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A Tale of Two Dungeons: Master Maze & Castlemolds

 
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A Tale of Two Dungeons: Master Maze & Castlemolds
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Terrainosaur
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A Tale of Two Dungeons
Dwarven Forge's Master Maze & Hirst Arts' Castlemolds


A comparison of dungeons for roleplayers
by Mitch Michaelson and Lawrence Horsburgh

When we were kids, roleplaying was simple: you had your rulebooks, dice, pen and paper and your imagination. If you were lucky, you had some lead miniatures and a vinyl matt to draw dungeons on. The hobby is very different today! There are many companies producing amazing pewter or plastic miniatures and other companies making resin or plastic scenery.

With the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a lot of people (young and old) are rediscovering roleplaying. You no longer have to just imagine the dangerous mines and forbidding castles that your adventurers are exploring -- you can put three-dimensional dungeons on your table!

This article is about comparing two of the most awesome and complete product lines available for creating your own dungeon: Dwarven Forge's Master Maze & Hirst Arts' Castlemolds. These products can help you bring astounding, fully-playable scenery to your games.

Now for the introductions: I'm Mitch Michaelson, aka Terrainosaur. I've been crafting terrain for wargames and roleplaying games for years and at the time of this writing (~2003) own all of the Castlemolds. I asked Lawrence Horsburgh, who I met on the Wizards of the Coast website, to co-write this article with me because he owns all of the available Master Maze sets and has been a well-spoken champion of Dwarven Forge about as long as they've existed. Sections that begin with an L were written by Lawrence and those with an M were written by Mitch.

We organized the article in categories so you can see what we think of each product. We don't always agree. The goal of this article isn't to cause competition or to declare one product line "better" than the other. It's simply to inform roleplayers about these amazing tools! We hope that you walk away from this article thinking, "Wow, this stuff is great. I have to get some of this!" We speak from experience: in person, these dungeons are awe-inspiring.

CATEGORIES:
    ABOUT THE COMPANIES
    DETAIL
    MODULARITY & VERSATILITY
    VARIETY
    COMPATIBILITY
    SCALE
    TIME
    CONVENIENCE, DURABILITY & STORAGE
    PRICE/COST
    AVAILABILITY
    SUMMARY


Note: Master Maze is copyright of Dwarven Forge; Castlemolds is copyright of Hirst Arts. This article is merely a review and does not challenge anyone's intellectual property or trademarks. Some pictures have been borrowed, as examples only, from the two companies' websites.

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Last edited by Terrainosaur on Tue Jan 01, 2008 3:51 pm; edited 2 times in total
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About the companies



Dwarven Forge is a small company that makes one line of products: Master Maze. The Master Maze system is a set of components that can be arranged to create an entirely self-enclosed dungeon display, although Master Maze also includes the furniture, treasure, traps and monsters that might be found in a dungeon.

The company is run by a man named Stefan Pokorny, who has a master's degree in painting and has sculptures and paintings in galleries in New York City. Stefan has been making the Master Maze line for about 4 years, sculpting some things himself and occasionally utilizing the talents of established fantasy sculptors like Sandra Garrity. The Master Maze line has been expanding since it began, with more building sets and accessories coming out about twice a year. For more information, some excellent photographs and a way to order, check out the website at www.dwarvenforge.com.

The Master Maze miniatures (like lizardmen) are nice enough, as are the accessories, but what really makes Master Maze stand out are the dungeon elements. Almost no other company makes a modular dungeon system that allows you to make a dungeon as large or as small as you'd like, to expand and re-arrange it constantly and to make such a convincing display at that. As such, I'll be focusing my comments almost exclusively on the dungeon elements themselves, not on the various other products in the Master Maze line. If you want miniatures or even scenery accessories, there are lots of places to turn. But if you want a dungeon, Master Maze is one of the few places for you to turn. What I hope to answer in this review is: Should you, in fact, turn to them?

(Picture by Stephan Meissl.)

Hirst Arts is also a small company that produces only one thing: Castlemolds. The 75 or so different rubber molds (as of 1/1/08) allow you to cast as many bricks as you want with plaster, then assemble and paint your creations. The molds were originally for Fantasy Architecture, but they work just as well for science fiction bunkers or realistic medieval castles.

Hirst Arts is named after Bruce Hirst, a former teacher who runs the company with his wife Joanne. They make all of the molds by hand and ensure that each is of the highest quality. New molds are constantly being released, with many coming out each year. For more information, an outstanding gallery and a way to order, check out the website at www.hirstarts.com.

Castlemolds are your path to creating whatever gaming scenery you want. You can build astonishing castles, frightening altars or wonderful Elf towers! People have purchased one mold and built many items from it, so you don't have to buy lots of them. If you want to create an incredible dungeon, you can do it with one or two molds. My goal in this review is to get you excited about building your own terrain.

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Terrainosaur



Last edited by Terrainosaur on Tue Jan 01, 2008 4:03 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Detail



The detail of the Master Maze system is the first thing anyone notices about it. Each piece is stunning and because they were all painted by hand, each has subtle differences. Each stone has the proper texture, the right shading and is painted a slightly different color.

For example, the floor has cracks. The portcullis gate can be raised. The doors can open. The secret door is a wall piece that spins, so that it can be cleverly concealed and still be useable. The columns have designs etched into their bases and the red marble is painted to look aged and worn. Some walls have brackets for torches and the torches themselves (which are removable) can be of the lit or unlit variety -- and the lit torches also belch forth wisps of cotton "smoke." The cavern pieces have rough, uneven floors and pools have gathered in some places. There are extra pools, stones and stalagmites to place as you desire, further customizing the display.

Each Master Maze piece looks exactly as it should look. The cumulative effect of grouping the pieces together in a display is that of a museum diorama. A Master Maze dungeon looks like a meticulously planned and sculpted scenery piece made by expert model-makers for a magazine layout. Nothing is missing; an entire dungeon can be built with no gaps or holes in the illusion.



The detail of a Master Maze display is limited (there are no ceilings, for example, and the walls are all of uniform height), but it is automatic. The pics of Master Maze online are exactly what your display will look like. The detail of a Hirst Arts creation, on the other hand, requires a significant contribution from its users. With some exceptions, the Hirst Arts fans are modelers, and they enjoy painting and assembling structures with Hirst Arts as much as they enjoy the final product. Master Maze is a sophisticated Lego set; Castlemolds, on the other hand, are a hobbyist's dream, the perfect tool for a modeler.

The Hirst Arts homepage, for example, has a gallery of phenomenal displays, with remarks such as, "with grain-of-wheat bulbs and a 12-volt transformer," "tall spikes were made from calking tube spouts" and "a product called EnviroTex Lite Pour-On High Gloss Finish." Some people will see these remarks as helpful tips and advice; others will see them as an indication that this product will not be as effective in their hands if they do not have 12-volt transformers, calking tube spouts or EnviroTex High Gloss Finish. Don't get me wrong: Castlemolds do not require any of this; these are all the tools of the experts. But many Hirst Arts fans find the advice of the experts inviting and fascinating, while the non-modeler will be left cold. Personally, I'm somewhere in the middle: extremely impressed, but certain I have neither the time nor the talent to use Castlemolds to their full potential.

Master Maze and Castlemolds do not cost the same. But it is of course cheaper to make your own scenery than to buy it. Not everyone wants to make it. With Castlemolds, you spend a great deal of effort in casting, painting, assembling and so forth ... but then, these are not unpleasant activities to people who enjoy modeling!

The detail of Castlemolds is astounding. It has a variety of versatile pieces. And it is all outrageously cheap. But all of this is irrelevant to someone who cannot make an attractive display for want of modeling talent or for lack of interest. They don't come looking like that. They are a tool which one can use to try to make something like that. The user makes a crucial contribution and the final product will reflect what you put into it.



The first thing people notice about Master Maze is the incredible detail. Even if it wasn't pre-painted, the pieces are carved with intricate stone patterns and individual floor tiles. If you look closely you can see bricks in the same wall were painted different colors. The #1 attraction of Master Maze, in my eyes, is the Cavern set, which can't be replicated by any mold. (Update: 1/1/08 ... there are seven cavern Castlemolds now.) The stalagmites and stalagtites look like they are dripping water. Master Maze comes looking just like the pictures.

Although Dwarven Forge included bowtie connectors to hold the dungeon pieces together, I don't like the look. (See the pic above.) Lots of people need to pick the set up frequently, to move things around or to pack/store it again, so they don't bother with the bowtie connectors and that makes it look worse to me.



Castlemolds, on the other hand, are just as detailed but of course you have to paint them yourself. (See the three-color pic of the flagstone pattern above.) I've seen terrain pieces of many colors: sandstone shrines, green alien structures, bluish elven keeps and more. Castlemolds bricks come in many patterns: chipped gothic stone, cobblestone, fieldstone, flagstone, caverns, egyptian, etc. (See the black & white picture below.) You can paint each of the tiles a different color like Master Maze, too.

The fantasy architecture available from Hirst Arts makes the difference. Castlemolds produce more than floors and walls. You can add gargoyle faces, pillars, portcullises or hundreds of extras, anywhere you want. This adds a lot of texture to plain walls. A dungeon made with the Dragon's Teeth Accessory Mold is incredibly complex!



There are molds with basic blocks, molds with accessories and molds that have all the pieces for specific buildings. The Wizard's Tower Mold has 25 pieces (7 different bricks) to make your own multi-level tower. The Dragon's Inn Mold has 21 pieces (12 different bricks) to make a tavern. There are molds for a Gothic Church, a Bridge, a Belltower, a Tomb, a Prison, a Roman Temple and a Pyramid. You can make fountains with the Turret mold and the Hirst Arts website has instructions on how to make it look like water is coming out of the gargoyles' mouths! The Ruined Tower Mold could make Weathertop. The Fieldstone Wall Mold makes walls of course, but you can also make a whole house with it.

I've seen dungeons the size of a table cast from only a couple Castlemolds. There are actually lots of Castlemolds dungeons on the web now. Once you've cast the necessary bricks, you can assemble them into rooms and corridors of any dimension you want. You don't have to stick to certain dimensions or plans, but if you want help, the Hirst Arts site has basic and advanced instructions on building a dungeon, as well as an online support community to give examples and advice.

To make a dungeon I recommend the Fieldstone Wall Mold #70 and the Fieldstone Accessories Mold #71. The Flagstone Floor Tile Mold #260 is a popular addition to that. MageKnight players like the Large Flagstone Mold #265 and Large Flagstone Accessory Mold #266. Personally, I use the Basic Blocks Mold #100 and the Cobblestone Mold #210 to make my dungeon.

The big drawback to the molds is you can see the cracks between the bricks. On the gothic brick walls people expect to see that -- but with the cobblestone floors or flagstone walls, it doesn't look natural. You have to build carefully to keep the seams from showing with Castlemolds. You can clearly see the seams in Master Maze dungeons too, of course.



This picture is from the Master Maze caverns set. Note how the floor tiles appear broken and uneven. The walls are made of natural rock formations and mineral deposits. These twisting, turning corridors make for very realistic dungeons.



This picture, again by Stephan Meissl, is of the entrance to a dungeon. A dwarf stands on smooth floor tiles with gothic walls. The inset picture is the tomb that stands above the dungeon. This is just an example of the truly remarkable things you can do with Castlemolds.

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Modularity & Versatility



If the Master Maze pieces were part of a permanent installation, they would be noteworthy and impressive. They would also be of interest only to those with an unlimited amount of money and space. As it is, one "permanent" piece exists, the Ogre's den (see pic to the left). The Ogre's den is a nice add-on for those looking for instant rooms, but the Master Maze line would suffer if everything in it were so inflexibly bound to one arrangement.

Luckily, this is not the case. The Master Maze line is entirely modular and every piece in it is designed to attach to other pieces. The most basic components are the wall and floor pieces, which alone can be used to make an entire dungeon of almost any size and shape.

Some people object to the "bow tie" connectors used to lock rooms in place and object just as much to the gaps left if the bowties are not used. Personally, I think the ties give the rooms a nice "tiled" look and add some detailing to larger rooms. (See the picture in the Detail section.)



The entire system of Master Maze is made up of small pieces, all 2" high, most about 1" long and 1" wide, though there are some that are longer or shorter. There are specialty pieces like fountains, trap doors (see pic above), spiral staircases and so forth, and there are some pieces that are entirely self-contained corridor pieces of various types (straight, curved, T-intersection, etc). But the bulk of the system involves creating rooms and corridors out of 1" squares, and as a result the variety of room and corridor designs is extensive, though not literally limitless.

The versatility of Master Maze takes time to comprehend fully. You can make room after room, linked by corridor pieces, before you realize that the empty space between corridors can be avoided if you simply discard the official corridor pieces and make corridors out of walls. By having rooms share walls, you can make more rooms with fewer pieces. By sharing walls with corridors, you can create a network of passages without anything but floor pieces. For example, you can use the narrow passage pieces as walls for surrounding rooms, by simply assembling a snake-like narrow passage and then placing floor pieces around it and voila! instant rooms.



The "narrow corridor" pieces can also be used as columns for decoration or for "stacking." True, the higher levels will be on TOP of the lower ones, removing them from sight and making them impossible to use ... but if you make your higher levels small enough, this does not pose a problem.

(The pic above is Lawrence's display of stacking. It makes a great diorama for displaying your figs!)

The possibilities are endless and as more Master Maze building sets are released, the existing sets become even more useful. In over a year, I've never built the same dungeon twice and I have been constantly coming up with new displays, each wildly unlike the one before.

The Master Maze system's great virtue is its modularity. This is not to say that anything can be made from Master Maze; on the whole, the only thing that can be made is a somewhat flat, grid-like map of a dungeon. Even with stacking rooms, you will not get anything other than something that could be easily drawn on regular graph paper. But it is modular in the sense that its pieces can be re-used, and are made to be re-used, with ease.

Master Maze owners love how they have not just a dungeon but a dungeon kit. You can disassemble and rearrange it as you wish. But Master Maze is only a dungeon set. Master Maze pieces come in fixed sizes. If you want a <i>slightly</i> wider corridor (like by 1/4"), you have to imagine it. I discovered, as many people do, that you can't draw a dungeon map and then try to set it up with Master Maze. The pieces just don't fit. You have to draw the map to fit the Master Maze pieces you own. How modular is that?



Making a Castlemolds dungeon is very, very easy. (See the pic above.) It really is a project that even a child can accomplish. You don't have to know anything about architecture to cast rectangular blocks and glue them together to make walls or floors. Painting it is so much easier than painting miniatures, since the pieces are textured to really bring out highlights.

The big advantage of Castlemolds is that you can use them to create anything you want. They can handle whatever you can imagine: pillars built into the walls, different widths of rooms, carved doorways and many more pieces of Fantasy Architecture. There are about 75 different molds currently available. If you want towering cathedral ceilings, you can do that but no other product can (including Master Maze). Could you set up the Mines of Moria with Master Maze? Probably not. But you could with Castlemolds. You can build science fiction bunkers, dwarf keeps, lizardfolk ziggurats and any castle. Walls, ruins and roads are simple. Dark necromancer's towers and peaceful sylvan guard posts are all possible. And that's only the above-ground stuff.

Castlemolds dungeons have become very popular since floors and walls are much easier to assemble than a tall tower with fancy battlements. There are dungeons with curved corridors, bridges over lava rivers, towering monoliths and dirty floors. Rivers flow through some dungeons, while crumbled, dusty debris is all your adventurers will discover in others.

Castlemolds let YOU make the decisions. You can make halls as wide or tall as you want. Rooms can be in whatever shape you dream up. When you paint the walls, they can be plain grey or slimy greenish. (You could paint the Master Maze pieces if you wanted, of course.) You can chip the Castlemolds bricks to make them look damaged or shift them around when gluing them to make the wall look unstable.

Another critical factor is the three-dimensional effect. Master Maze is very flat. I don't think many Master Maze owners "stack" their displays because that means owning a lot more pieces and you can't use lower levels. With Castlemolds you can build a dungeon that goes up, down and every which way. I'm building steps coming from very high and steps that descend into dark water. Stephan Meissl has built an entire village and a dungeon that supposedly lies underneath it -- all out of Castlemolds.

Looking at a mold that casts individual bricks, you can tell how wide your options are: limitless. You can build walls 1" tall or 6" tall. Or 3.75" tall if you wanted that much accuracy. Several different textures are available to give it the feel you want. Just cast up a bunch of bricks and make whatever you want!



This pic is Dwarven Forge's display at Gen Con 2000. You can see how the caverns fit with the normal rooms and corridors. Everything in the Master Maze system is interlocking.



This pic is Todd Goss's "Dungeon of Doom" and is widely regarded as one of the dirtiest, dankest looking dungeons around. This Castlemolds dungeon has many more rooms.

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Variety

Master Maze is admittedly limited here. Its appeal is that it takes work away from the user. The drawback of this is that it does the work FOR you, which means your options are thereby limited. There are only two sorts of building pieces: the dungeon pieces and the cavern pieces. The cavern design can be found in the Cavern Set itself or bought individually. The dungeon pieces, the far more common, are found in everything else.



There are two kinds of add-on sets. The first kind are the building sets: two Wicked Additions sets, an Advanced Builder Set and two Traps sets. They give you a variety of specialty pieces to spice up a display: curved walls and passages, secret doors, spiral stairs, larger floorpieces, a mermaid fountain, an archway shaped like a demon's head and so forth, as well as different sized floorpieces, walls that have gaps in them and so on.

(The spiked log trap is shown above, one of many fully-functional trap pieces built for your Master Maze set.)

There are also various sets of accessories: a furniture set which includes a table, chairs, benches, candelabras and beds; an accessory set which includes sacks, crates and pots; and a treasure set which includes piles of coins, amphorae, chests and magical items such a spellbook, scrolls, magic weapons and a magic shield. The pieces are all superbly painted, look fantastic in displays and work well with one another.

A Master Maze dungeon can be a backdrop for a diorama, can be a gaming table, can be extra scenery to incorporate into other displays or can serve any purpose. Unlike scenery pieces from Games Workshop or Mage Knight, which are attractive and helpful, the Master Maze system does not require a pre-existing gaming table to look good -- everything you need is here. A tower or tree or hill on a coffee table looks like just that - a tower or tree on a coffee table. With Master Maze, the illusion is complete. The entire environment is created.

There are drawbacks to approaching Master Maze as a gaming tool, however. First, cost. Although Master Maze is comparatively cheap (see below), it is true that to make a very large gaming area, you need to buy many sets and invest a lot of money. It's cheaper and easier to build it up over time, which means that it would be useless as a gaming aid in the short term. Second, the restrictions in terms of spacing -- the way doors and walls must be placed in certain ways, for example -- means that the reproduction of specific maps or dungeon designs is not unlimited. Compromises must be made about how things fit together and if you want to recreate specific maps, the Master Maze system would not work.

You don't have enough time on your hands to use all the Castlemolds available. Variety is the name of the game with Castlemolds! I can't begin to cover everything that has been made out of Castlemolds, much less everything that could be done with them. Even looking at online pictures of dungeons, none look alike. One is dirty and dank like a forgotten dungeon. Another is clean and majestic, like a thriving dwarf city!

[img]http://www.terrainosaur.com/images/jim1.jpg align=left> (Jim Jackson built the awesome crypt diorama shown here. The adventurers descend the long staircase only to encounter skeletons and undead spilling forth from the mighty crypt. Both the staircase and the crypt are made entirely from Castlemolds.)

So far I've built a 20-story Inquisition building for Epic 40,000, a small Warmaster elf border fortress called Crown Keep, a Forgotten Realms dungeon that was once the long-lost dwarf kingdom of Tethyamar, a Warhammer 40k bunker, an evil Warhammer Fantasy Battles chaos shrine, two Necron pyramids for Warhammer 40k and a short tower to hold candy! Another Terrainosaur contributor, Andy Farrell, built a dice roller that looks like a castle. Many other people have built dicerollers once they saw Andy's. Andy also built a dungeon of his own, including an octagonal room.

Playable game pieces or dioramas are equally possible with Castlemolds. You can cast the bricks and rearrange them until you're sure it looks the way you want. For example, I built a very narrow corridor as a test when building my dungeon, then realized no miniatures fit in a 1" wide space. What did it cost me? About 20 cents worth of plaster and half an hour.

Castlemolds stumble in some areas. Science fiction is usually about steel, glass and smooth surfaces. If it isn't a stony surface like a bunker or the rubble from a destroyed building, molds don't help much. And natural elements, like plants, cliffs or the insides of caves, can't easily be made into molds either. When Hirst Arts started, it was all about Fantasy Architecture. Some new molds have begun edging into science fiction, but I haven't seen anyone build anything interesting from them yet. (Update: 1/1/08 ... as mentioned, science fiction and cavern Castlemolds exist now.)

But think about it this way: if Dwarven Forge sold molds for Master Maze rather than selling the pieces, how many molds would that be? Over 70? Maybe a couple is more like it. There are advantages to each product, but Castlemolds clearly hold the upper hand for variety when it comes to dungeons.



This picture is an example of the accessories you can get from Dwarven Forge. Of course, these are useful with any dungeon.



This was created by Bart van Dijk. The steps are about two inches wide, so you can see this is a pretty big display. No other product by any company comes close to the mind-boggling displays you could build with Castlemolds.

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Tue Jan 01, 2008 5:46 pm View user's profile Send private message
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Compatibility



Master Maze is compatible with just about every scenery product I've seen. It's in 28mm scale, so it is a bit small compared to the Mage Knight miniatures, for example, but nothing WizKids makes looks out of place in the Master Maze system. I've got the Mage Knight Dungeons accessories in my Master Maze, as well as some Grendel pieces, some Armorcast, some Games Workshop, Mystic Moldwyrks, Pegasus Hobbies, RAFM and Irregular Miniatures, and none of it looks out of place. I've got miniatures from Wizards of the Coast, Lance and Laser, Games Workshop, Reaper and Ral Partha, and they all look fine.

Since the system is 28mm, smaller miniatures do look a little better. They're more appropriate emerging from certain portals and in general everything looks bigger and more cavernous with small miniatures in place than with the more recent trend of large miniatures. That said, I've pretty much exclusively stocked my displays with 30mm Reaper figs and Chainmail figs from Wizards of the Coast, and they've looked perfect. (The pic above is of a Reaper well in a Master Maze set-up, painted by Lawrence.)



Recently people have discovered that with a little modification, Castlemolds can make pieces that fit almost seamlessly with Master Maze pieces. The big attraction here is you can buy the Master Maze Cavern set and a couple Castlemolds to make the rest of the dungeon. (The pic above was provided by Paul Owensby, showing how no modification needs to be made to Castlemolds fieldstone bricks to produce the same sized corridors as Master Maze.)

Castlemolds literally fit everything, since you have so many choices of molds and the sizes of the bricks in them. I've spoken to people who have combined Castlemolds pieces with other resin terrain like ForgeWorld, Ainsty, Armorcast, Epicast and Crusader29.

I'm going to disagree with Lawrence here and say there's little chance you could fit Master Maze with any other resin product line except for dungeon accessories. There are isolated instances where you can fit another resin terrain piece into a Master Maze dungeon, but little else.

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Scale

Mage Knight miniatures work well in Master Maze, though in some instances you have to use your imagination. The large bases of the MK system would make it impossible to fit miniatures next to each other if you don't have a lot of room and that might ruin a game for some people. It's not necessarily a problem however, and many issues of Scrye magazine have used pictures of MK miniatures in a Master Maze dungeon, so it can work. It would only be a problem if you wanted to play a game of dungeons with particularly small rooms and narrow passages; in that case, movement would be more restricted than technically necessary.



Master Maze comes in one size. You can play with 20mm - 30mm miniatures and that's about it. While this is the majority of miniatures that would be used in a dungeon, large monsters can't fit down the hallways or through the doors.

But if a game uses miniatures, Hirst Arts has a mold. Castlemolds let you build to suit your needs. I've built structures for Epic 40k, a 6mm science fiction game, as well as the usual 30mm fantasy stuff. There's no reason you couldn't use the Small Bricks Mold #250 to make terrain for Mechwarrior: Dark Ages. There are several Castlemolds specifically for Mage Knight. Even WizKids has dungeons that they use at conventions made from Castlemolds! Can you get a better endorsement than that?

(The pic above was made by Bruce Hirst and is for Mage Knight Dungeons. You can see how the figures clearly have room to move around, as the squares are the same dimensions as Mage Knight Dungeons tiles.)

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Time



Master Maze rates very well here, as it is ready for use right out of the box and needs no preparation whatsoever. You do have to assemble a dungeon and if you want to move it then you have to dissassemble it. If you go from place to place gaming and you want a large dungeon, count on needing an hour or so for assembly and a half-hour to take it apart. It would take far less time, for example, to slap together a castle with the Mage Knight castle pieces, throw some trees, shrubs and boulders around it and start a siege than it would to set up an elaborate Master Maze dungeon, even if you weren't tempted to distribute scrolls, magic axes, chests of gold and traps throughout the joint.

(The pic above could represent Smaug's lair under the mountain, with plenty of room for gigantic battles. But it only takes a few minutes to set up or take down, straight out of the box.)

That said, the time involved for <b>both</b> products is actually a selling-point for their admirers. Master Maze fans enjoy re-assembling dungeons, making minor changes to their arrangements, and deriving new ways to use the components. Hirst Arts fans, similarly, enjoy painting and assembling castles, towers, ruins and so forth, and most find the modeling aspect to be one of the great joys of the hobby.

When you buy Master Maze, the only time it takes is to open the box and set it on the table in an eye-pleasing layout. Buy it an hour before the game and prepare to amaze your friends.

Castlemolds, on the other hand, require an extraordinary amount of time. Once you have the molds, plaster, a place to work and some basic tools, you should prepare for many, many hours before you're even ready to put the building together. For example, some buildings require casting the same mold 18 times. Since it takes 30 minutes for plaster to harden enough to be popped out of the mold, that's 9 hours of casting time. Better have a book to read! I've found some people were disappointed with the staggering amount of time it takes to cast, assemble and paint Castlemolds.



(This model is an extreme example. This Cathedral, built by Bruce Hirst, requires four molds -- total price: $144.00. You have to cast one 24 times, one 18 times, one 21 times and one 18 times, for a total of 81 casts. Even the building plans are too big to mailed out; you have to download them off the internet.)

There are some solutions: buy or make more molds and/or use a plaster accelerator. With extra molds I can cast 250 basic bricks at a time. With a US Gypsum accelerator mixed in with the plaster, I can go from dry plaster to popping out the pieces in 15 minutes. So I can churn out 6,000 bricks in a weekend. Note: I am not normal.

Once you have the bricks cast, assembly is normally fast. That's the part where the building or dungeon takes shape. I'm so excited it just flies together. But then you have to wait for the glue to dry, which is usually overnight.

Painting isn't quick. This, as Lawrence mentioned, is a major pain for some people. When I asked other owners of Castlemolds what annoyed them the most (casting, assembly or painting), the largest complaint was painting -- not just because it took time but because after all that work, a bad paintjob can really spoil the whole project.

Anyway, I use plain, matte black spraypaint as a basecoat. It's cheap, gets into most cracks and dries in an hour. Then I paint it by hand with water-based black paint. That takes 1-2 hours to soak into the plaster bricks and dry. Then you can drybrush it with grey and white paint, which usually takes hours depending on how large the object is.

One thing you must decide when looking at any game scenery is time. How much do you have? Be aware any mold starts with the assumption you have time to cast, assemble and paint. As for comparing Master Maze to Castlemolds, time is a deciding factor. One isn't better than the other, they're just different.

You could, in theory, build any terrain piece without Castlemolds ... but almost nobody ever has. Using foam, wood and other materials, you could construct a big dungeon for playing D&D. How long would that take you? Where would you get help if you ran into a problem? So in a way, Castlemolds shorten the distance between you and your own dungeon. In comparison to when we were kids, making your own dungeons out of Castlemolds takes much less time.

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Tue Jan 01, 2008 5:55 pm View user's profile Send private message
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Post Convenience, Durability & Storage Reply with quote
Convenience, Durability & Storage

Dwarven Forge is the best company out there for storage, bar none. Every DF product, from miniatures to building sets, comes in its own carrying case. The miniatures and accessories are packed in a form-fitting tray and the building sets all come with custom-molded styrofoam. The building pieces themselves have felt on the bottom to protect the surface you're using for your display and to keep the pieces themselves from chipping as you move them around. Everything fits perfectly and efficiently into the box it came in and can be moved and stored with ease and with total confidence that nothing will break.

It's easy and simple and there's no need to buy extra carrying cases for everything. The pieces are also highly durable: I've been building and rebuilding for a year and a half, I've moved my displays from the den to the study and I have yet to get so much as a single chip. I've even dropped pieces by accident and still nothing (though I wouldn't recommend doing that again!)



(This is a good example. Glorious and magnificent, isn't it? Now where are you going to put it?)

While Castlemolds can be used in the same way as Master Maze, a quick glance at the Hirst Arts website reveals that it tends to be used differently. This can pose a problem: say you had the time and talent to make several of the great displays shown there. Where would you put them? Ask any parent of an 8 year-old the following question: if you had a lifetime supply of free Lego bricks, would you allow your child to build things and not require her to take her displays apart at the end of the day? You could, after all, just leave them up and use new bricks for future play. Most parents would say no, because of storage. Even if you have the time and talent for Castlemolds, you are going to need a place to put your creations, and with time that will get tricky. Sure you can sell them, give them away, throw them out. But once you've put effort into them, that would be a tough decision. With Master Maze, even if you really love a display, you can take it apart and re-assemble it in an hour, maybe two at the most. Feeling nostalgic for a display you had two years ago? Keep a log of your designs, and rebuild it in an hour. Try to re-create that Castlemolds Cathedral of Despair you sold at a con last year! With Master Maze, it's so easy to rebuild, you aren't reluctant to take it apart and put it back in the box, slide it under the bed or at the top of the closet. Storage is a non-issue, and you don't have to choose between the display you like now and the one you want to build. If the Ruins of Cargaar Keep and the Wizard's Library are each huge displays, no problem -- build one now, replace it later, then get it back. With Castlemolds, you have to pick one -- build both, and the wife will make you sleep in one of 'em for a month! For those of us with families, hence a limited storage capacity, the recycability of Master Maze is a real advantage.

Lawrence is right about Master Maze, it really is best for storage.

Castlemolds themselves take up no room. They are usually stored flat in a drawer to protect them from sunlight. But whatever you make from the molds probably won't fit any specific box. This means you should consider storage before making something with Castlemolds. I stopped building my dungeon because I'm not playing D&D right now and the 20 large rooms and corridors were starting to take up too much room. This raises the subject of modularity again: people tend to build whole rooms and corridors with Castlemolds, rather than sections you can assemble into rooms and corridors. You could build L-shaped sections like Master Maze, but most people don't. This is another reason why Castlemolds cause a storage problem.

Shoeboxes are sometimes the best for storing individual pieces. Also, odds are you will use plain old Plaster of Paris to cast the bricks. While it's cheap as dirt, plaster is not durable. I've dented, dinged and dropped pieces lots and they've taken damage. The terrain I've seen in stores is badly damaged. It's very easy to repair though and lots of people think a repaired building looks better!

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Tue Jan 01, 2008 5:58 pm View user's profile Send private message
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Post Price/Cost Reply with quote
Price/Cost

For Master Maze, the price is high compared to some scenery that's out there, but works out very well given the modular nature of the sets. The cheapest approach, in the short term, would be to buy individual pieces for around $10-20. Items like the mermaid fountain, the spiral stairs, the secret door or cavern elements could all be incorporated into a display from another source, with very little cost (just about everything I just listed is less than $15).

This is more expensive in the long-run however, as individual pieces cost less if you buy them in sets. The basic room set is about $70 and a room-and-passage set usually goes for about $100. The cavern set is a bit more (about $120) and the add-on sets are usually around $60-70. Miniatures are about $5 each and available in packs of 3, 9 or about 20 and each accessory set (furniture, accessories, treasure) is about $30.

If you just want to spice up a display and spend little money, you can buy a few $10 pieces from Master Maze. If you'd like to make a few basic rooms, it costs about $60 for a minimal set-up. To make a complete 4'x3' dungeon, with no "table space" showing through, you need about 2 room sets, a cavern set and a Wicked Additions set. That would cost about $300-400, depending on where you go and how you approach it. That is what I would consider a moderate investment in Master Maze. It gives you a lot more than you'd need to get started, allows you to make more elaborate, bigger displays, keeps you busy for a long time, but it still isn't what you'd want to fill a large gaming table.

The size of the layout matters a lot. With Master Maze, you can buy some rooms and corridors for $60 and just play with that. You don't have to leave a room on the table once the characters have left it, so it's reusable. But if you want to leave it all laid out while playing -- an impressive sight -- then you need multiple sets. This is where Master Maze gets expensive. It can cost up to $400 to get enough rooms and hallways to set up a full dungeon.

And this is where Castlemolds excel. Since you're buying a mold and can cast your own rooms, large displays are only slightly more expensive than small ones. Supplies for Castlemolds are minimal; I buy the cheapest paint at the hardware store and plaster at 17 cents per pound. The average price per room falls if you cast a lot. If you buy a couple molds for $70 total and make one room, that's one expensive room. But if you made 200 rooms and 100 hallways, all of different sizes (which has been done), the average cost is less than 25 cents each.

This is why owners of Castlemolds say Master Maze is so expensive. They look at a modest investment in molds that can produce any size dungeon -- or even dungeons for their friends or the local game store -- then they compare that to spending hundreds of dollars to get the same effect with Master Maze. Of course there are 75 Castlemolds at the time of writing, for over $2,000. It would be hard to buy that much Master Maze and have a use for it all.

There is a small market on the internet for dungeons and ruins created from Castlemolds. That makes recouping a little of the Castlemolds cost possible. Don't think you're going to make a fortune doing it though. There are scores of people who all had the same idea and were disappointed. Gamers like to buy terrain face-to-face, so you can probably get more trade value from your friends or local game store. I traded five terrain pieces for $280 retail at a local game store, for example.

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Tue Jan 01, 2008 6:03 pm View user's profile Send private message
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Post Availability Reply with quote
Availability

Master Maze is not impossible to find at game stores, but it isn't as plentiful as Warhammer or Mage Knight. Many retailers are cautious about large, expensive items like the building sets, but most will gladly order something for you if you want it. You can also order directly from the Dwarven Forge: www.dwarvenforge.com.

You can also go to any number of on-line retailers, some of whom offer discounts. Failing that, just type in "Dwarven Forge" and "Master Maze" at Google and see what comes up! Always ask about discounts, especially if you are going to buy a lot. Most places will give you a chunk off the total if you're buying three or four $60 building sets all at once! Shipping can be pricey, since it's heavy stuff, but if you can find a good discount, it can still work out to your advantage. If you order directly from Dwarven Forge, they offer free shipping on orders over $225 and they're open to discounts on large orders if contacted.

Hirst Arts products can only be bought over the internet. There are one or two stores in the world that also sell them on a special arrangement, but your local store can't call a distributor and get Castlemolds. Go to the Hirst Arts site to order them online: www.hirstarts.com or www.castlemolds.com.

Castlemolds are small and lightweight, so they cost very little to ship. From when you order to when they're at your doorstep is only 2 days. Hirst Arts gives a 10% discount and free shipping on orders of 5 molds, and a larger discount for really big orders. (In contrast, you should consider weight when ordering MasterMaze. Their resin is very heavy, and especially for international buyers, the shipping cost can be expensive.)

You can check out any number of sites that champion the amazing flexibility of Castlemolds. Dwarven Forge has almost no online support community, but there's a lot more for Hirst Arts. A massive gallery is over at www.voidgamers.com and of course here at www.terrainosaur.com, but check out the Links pages on the various sites for wonderful galleries and discussion groups.

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Tue Jan 01, 2008 6:05 pm View user's profile Send private message
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Post Summary Reply with quote
Summary

We believe both of these products are excellent. They each serve different kinds of gamers. If you want to take your games out of the theoretical and up to the next level, take a look at either Dwarven Forge's Master Maze or Hirst Arts' Castlemolds. You will be impressed.

--Mitch Michaelson & Lawrence Horsburgh

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Tue Jan 01, 2008 6:06 pm View user's profile Send private message
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