By Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture
Okay, this is a fun one. And there’s a lot to be said, so Gamer Bling probably will get straight to the subject without starting off on one of his usual tangential observations. Not to say that there won’t be digressions later on in the review, sort of like this one, but that’s just an occupational hazard, which is to say that if you read this blog at work, the extra time it takes for you to read these words could be hazardous to your occupation. So quick, think of a work-related reason to be surfing this site before your looming boss reads these words over your shoulder.
While the name “Bruce Hirst” may conjure up images of a devilishly handsome man who hangs out with celebutantes, he was doing nothing of the sort when Gamer Bling met him at Gen Con Indy 2007. Bruce is the owner of the logically if unimaginatively named Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture, or HAFA, an acronym which is easily remembered as “hi-fi” spoken in a nasal northeastern accent. Of course, to remember that, you’ll need a mnemonic for “ ‘hi-fi’ spoken in a nasal northeastern accent.” And HFSIANNA doesn’t cut it. Oh, well.
Hirst Arts makes fantasy molds. Not the lame yellow mold kind you find sitting in dungeons, or the strangely mobile kind of violent fungus that lurks in dank places with tentacles—tentacles of all things!—but the kind of mold with which one can cast items out of plaster.
Like most castings involved with fantasy role-playing, these involve somatic and material components as well as a focus. For those who’ve been faking expertise all along, “somatic” means you do stuff, “material” means you use stuff, and “focus” means that if you don’t pay attention, you’ll likely screw it up.
So Gamer Bling spoke with Bruce Hirst about this site, and Bruce was eager to see his stuff get reviewed, clearly confident that Gamer Bling would end up as excited about these as he in fact turned out to be. And so Gamer Bling went home with Bruce’s business card and a promise to look at the products and get a review going.
Then Gamer Bling promptly lost the card.
Sometimes Gamer Bling is pretty darned lame.
Fortunately, Gamer Bling’s scoop on the upcoming 4e giveaway from Alliance and WotC brought this site a whole bunch of extra traffic, and Gamer Bling was able to track one of the incoming links back to Hirst Arts, and all was well with the world again.
Why were the people at Hirst Arts concerned about a DM screen? Because their fans thought they could do better with Hirst Arts’ Castlemolds™. That’s right, fans, Castlemolds are silicon rubber molds with which you can create plaster castings of a variety of fantasy or sci-fi architecture. You can then use these various bits to create dungeons, castles, bridges, ruins, cathedrals, or your own Even More Ultimate DM Screen of Dooooom!
This, of course, means that you have to have something to cast the pieces out of. While plaster of Paris works fine, Hirst Arts recommends using dental plaster, which is far stronger. And, in a coincidence that threatens to utterly vaporize any pretense of credibility that Gamer Bling may have left in the public arena, it just so happens that Gamer Bling’s semi-regular D&D gaming group meets in the break room of a dental laboratory.
Truly, even Gamer Bling was amazed.
Thus Gamer Bling spoke with the ever-patient Bruce Hirst and they mutually agreed that, to start this review, Gamer Bling should begin with the easy stuff, the better not to overtax the smooth lobes of his brain. So, even though the gothic molds look cooler, Gamer Bling opted for some fieldstone molds.
Fieldstone is, in an historic sense, what you’d run into most of the time in medieval times: stuff built out of stones that folks found lying about in the fields. The stones were lying about, that is, not the people, who toiled dawn to dusk but, at least in the real world, never got eaten by hobgoblins. That we know of. So perhaps you can understand why, if you spent all that time digging big rocks out of your farmland, you might as well build something with them, right?
The fieldstone molds are suitable for ruined towers, dungeon interiors, and isolated buildings like the evil necromancer’s research laboratory and Goth dance club.
The fieldstone molds are also simpler to use and the pieces are more universally useful. Fieldstone walls are little more than an organized pile of rocks, which can be used for just about anything. Compare that to an ornately carved flying buttress with gargoyle, which can only be used to model an ornately carved flying buttress with gargoyle (or occasionally a multi-axis computer-controlled pulsed-laser marking system), and you might see why Gamer Bling opted to start with the fieldstone stuff.
So one day Gamer Bling got a Priority Mail flat-rate envelope in his P.O. Box. And since it wasn’t from the IRS, he opened it and found some molds inside. For some reason he thought the molds would be larger, but since they are efficient, unlike Gamer Bling, and work as they’re supposed to, unlike Gamer Bling, it’s all good. Unlike Gamer Bling.
The molds came dusted with a little baby powder to keep them from sticking together while being shipped. So Gamer Bling took them in the shower with him and washed them clean. Yes, occasionally Gamer Bling showers with his blingy accessories. Deal with it.
It happened that Gamer Bling got the molds the day before D&D night, so he quickly did his research by watching the very helpful videos on the Hirst Arts website to get an idea of what he should do.
At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, Gamer Bling will point out that he has done some modeling before. He remembers clearly his first model: a 1/72 Spitfire that had eleven pieces total. It was a challenge to his budding brain. He then went on to build a variety of 1/72 WWII aircraft, which he had a lot of fun painting. He then went on to buy a bunch of 1/35 Tamiya figures and vehicles. He most enjoyed the personalization possible with the figures, having everyone’s gear hung on their combat web a little bit differently and such.
All that said, Gamer Bling has never done any casting of molds. Unless you count the Thingmaker™ he had when he was a kid, which was great fun until a consumer safety group decided he was risking his very life every time he played with it. Why, he could get burned! Maybe even badly, with a blister and everything! So where, O where were the consumer safety people when Gamer Bling got badly burned by his ex-wife, hmm? If Gamer Bling could choose one of those two items to be forever banned from America, do you think it would be the Thingmaker, which produced fun little plastic monsters, or the ex, who is a not-fun living monster?
See? Gamer Bling warned you that there would be some tangents.
The bottom line is that Gamer Bling never erupted in spontaneous human combustion, despite casting dozens of creatures in his Thingmaker. And now he is once again toying with his longevity in this mortal coil, thanks to Hirst Arts!
So Gamer Bling shows up for game night, freshly cleaned Castlemolds in tow. (Well, technically, in a box.) On that particular week we did not meet at the dental lab, but at someone’s house, thus Gamer Bling had to prevail upon our resident dental laboratory professional to bring a large plastic baggie of raw material.
Gamer Bling and his companions quickly whipped up a batch of plaster (too thin for our resident lab rat’s taste) and dumped in unceremoniously into the molds to see what would happen. We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, because hey, we had gaming to do.
And here’s what happened: we got some bubbles in the molds.
Now let Gamer Bling explain: When casting a mold, you’re pouring a thick liquid into a finely detailed receptacle. With all those delicately carved pockets of detail, it’s not hard for some air to get trapped. In order to get a good cast, you want all that air out. There are several de-bubbling methods, which include:
1) Using a vibrating table. Vibrations jiggle the bubbles back and forth, allowing the plaster to reach more of the surface of the mold. Eventually the air bubbles to the surface of the plaster. As we didn’t have a vibrating table, we just thumped on the marble counter top, with predictably mediocre results.
2) Using a thinner mix. The thinner the plaster, the easier it flows. Conversely, the easier it breaks when it dries. Our resident dental tech wouldn’t let us cut the plaster any thinner. It was against his religion and he threatened us with a putty knife.
3) Using a surfactant. Also known as a wetting agent, this is the sort of stuff tidy folks like the Gamer Bling Official Companion use to keep their glasses spot-free in the dishwasher. Using a surfactant (called wet casting) makes it very easy for the plaster to completely fill the mold. Gamer Bling has endeavored to create a surfactant for his pocket to make it easier for money to completely fill it, but all he ended up with was a soggy wallet.
Anyway, Gamer Bling used none of the above methods. There was gaming to do, and when we broke off last session, the party was on the verge of a TPK.
Well, he used one if you count thumping on the counter on which the molds sat for a few minutes while the GM set up. So why did Gamer Bling deliberately refuse to follow the Hirst Arts directions? Two reasons: first, he wanted to see how badly the molds came out if he was moderately careless; and second, as noted, there was gaming to do.
Six minutes after pouring the plaster, Gamer Bling scraped the excess plaster goo from the top of the mold. Twenty-five minutes after that (or thereabouts; we were gaming), he started popping the plaster pieces from the molds, and little scale fieldstone walls, wooden barrels, and other paraphernalia dropped into his hands.
“Cool!” said Gamer Bling, adding a verbal component to his casting, completing the quadrifecta of V, S, M and F, which are the very same letters that sponsored last week’s edition of Sesame Street.
Two hours after that, we discovered that we’d left one of our host’s butter knives embedded in the glass of hardened plaster.
We got the knife out. We couldn’t get the bubbles out.
Now as to the bubbles: in some cases, they rendered the castings nigh useless for a perfectionist like Gamer Bling. In other cases, the bubbles bordered on an enhancement. For example, the open barrel cast had two small bubbles, one at the rim and one at the base, and they were both small enough that it just looks like the barrel has chipped wood. Likewise, small bubbles in the fieldstone look like a frost fracture, where a small piece of stone has broken off.
On the other hand, some of the bubbles were too big and too round to look natural. In these cases, you have four choices: deal with it, throw the piece out, try to patch it with more plaster, or use a pair of pliers to break away the bubbled part, at which point you’re left with a cool-looking broken piece for use in rubble or what have you.
Of course, some pieces never look natural with bubbles or chips. The sacks of grain, for example. C’est la vie.
Anyway, once you have a molded piece, just let it dry completely and you’re good to go. The pieces are tough and easy to use. Like Legos. Decide your floorplan, build your stuff and glue it together, paint it up, and go play!
Curiously, Bruce Hirst uses the wash-paint-drybrush technique, rather than the more common paint-wash-drybrush technique. Gamer Bling would think that was odd, but he uses it too, at least when he paints figs. By which he means miniature figures, not small Middle Eastern fruits. But when painting something as large as a tower, Gamer Bling will wash second, because the Gamer Bling Official Companion insists that he always wash after painting.
Another great advantage is that many of these pieces are usable for different purposes. Painted differently, the crystal ball mold can be used to top a decorative column. Floor tiles can be glued back to back to make wall tiles and break up some of the horizontal seams. Treat the pieces like Legos, and you’ll get more mileage out of them.
Best of all, some of the molds have “broken” pieces. Each broken piece is designed to mate perfectly with a copy of itself to create a whole. So two identical half floor tiles mesh together to make a whole floor tile. Ditto ruined wall pieces, etc. So if you build your stuff right, you can have a floor that can split open with an earthquake, or a house that can have the wall blown apart after a fireball. How fun is that? (Hint: a lot.)
So much fun that the others in Gamer Bling’s group promptly went out and bought a bunch of other molds. And, being the dimwitted cohorts they are, they promptly forgot to inform Bruce Hirst that “Gamer Bling sent them.”
Some guys. Sheesh. No help at all.
Unlike Hirst Arts. They are very helpful. Their website is packed with how-to guides for almost every one of their molds. Really inspirational, helpful, and, according to The Gamer Bling Official Companion, time-wasting. There’s a lawn to mow, after all.
Clearly, the biggest weak point is that the molds have no instant gratification. None! In fact, it requires a lot of do-it-yourself work. Gamer Bling is fond of having other people do his work for him. Consider the Gamer Bling Official Companion: She cooks (wonderfully), she cleans, she does the laundry, she shops, and she occasionally brings Gamer Bling a hot chai while he types. In short, the Gamer Bling Official Companion is quite close to being the ideal subservient wife, except for that whole “subservient attitude” clause.
In fact, occasionally the whole non-subservient attitude flexes its claws like an angry dragon and Gamer Bling scampers around the house doing a variety of tasks and muttering “yes dear yes dear yes dear,” after which the whole cycle can start anew.
Gamer Bling sincerely hopes the Official Companion doesn’t read this.
In any event, Gamer Bling doesn’t like anything that resembles manual labor, because he knows very well that Manuel Labor is the President of Mexico and probably part of the Axis of Evil besides. So, if you are a sessile lump like Gamer Bling, this might not be the best option for you.
The second weakness is you pretty much have to choose between modular dungeon bits or one-shot custom-built scenery dripping with flavor.
If you want your pieces to be interchangeable like geomorphic maps, you’ll want to use one consistent paint scheme throughout. This, of course, runs counter to the idea of making each piece a unique representation. Build something unique and it will be hard to mate with other pieces, and the little flavorful section will look out of place.
Gamer Bling wants both interchangeability and unique flavor, which means he must cast twice as many molds. And still half of his piece swill not be interchangeable.
Third weakness: Maximum production efficiency requires a fairly hefty investment. More molds = more efficiency. Otherwise, you’ll have to find other hobbies (or, the Gamer Bling Official Companion reminds him, household chores) to do while casting. Or be like Gamer Bling, and game with a dental laboratory professional and have him do molds for you with his leftover dental plaster and a high-fidelity (ha-fa) vibrating table.
If you don’t have a vibrating table, you’ll have to find another option. One possibility would be to use the clothes dryer. Placing your molds on top of the dryer, that is, not inside. Inside is bad. If your dryer is well balanced, you may need to toss a couple sneakers inside to boost the good vibrations. Other options include one of those hypersonic jewelry cleaners, or on top of a speaker when it’s thumpin’ out the bass. Or just do what Hirst Arts does and make your own vibrating table for about $40.
Fourth weakness: The molds require other investments, aside from the aforementioned vibrating table. You’ll need glue (cheap), paint (cheap), a putty knife (cheap), plaster (cheap), and time (priceless). And if you want to do any further customizing, like making a vine crawling its way up a wall, there’ll be other miscellanea.
Final weakness: You’ll need to clear some storage space for all the molds and dungeons you make.
The Bottom Line
These are awesome! Gamer Bling is so majorly geeking out! So much so that he is writing sentences like those last two that make him sound like a teenage girl with a crush! How embarrassing!
Great for role-players, great for mini gamers, great for folks who want a better way to display their painted figs. Gamer Bling cannot recommend these highly enough. For anyone serious about blinging up their game, these are a must. And it’s just downright fun. All the fun of K’nex and grade-school crafts with all the inherent coolness of making hot-looking 3-D dungeons and such.
If it seems like a lot of work, consider engaging your friends to help. But if you’re willing to spend some of your down time prepping, or even taking a break in your game every half hour or so to empty the molds and get new ones starting, these babies are worth it. Just be sure you’re going to follow through. Gamer Bling hates to see anyone spend money on a craft they never pursue. Like all the foreign stamps Gamer Bling has in one of his drawers…
Bling Factor: 10
Price: $21-$42 per mold
You need: One for basic dungeons. Five for a solid, well-rounded set. Ten or more if you want good variety.
Hirst Arts is an example of what makes America strong: a sole proprietorship. Bruce Hirst saw a niche need and filled it excellently. All that to say that Hirst Arts does not have an extravagant website budget, thus he has no ability to create Gamer Bling coupon codes and the like. But he does give discounts for multiple molds, so just click here and order direct.
Still, when you buy from him, please tell him Gamer Bling sent you. That way Gamer Bling can review more molds for your fun and edification. And you’ll get to vicariously see yours truly jump up and down and squeal like a girl.
And Gamer Bling promises he won’t take them into the shower anymore.
There are no limits. Asian-themed molds. Wooden house molds. Licensed Warmachine or Warhammer or Hammermachine molds.
Fieldstone Wall Mold #70 – $34
This makes walls that look like random fieldstones. All wall sections are ½”w x ½”h; you stack three of them to make a complete wall. Excellent for dungeons, cottages or any structure needing irregular stone. Includes 14¾” of fieldstone wall (in 11 sections ranging from ½” to 3″), 3 varied archway pieces (needs multiple castings), and some other fiddly bits like a torch sconce.
Fieldstone Accessories Mold #71 – $34
This mold contains additional pieces that enhance the fieldstone mold #70. Pieces include a stair section, a 2″ wide arch (needs 2 castings), wooden door, recessed arches, rounded step pieces, a grate builder block, decorative railings, smooth columns with two different pedestals, some beveled wall pieces, and a flagstone.
Ruined Fieldstone Mold #75 – $34
This mold will make square pillars / buttresses, ruined blocks, arches and floor tiles. One of the most beautiful design choices made for this set is that if you cast two copies of each individual ruined piece, the two fit together to make a full block, arch or floor tile. Brilliant customer-friendly execution in Gamer Bling’s opinion. Which is, frankly, the only opinion that counts. To Gamer Bling at least.
Cavern Accessory Mold #85 – $34
Dungeon Accessories would have been a better name. This mold has all the little things you find lying about in dungeons. A large open wooden crate with lid that almost makes a Russian doll with the smaller closed crate, chests, barrels, bucket, dock sections, doors, treasure, supplies, fire (two pieces that can be used separately or joined together), cave formations, doors, fountains, and other miscellanea. Way worth it just to have props for your game.
Flagstone Floor Tile Mold #260 – $29
Used to make flagstone floor tiles. Duh. These can be arranged in a grid for easy character movement or randomized using the smaller pieces for a fairly seamless floor. Can also be used on their sides for extra wall pieces to break up seams or for truly modular dungeon rooms. 16 tiles covering 12 square inches.