I’ve purchased a lot of board games over the past year. Too many, some (wrong) people might say. But I’ve also added a few items to my collection that have been conspicuous in their absence for the preceding three and a half decades that I’ve been into gaming: neoprene play mats.

The first one was a no-brainer really. I’d bought a copy of Star Wars: Armada, and unless you want your Imperial Star Destroyers cruising around on a backdrop of wood or Formica, you really need to invest in a nice star field. It looks the part (although it is a wee bit smelly when you first unroll it) and serves to delineate the play area — some are even printed with deployment areas.

A 6’x3′ or 3’x3′ star field is almost mandatory for games of X-Wing and Star Wars: Armada.

The next was certainly an extravagance: a play mat for my newly acquired copy of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Obviously you don’t need it for play (like I need any of my gaming stuff, right?) but it does give you a surface to play on that makes picking up cards easy and drapes a suitably thematic background onto your play area.

The next piece of rolled-up rubber that caught my eye was in a little game called Dark Deeds. I bought the game predominantly because it’s designed and illustrated by a couple of my old Games Workshop favourites: Andy Chambers and Mark Gibbons respectively.

Dark Deeds — a game of malicious minions… and a helpful play mat.

At first I thought the little neoprene mat that sat neatly in the box was a bit of a gimmick, but of course for a game whose main components are cards it makes them a cinch to pick up off the table, and again clearly delineates the play area and card/deck positions.

Another recently acquired small box game of mine that utilises a play mat rather than board is the excellent Onitama, which comes packaged in a long box with a magnetic lid that takes up little space on a shelf. The components can be easily unboxed into an inside jacket pocket for a trip down the pub, where the small format play mat comes into its own on those highly-varnished pub tables that are usually almost impossible to easily pick cards up from.

Onitama makes the packaging work with the play mat.

The next addition was undoubtedly a complete extravagance. Colt Express doesn’t have, or need, a board to place its funky little cardboard steam engine and carriages on, but for thematic effect a printable stretch of track in the same art style was made available by the devs.

Surprise, surprise and a few months later the same play mat is now available in neoprene, and (no surprise either) I snagged one to complete my Colt Express collection and soon discovered to my joy that it served more than just an aesthetic purpose: not only does it provide the typically nice surface to easily scoop cards from but also stop the train itself from sliding around from the prodding of the more sausage-fingered among us.

The Colt Express play mat — completely unnecessary, but totally cool!

Now all of the above might just be seen as rarities for those with poor self-control and more money than sense (guilty — at least on the first point), except for what’s happening on Kickstarter at the moment.

Now those of us that make a habit of throwing money at Kickstarter projects like, well, people with poor self-control and more money than sense, know that there are usually inevitable and often fairly needless optional buys added to campaigns in order wring every last penny out of the faithful. It’s like an evangelical church of tabletop gaming.

Certainly, CMON and Rising Sun… just take more of my money already!

However, although a neoprene play mat may well be fairly needless seeing as a standard board is provided, there’s no doubt that making available a play mat, usually larger than the original or incorporating expansion boards into a seamless playing surface, is now seen as a viable and almost standard practice.

It’s not just the big league players like Cool Mini Or Not with their multi-million dollar blockbuster campaign Rising Sun either. Smaller campaigns now offer this option too, such as Grey Fox Games’s Champions of Midgard and Academy Games’s 878 Vikings, the latter offering a 1052mm x 762mm mat over the 660mm x 480mm original board — even bigger than Rising Sun’s mat, which itself boasts a 20% increase in size over the original.

The upcoming Champions of Midgard play mat with built in expansion boards

So is this practice likely to permeate the entire board game market? Are board games really set to become play mat games? After all, the games mentioned above just scratch the surface of what’s available in the play mat market, from wargaming surfaces for Warhammer, 40K and the rest, to those for your favourite LCG like Netrunner.

It’s unlikely. For a start it would pose packaging problems, and a box is a far more shelf-friendly item than a tube, although Onitama has shown that it’s possible to effectively box some games with a mat and still maintain reasonable shelf visibility, but most modern board games utilise a considerably bigger board.

Netrunner play mat — LCGs and other card games are the natural market for neoprene mats.

Secondly there’s the cost. The best material for play mats is a fabric-topped neoprene mat (like a thin mouse mat), which requires considerably more manufacturing and thus money than the paper-topped cardboard alternative.

However, be not downcast if you’ve experienced the joy of a play mat and would like to use more. There are several companies on both sides of the Atlantic that will print any design you like onto play mats of varying materials, quality and prices. All you need to provide them with is a jpg or pdf file with an image of the correct scale.

Arkham Horror LCG custom player mat design by Paul Nojima.

Not only does this mean that you could scan and print your favourite boards onto neoprene, but also means that even if you maintain your original board, you can create small-format custom player mats for card-heavy games, and even create custom play areas of your own for games like Elder Sign (although Fantasy Flight has its own for that title), and there’s already fans producing just such content and making them readily available on sites like Boardgame Geek.

So what are you waiting for? Don’t let those scuba divers have all the fun with neoprene. Give it a try and prepare to be converted to it’s pliable, playable (if admittedly smelly) goodness.

For those interested in getting your custom designs printed onto a mat, try here:

Elder Sign play mat by Fantasy Flight Games

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