A game mat, also called a battle mat or wargaming mat, is a play mat that is positioned on top of your gaming table to represent the battlefield where your game will take place.
It adds realism and immersion to your session, compared to playing directly on top of a plastic table. Another advantage of using play mats is to protect your table from scratching or other gaming incidents, and of course, give a more consistent grip to your miniatures (this depends on the material used).
In addition, a game mat of the right dimension will cover your entire gameplay area, so that you don’t need to calculate the borders and mark them with dice or other materials like tape. Of course, having multiple mats for each game and format supported may be unrealistic. So you may want to concentrate on the sizes that you use the most or a bigger size that covers them all
But which one is the best type of mat to purchase? Let’s have a look at the various materials you can get game mats in.
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Which materials are available for different game mats?
Let’s start with the cheapest material available: cardboard. You may be familiar with them if you bought any starter set from most wargaming companies, as an example Warcry boxes or 40K/Age of Sigmar starter sets. Those have different levels of thickness but the main advantage is that they are foldable, easy to store and transport and, in particular, they are cheaper than other solutions.
If you play a game that provides the mat, that is all you need to start playing. On the downside, creases and gaps may show up, especially after some time you use the product. Even worse if the entire battlefield is covered by multiple mats that need to stick together by magic to avoid inadvertently moving them during the game (for example the Age of Sigmar sets are made of 4 different foldable mats).
Going up in price we find the vinyl mats. PVC is the most commonly used type of vinyl, which is a kind of plastic and one of the most widely produced. Those can have better designs, and multiple sizes and greatly vary in quality. One particularity is that they can’t be folded and should be rolled with the graphics side on the outside.
This means that storing them can occupy more space, but in exchange, you obtain a sharper surface without creases or gaps and they are more durable (if it’s well stored). They can be protected with anti-scratch and anti-reflexes materials for a better feeling. Another advantage is that in some models you can write with specific pens and then clean it, perfect for RPG sessions or marking objectives in a wargame.
However PVC mats tend to have edges that lift so you’ll have to weigh it down when playing, they are thinner so rolling dice or dropping miniatures will immediately impact the surface below without cushioning, and can be a bit less comfortable picking up sleeved cards.
Then we have cloth or fabric. This is much easier to store as it can be folded and the creases easily ironed out. At the same time, cloth mats will adapt to the surface of the table they are in, so any bump will come through. Accidental spillage of liquids will most likely be harder to remove as it would soak the mat, while other materials are easier to clean.
Finally, the most expensive but also the most widely advertised when purchasing premium products or deluxe editions, especially in board games, is the neoprene. This is a type of synthetic rubber that is extremely resistant to oil, heat, and weathering sometimes also called mousepad mat as one of the top quality neoprene mats.
Neoprene is rolled instead of being folded, but the side does not matter. It is usually waterproof and allows for extreme durability, a much softer feeling when placing miniatures or rolling dice, and more comfortable picking up cards, sleeved or not.
You can often find the question if it’s better with stitched edges or not (basically the printed portion is stitched on the edges like a fabric for better adhesion) and the answer really depends on the quality of the product you are buying. Like for PVC, there can be great differences in what you are getting into, a stitched edge can prolong the lifetime of a cheaper mat to avoid the printed top to start peeling off. However, top-quality neoprene mats don’t require it as the printing process already prevents peeling.
One last mention is custom boards. Those are usually made with different materials like foam, cork, resin or basing materials and they are the best looking ones. They recreate exactly the terrain you want to represent and provide vertical depth. They are also the more difficult to create, expensive to buy if you find third parties making them and difficult to store and clean. Few companies, like Dwarven Forge, use different materials like magnets and iron for some amazing (but expensive) results.
Best Gamemats for your War or Skirmish game?
So, what is the best game mat? The answer depends on many factors, starting from the budget.
Above we have listed the different materials in order of price, and listed some pros and cons of each one of them.
Eventually, you will need to consider different elements starting from the design. This should complement the type of game that you are playing, so that if you are in a fantasy setting you would need a traditional grassland or forest terrain, but if you are playing X-Wing, you may want a nebula background.
The size is also important. Smaller mats are easier to store and pick up, but would not cover games needing larger space. Bigger mats cover all your needs, but you may need to identify the correct size each time you change game.
One suggestion, that works well with neoprene, is to use removable fabric tape (or any other easy to remove tape). Some PVC allows to draw marks making it easy to identify not only borders but also deployment zones and objectives in wargames.
You may want also to consider the easiness of cleaning and storing them. Foldable mats occupy less space and are easier to transport. However waterproof PVC and neoprene mats protect you from accidental spillage and can be easier to clean.
Independently on which material you are interested in, quality is important. There can be a great difference between a bad PVC mat and a good neoprene mat, but once you compare top-quality products, the difference will be more about how you think to use them.
Personally, I prefer a neoprene for large-scale games like Age of Sigmar and I’m happy to use PVC for smaller games like Warcry, although I have plenty of cardboard mats included in their boxes, and for a quick and occasional game they still work well.
Product Sample Disclosure
Pwork Wargames sent me a mat as a product sample. I have agreed to include the mat in an article, but I have promised Pwork Wargames nothing more than that. No money has changed hands and Pwork Wargames does not get to approve this article before it is published.
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If you are thinking about your next game mat, you need to find a reputable supplier that covers your area. Pwork Wargames ships worldwide and has a great selection of game mats, in high quality PVC (anti-scratch and anti-reflective), cloth or neoprene, covering any type of setting you may be interested to, from galaxies to grassland, from volcanoes to futuristic urban cities.