In our gaming group, we always have put emphasis on good-looking gaming tables. This doesn't mean you have to spend lots of money, but you must have an eye for things that go together: type of figures, buildings, even the colours of the lichen :-). Things should fit together to provide that coherent visual look.
Apart from the props such as figures, buildings, hills, etc., there are a few other things that bother me now and then, and which I consider sins against the visual appeal of a well-laid out miniature wargaming table.
- Place your soldiers in a plausible manner.
This is often sinned against in skirmish games. Players just grab individual figures, and plop them down wherever they need to be. I remember one instance in one of my hex-based games, in which a player just scooped up a handful of figures in one hex, and placed them (although straight-up!), in whatever clump he had them in hand in the target hex.
I believe that - even though it is irrelevant to the rules - figures should be placed in a believable manner. Kneeling figures in front and the standing ones in the back, the officer in the middle or towards the rear, one guy is hiding behind the tree, ... At least make them fire or face in the right direction, that's the least you can do for those poor little soldiers!
- Use dice of the same colour.
Over the years, many players have amassed lots of dice: different colours, different sizes, even different types of pips. Especially if you throw your dice across the table (but also when you use a dice tray), it is much more pleasing to the eye if you use all dice of the same size and the same colour. E.g. in our Black Powder games we have sets of D6's in a specific colour for each army. In our skirmish games that use polyhedral dice, all D10's are orange, D8's are yellow etc. Again, this is irrelevant to the rules, but more pleasing to the eye. "But it will cost me a fortune!" No, it will not. Besides, that's always a funny line to hear from guys who spend fortunes on their unpainted lead mountain.
- Use fences of the same type.
I have many types of fences, acquired over the years. When setting up a game some time ago, I instructed a friend to place the fences as instructed by the scenario. Guess what? All sections of fences of all types got mixed up. And there was no need for that - there were enough fences to make it look coherent and good.
The same goes for trees. Put trees together in a believable manner: no conifers next to deciduous trees (unless the climate allows for that! :-)).
- Use smallish scenery items.
Next to the big scenery items, such as woods, hills, rivers, etc., which have a role in the game, it also helps the visual appeal of the game if you place a lot of little rocks, lichen, foliage, scrubs, civilians, animals, ... I have a whole drawers full of such little thingies, sorted by period or theme: the "farm" drawer, the "city" drawer, the "fantasy" drawer. Such little things, which have no influence on the game, do make the battlefield come to life. I always feel very sorry for the game that is played on the proverbial billiard table with exactly one hill and one wood. Why bother painting your figures if you use the most simplistic terrain lay-out?
We adopted the practice at the start of each game to define the game-affecting features, and then conclude with "And everything else is scenery" - meaning you can ignore it as far as the rules are concerned, and move it out of the way when troops need the space.
- No cluttering of the table!
Not always easy, but you should make an effort: no cheat sheets, drinks, etc. on the gaming table. Otherwise, why bother laying out an attractive battlefield?