Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 1: Causeways, Lifting Piers, and Removable Bridge Sections

I have been working through July to build a representative 6′ x 4′ cityscape gaming table that would evoke the flavor of the city of Tenochtitlan, which was the capital of the Aztec Empire. On the arrival of Hernan Cortes in 1519, Tenochtitlan was populated by an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people – making it even larger than contemporary London. It was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, and was linked to the mainland by multiple causeways. These causeways also had removable or liftable bridge sections. In effect, Lake Texcoco formed a “moat” around the city, making it impregnable to enemies for hundreds of years (until the Spanish Conquest occurred anyways). The causeways would be of major importance during all phases of the Spanish Conquest. Cortes met Montezuma II on a causeway for the first time. The Spanish and their Tlaxcalan allies would fight desperately at different times to both escape Tenochtitlan (La Noche Triste) and to return to conquer it afterwards. The nature and importance of the causeways were major aspects of these battles, so any representation of the city of Tenochtitlan needed to have causeways.

A 1524 map of Tenochtitlan showing the causeways (from History Today).
Detail of a Tenochtitlan causeway (from Learnodo Newtonic).
Cortes meets Montezuma on a causeway for the first time (from Pinterest).
A painting of Cortes at the Battle of Tenochtitlan (from Britannica).

To build a city of such size would be massive – and certainly beyond the scope of a reasonably-sized gaming table. My goals were to make something special – while ensuring that it was something that could be used in games of Buck Surdu’s Feudal Patrol in Mesoamerica (using my Civilizations Collide supplement). I wanted a diorama that could be played on. To that end, I have built many buildings and figures that have been previously shared in this blog. What I needed to add was the underlying structure of the city – “the cityscape”.

The work that I did to build and paint this cityscape was extensive and would overwhelm a single blog post. Hell, it almost overwhelmed me just building it! Therefore, I have decided to break my work on it into 5 posts that I will share over the next few days. There will be a lot of WIP shots on each category, leading up to a final reveal. I am also continuing with my weekly garage+ build posts (like here and here), and I have some golf stuff to add as well. This is “Life, Golf, Miniatures, & Other Distractions” after all! My blogging drought is coming to an end! As for the cityscape posts, here is the listing of what is on deck:

  • Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 1: Causeways, Lifting Piers, and Removable Bridge Sections (this post)
  • Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 2: Pavements
  • Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 3: Revetments, Lily Pads, and Cattails
  • Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 4: Cortes’ War Wagons
  • Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 5: Tenochtitlan – THE FINAL REVEAL

To build the cityscape, I started off with building the causeways, but work on all of these components overlapped. Please enjoy them and hopefully this is useful for my fellow gamers, modelers, and hobbyists. Luckily, these all can be part of Dave’s Season of Scenery Challenge – which is fun as well.

Initially, I wanted to plan the cityscape layout for a 6′ x4′ mat. I drew a rough sketch, and decided that I would get two 2′ x 4′ sheets of 1/4″ MDF from Home Depot. My friend Jeff Smith (a fantastic woodworker) has a lot of tools – to include a nice table saw, which I do not have. As I needed more precise cuts than I could achieve with my Black and Decker skilsaw, I enlisted his help. He was able to cut all the pieces in no time at all (and again, thanks Jeff!!!).

My initial rough concept of how to use the MDF sheets. They would be the basis of all of the cityscape construction. The pavements and causeways are both planned here, as well as where I wanted it all to go.
Jeff cutting some causeways.

After the MDF was all cut, I laid out the pieces that I had on my FLG swamp mat, and arranged my buildings. Later, I would get a water mat from them, as I thought the swamp would not work as well. After the MDF concept layout, I was on to the building of the six causeways. I usually went through the process of doing one phase of work on one piece (like a prototype), and if that worked, moving on to the rest in similar phases.

My initial concept laid out on a swamp mat.

My causeway section prototype would be 5″ wide and a foot long. I spaced out some 6″ craft sticks evenly across the bottom and used wood glue to affix them. These would be to support the wooden piers and stones around them on the sides of the top surface. This worked ok, so I did all six with the cross-glued craft sticks.

Lining up the craft sticks on the bottom of the first causeway. At the top you can see some wood I was planning to use as piers – more on those shortly.
After I glued all the craft sticks across the bottoms, I weighted them down and let the glue set overnight.

While the glue was setting on phase I of the causeway undersides, I built the two removable bridge sections. These are 6″ long and the same width as the causeways. These would be analogous to a medieval drawbridge. I broke up craft sticks irregularly and dry-fitted them to the top of the bridge sections. Then, I weathered the wood by beating a small chain on and into them with a ball peen hammer. After this, I glued them on with wood glue and let dry overnight. I did not press these with weight as I wanted a less uniform surface of the bridge to represent wear and aging.

My chain and ball peen hammer weathering of the craft stick wood surface.
The weathered wood ready for gluing.

Then, I went back to the causeways. The cross-sections were ok, but I needed to have a way to add the revetments along the sides – so I added more craft sticks longitudinally on each side. They would jut out about 1/2″ on the side of the causeways.

Here you see four of the six causeways after the first gluing – and before adding more on the sides for the rocky revetments.
Here are the longitudinally-added craft sticks set with binder clips for overnight drying.

Once dry, I covered the surfaces with glue and then chinchilla dust.

After adding the chinchilla dust and allowing for drying. Next up would be the painting and shading of the causeways’ surfaces, then onto adding the piers and rocks.

I finished painting the removable bridge sections and build and painted 4 lifting piers out of square dowels and 1/8″ plywood.

The masked causeways ready for painting, along with the 4 lifting piers and the 2 removable bridge sections. I masked the sides as I wanted to have a clean gluing surface for the piers and rocks. Having an airbrush sped this process – especially relative to all of the gluing!
I base coated the causeways, lifting piers, and removable bridge sections (ignore the WIP pavements behind – that’s a sneak peek at the next post!)
All painted and shaded – except I wanted to add a bit more to the bridge sections…
…which you see here – I added some contrast to the planks.

Next, I moved on to the side piers and causeway revetments. The following day I grabbed a dry oak branch from the woods behind the house and cut it up. As each causeway section would need 14 wooden piers (seven per side), I figured I’d need 84 piers. So, I initially planned on using some birch wood discs I had plus the oak sections. I cut up the wood in sizes I thought would work well. However, as I laid it out (dry fit), I was not happy with the appearance. At all. Clearly, compared to a 28mm figure, the wood size was far in excess of what would have been used as piers along the causeways.

It was time to regroup. For piers, I then decided to use 1/8″ wooden dowels instead. I cut them up roughly to represent timber and glued them together in threes – and if you are doing the math, yes, that is cutting up and gluing together 252 pieces for the 84 piers. This project had a LOT of gluing and drying stages! I also found a nice source of rocks at Michaels – those little filler stones that some people use in glass vases. These were much cheaper than any hobby talus would have been. The time downside was that for effective placement I needed to glue one course of rocks at at a time – one rock at a time – with PVA – more gluing and waiting for drying…

Detail of the pier and rocks gluing. I cut the pier wood pieces irregularly as possible to add realism.
The first side of a causeway glued up with piers and rocks and a 28mm Conquistador for comparison. The PVA would dry and “suck” up nicely into the crevices.

I then painted the piers and added some shade to them.

Painted piers

For the rocks, I painted them with Vallejo “Grey Surface Primer, followed by a layer of Reaper “MSP Black Primer” on the bottom (where the rocks would have been by the lake), and added some slime to them there as well. After that, I added an aggressive layer of shading with Citadel “Nuln Oil”. The effect on the rocks was excellent. You can see a list of all the paints and other materials that I used at the end of this post.

Adding black primer to the bottom of the rocks over the grey primer in an irregular pattern to represent the water line.
After adding grey and black primers to the rocks.
Finished causeway with the Conquistador. Note the effect of the shading on the rocks.
Top view
A finished causeway, lifting piers, and removable bridge section on my new FLG water mat.
Tlaxcalans assault the city from the causeway (another sneak peek!)

With the causeways, removable bridge sections, and lifting piers, I now have terrain components that I can use for the cityscape. I also could use them for a causeway battle, and add war canoes in the lake with Aztecs shooting bows, slings, and atlatl at the Conquistadors and Tlaxcalans from the water.

I think you can see why I am breaking up this into multiple posts! This started in June and ended in July. My next post will focus on the design and building of the cityscape pavements. I hope you found this useful and will keep following this series – and please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

Thanks so much for looking!

For all of my previous posts on games, units, and other projects for my 16th Century Spanish Conquest supplement for Feudal Patrol™ – “Civilizations Collide” – please see this page.

PAINTS, INKS, GLAZES, SHADES, WASHES, PIGMENTS, FLOCKING, GLUES AND MORE THAT I USED ON THESE TERRAIN PIECES/MODELS:

  1. 2′ x 4′ MDF sheets – 1/4″ thick
  2. Wood Glue
  3. Binder clips
  4. GOCREATE Jumbo Craft Sticks
  5. All Living Things Dry Dust Bath (chinchilla dust)
  6. Painters Masking Tape
  7. Vallejo “Flow Improver”
  8. Vallejo “Airbrush Thinner”
  9. Vallejo Mecha Color “Sand Yellow”
  10. Vallejo Game Air “Desert Yellow”
  11. Vallejo Model Air “Sand (Ivory)”
  12. Citadel “Seraphim Sepia” (shade)
  13. Vallejo Model Color “Dark Sand”
  14. Citadel “Ushabti Bone”
  15. FolkArt “Yellow Ochre”
  16. Vallejo Game Color “Red”
  17. Army Painter “Light Tone” (wash)
  18. Citadel “Agrax Earthshade” (shade)
  19. Elmer’s PVA Glue
  20. Gorilla Glue
  21. Ashland “Decorative Filler” (rocks)
  22. 1/8″ wooden dowels
  23. Vallejo Model Color “Wood Grain”
  24. Vallejo “Surface Primer Grey”
  25. Reaper MSP “Black Primer”
  26. Citadel “Nuln Oil” (shade)
  27. Vallejo Environment “Slime Green Dark”

Author: Mark A. Morin

This site is where I will discuss stuff that I find interesting and that includes family, friends, golf, gaming, and Boston sports!

52 thoughts on “Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 1: Causeways, Lifting Piers, and Removable Bridge Sections”

    1. I guess methodical is my way Pete – thanks so much. I saw that technique at some point on TV as using a chain is a common method used to make furniture look antique. Here I needed to add the ball peen hammer!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow, that’s incredibly impressive, not just the actual quality of the work you’ve done but in terms of its size and scope. Really looking forward to seeing more of this project.

    Also, I have to thank you for the chinchilla dust technique you used a few months back, it made all the difference to an MDF building I did last month 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Cool – I am appreciative of your sharing that – and hey, you’re in neighboring VT! I was going to go to CARNAGE but it looks like I’ll just be doing HISTORICON (for the first time). Anyways, I do like your convenience store a lot!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John. If PVA was toxic I’d be dead by now from massive exposure. I did like both mats, but saw for future expansions (like the naval battle on Lake Texcoco), I knew I’d need a blue-water mat. The swamp mat is versatile, and anyways, who can have too many mats?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great work Mark. Keep it up as it is always great to see how others approach terrain projects. I probably spend more time on the terrain than I do on painting the figures that will fight over it. I cannot see the point in spending hours painting figures and then playing on pieces of foam, felt and cardboard.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Amen to that. As I once commented to your fellow Aussie IRO, I want to create an broad and encompassing panorama. I figure I owe that to myself and my gamers. Although it’s still all set up in my basement and the wife is lobbying for me to put it away!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark these look great, and once again I had never thought of using Nuln Oil to give shading to the rocks, rather I would just dry brush them, so I’m adding this to the Chinchilla Dust hint for my future terrain efforts. So thank you for the tips.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Anthony, I appreciate your saying that A LOT that as one of the main goals I had starting this blog 6 years ago was to provide lessons learned from my experiences to others, so that for me checks a big box! The rocks had a lot of natural nooks and crannies that the Nuln Oil really helped accent. I think if I had dry brushed them (which I considered but rejected after my prototype was done) that I would have had some undesirable paint removal on the rocks. The grey primer kind of “pre-highlighted” the rocks for the Nuln Oil.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. At first it wasn’t looking so good, but as you kept adding to it… incredible. The final product looks really effective, particularly the bridge sections, piers and stones. Well done!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah Tarmor, your first sentence describes so much of my life, let alone this project! Well, maybe not the incredible part, but hey, I’ll gladly take the nice compliment. As the Conquistadores would say, Gracias!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bienvenido! (I had to look that up… personally, my most used phrase in Mexico was ‘no comprendo espanol’.) Thankfully, the Conquistadores are long gone or we probably wouldn’t have the history and culture to model and discuss.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to hear that Mike – is that last December or next? My rules cover the Inca and I do want to build an army there too. Appreciate the kind words and keep watching – and share with the Dice Studz! (and you need to try Feudal Patrol!)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Aw shucks! As for the style, if I could have South American weather maybe. Gotta consider snow load my friend 😊 We got 110″ of snow one winter. In three weeks, while the temperature never broke the freezing point (0 for you, 32 for me!)

        Liked by 3 people

  5. I had a sneaky peek at these a while back as you know, but it hasn’t distracted from the impact of the finished causeways they are probably about average for your standard of work, which is to say they are bloody fantastic mate!

    Cheers Roger.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. As always, I really enjoy the step-by-step process you share with us, Mark! It is amazing how versatile popsicle sticks can be for terrain too. I’ve used them a little bit and I feel like they will be something I go for a lot more in the future, especially after seeing what you accomplished with them. I really like the idea behind this project and the final results speak for themselves. I can’t wait to see more about how this turned out!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Brilliant work Mark!!a lot of work went into this one and it was well worth it as its so effective., great idea using those pebbles they turned out a treat in the end . Oh and the weathering of the wood with the chain ! Ace!

    Liked by 1 person

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