guys behind The Avenger Ultimate Game Table use it for their surface. They can place whatever map they want underneath (e.g., a D&D grid, a BattleTech hex map, etc.), and then go to town. I just don't see transparency as being a big plus for the new Tact-Tiles. First off, the tiles are already scored with a grid, so you don't need a grid underneath. On top of that, it sort of eliminates the "fog of war" feature. If the DM is placing them over an existing map, he'd have to hide the unseen areas of that map until he put the tile down. I'm sure Great Victory has their reasons for using plexiglas, but I can't figure them out.

Longtooth Studios started producing Battle Graphs a few years back and they're basically the same thing as the original Tact-Tiles (i.e., dry erase). Unfortunately, now Longtooth Studios has stopped making them: "We are currently unable to continue the manufacture of our Battlegraph Dry Erase Boards. We are continuing our efforts to find financial support to get things up and running...."


This fellow has posted his own step-by-step guide for making Tact Tiles: How to make your own Tact-Tiles. This seems all well and good, but a bit of a pain in the ass if you're like me (i.e., lazy).

So, below are a couple ideas of my own:

DISCLAIMER: I have not done ANY of this stuff myself. I'm happy with my big ol' grid, so I haven't bothered to spend the time or money on these theories.

Lazy Homemade Tact-Tiles Idea #1
  • Do what I did for my mammoth white board battle map (i.e., buy a big piece of tile board (a.k.a., shower board a.k.a. Melamine) and score a grid on it with an Exacto knife), and then cut it up with a jig saw.
  • $11 or so for the tile board and some sawing and you have Tact-Tiles.
Lazy Homemade Tact-Tiles Idea #2
  • Go to the LTD Commodities site and buy this Dry Erase Kit. It includes eight 1 ft x 1 ft dry erase tiles that you can assemble as you'd like, up to a 4 ft x 2 ft area. The kit is a whopping $5.95.
  • I have no clue what these things look like out of the box, but I bet you can use them as is. That is, rather than stick them to the wall, keep them on their backings and use them as tiles.
  • Worst case scenario, if you can't use them "as is," stick 'em on some poster board.
  • The only problem here is that they don't interlock. I'm not sure how much of an issue that would be. Then again, if it's $95.00 for interlocking or $6.00 for non-interlocking, I'd rough it.
  • You might be able to score a grid on them, but, if not, a D&D grid works on 1 inch scale. It would be easy just to measure movement with a tape measure and skip the gird entirely. (Actually, if you're okay with that method, you could skip the scoring part of my tile board map design, as well).
If anyone tries either of these methods, I'd love to hear how they work out.
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