Fire at Sea: portable game board

Another new year, another new game: Fire at Sea Naval Game. I like small size games taking up less real estate on your table.

Fire at Sea

I first got to know Fire at Sea in “Little Wars TV”‘s YouTube video. Also check out this one: The Battle of the Denmark Strait for $35 by Little Wars TV

I thought it might be a nice quick game to play on a small coffee table.

The Concept


Upon reading the rules, I thought that it could be well suited for a small scale board-game style of wargame. The board consists of a 8 x 8 grid. The rules say every square measures 6 x 6 inch. Having in mind to 3D-print the 4 ships involved in the free rules, scaling down wouldn’t be an issue. Thus upon some tinkering, I decided I’d go with a 5 x 5 cm square. That brings us to a board of 40 x 40 cm. After a trip to our trusted cheapo store I found a 40 x 50 cm canvas. I recently rediscovered the versatility of canvas: have a look at my wargaming backdrop tutorial. Knowing that the northern edge represents an ice shelf, I decided to model it out on that 10 cm wide excess strip. Thus a rough outline was born.

Quick sketch


Next I scoured Thingiverse for suitable STL files of the 4 ships which are the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen for the German side and the HMS Hood and the HMS Prince of Wales for the British. I looked for simplified models to be able to print to fit on a 4 x 2 cm base. That meant the ships should be around 3 cm long. After a bit of browsing I found the perfect set by Tom Townsend.


I decided to print the rules in an A5 booklet (it’s only 8 pages). All the tokens, cards and sheets I would print at half size the original. Cards would be sleeved, tokens glued on card board and reference sheets laminated. Everything including 2 D6, the ships and a small size deck of playing cards shoudl all fit in a zip-lock bag and be stored in the hollow back side of the canvas.

The whole thing would than hang on a wall. That’s the idea. Now it’s time for the build!

Building the portable game board.

First, as usual I lined out all the material you’d need to build the board.

Board – Material list:

  • Canvas
  • Cheap acrylic paints (blue, light-blue, green, white, black)
  • Expanded polystyrene (the cheap white bubbly stuff known as Styropor®)
  • PVA glue
  • Gesso
  • Clear glossy varnish spray
  • Masking tape
  • Cutter knife
  • Pencil
  • Ruler

Ships – Material list:

  • STL files (plus 3D printer and resin of course) or physical models if you find any or are willing to scratch build them (the game comes with cut out tokens just in case)
  • Basing material. I used thick some dense foam material I’m hording.
  • super glue
  • (Grey) Primer
  • Acrylic paints and black wash
  • Water effect or gloss varnish

Markers – Material list:

  • Printer
  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • Paper glue
  • Metal ruler
  • Cutter knife

Optional: Modelling the ice shelf

First I broke the foam into smaller chunks. Then I went ahead and glued the on the 10 cm strip along one of the canvas’s short edge. Once dried, I applied a liberal amount of white gesso to the whole board and let it dry for 24 hours. The gesso seals the foam and protects it from melting by the final coat of spray varnish. Plus it gives it some more toughness for its future use. I must say I start to like more and more the use of gesso to seal my terrain project. I find it a a slightly cheaper and less messier way of sealing your foam based projects before (spray) painting.

In the end I didn’t like the size of the icebergs. That’s when I decided to take out my cutter knife and gave the polystyrene pieces a trim. Thus flattened I liked the look of it much better. I gave the cut surfaces another coat of white Gesso.

Painting the board

After the gesso is fully dry, it’s time to paint your bad boy. Make sure you use wide flat brushes to apply the paint in erratic/chaotic strokes. You’ll see the brush marks in the pictures below.

After applying your paint leave everything to fully dry.

Next, I added the grid marking. I wanted to paint it on the board with the same light blue color I used previously to paint the sea. I then marked the 5 cm spacing with a pencil on the edges. To be able to paint the lines in a straight and precise way, I used masking tape to paint the markings. You’ll see it more clearly in the following images how I did it. Just make sure your paint isn’t too runny or watered down to avoid leakage under the tape.

Finishing the board

I added some final touches to my board. I really wanted to add a wind rose as used on naval maps. For that I 3D-printed a batch of these I found over at Thingiverse.

I painted the 4 edges black. You could also paint over the edges with your blue paints. But I prefer a nice black finish on the borders.

Finally I applied several layers of gloss varnish over the whole board to seal it and give it a glossy and more water-like appearance. Set it aside to dry.

With that done, your board is finished.

The ships

Now I’ll show you how I made my ships. Using super glue, I stuck them to the bases first. I applied my home-made super glue accelerator to make the bond super tight. Then I primed the ship tokens with cheap grey primer from the rattle can.

I started applying the same dark blue paint I used for the board on the ships’ bases. That will make them more consistent with the board. Since it’s a cheap paint of lesser quality, I had to apply several coats until it covered the surface.

Then, I painted on the wave effects selling the illusion of the ships moving forward.

Afterwards I designed some labels for the ships, which I added to the long base edge using tacky glue. If want, you can download my labels.

After the glue has dried, painted the actual ships.

Beware of my 4 cm warship tokens!

As finishing touches I gave the ships a black wash. But make sure you only apply it to the recesses and not all over the models. After the wash has dried, I edge highlighted the ship with the original colors. In the end I painted the edges black. It’s very important to matte varnish the ships now, since I added the water or gloss effect to the water surface afterwards.

I sealed the labels with masking tape before applying the final touch to my tiny ship models. I applied the water effect only to the blue surfaces of the ocean.

My water effect dries clear.

Give the water effect or the gloss varnish plenty of time to dry.

The finished game board

The final Fire at Sea portable game board looks great!

Next it’s time to take the game for a test run. Check out our Fire at Sea game review.