Game Spotlights

Published: May 30, 2024

Adam Knight

The Wide World of Playmats

Take a look at any crowdfunding campaign these days and you’ll likely see, stuffed into an all-in pledge or dropped among the extras, a playmat, probably neoprene (the stuff most mousepads are made of). Or swing by your local gaming store during a Magic tournament to witness a whole selection, often decked out in fantastic artwork. These playmats aren’t just personality statements, but functional accessories, meant to make your gaming more tactile, easier, and just plain more fun.

It’s All About the Surface, Silly

To dance back to the mousepads for a moment, consider the last time you tried to use a mouse on a counter, a desk, or (for those travelers among you), a chair or convenient leg. My guess: not a great time! Playmats serve the same need, coating an otherwise un-ideal surface—whether that’s a break room slab still sticky from spilled soda or a dinner table so slick picking up cards becomes the game itself—in a soft pad for all your cards, pieces, and game boards.

Playing Dominion or Magic and being able to scoop up those cards with ease thanks to the slight give in the neoprene is a small, yet revelatory, experience. It’s Playmatsjust so much easier and more satisfying. Your cards won’t slip around like they’re on ice, nor will dice scatter to the four winds with every roll. You’re eliminating minor irritations, and, cumulatively, getting a major boost to your gaming experience. Similar to a gaming table, but portable and far, far cheaper.

These smooth accessories offer more than just a dice dead zone: if a game has a proprietary playmat, it’ll often bring a larger playing area than the game board. You’ll know where to dump your discards and shuffle your draw pile, where tokens ought to be stacked, or how big of a map you have to create (looking at you, Eclipse, with your endless hexagons).

When playing something like Magic or another trading card game in a tournament setting, playmats offer more than the veneer of ‘style’. Even if you don’t care about upping your personal panache, a playmat helps keep your cards from splaying during a shuffle mishap, holds your creatures in line, and makes it visually clear what card is where. You’ll appreciate it, and so will your opponents.

And nothing is worse than setting your favorite card in a blot of orange soda mid-game. Save yourself the agony.

A Trio of Playmat Types

Three, like in so many things, is the magic playmat number. Many of you can and will make do with fewer, but if you’re engaged in two-player card game playing, smaller games, and the big, table-devouring titles, having a playmat for each set might be worth the investment, particularly if you don’t have a board game table.

First up, the smallest playmats. Usually made out in rectangles, these playmats cover the usual size of a Magic player’s area. They’ll suffice for rounds of games like Regicide or smaller solo experiences too. They’re cheaper, very portable, and often give you the best options for unique artwork. They also won’tPlaymat encroach on your opponent’s play space when you sit down across from them with your low cost, bizarro goblins (always the best Magic strat), an important part of what we might call ‘polite play’.

That said, if you’re not planning on dashing out to a tournament or dipping into small solo games, you can safely skip this size and go for its double instead. Play area mats give you room for, say, a full match of Star Wars: Unlimited or Flesh and Blood in a solid square. Usually covered with unique art—though specific, diagrammed playmats in this size are around for more common games—these are great if you’re supplying most of the game for your group. They’re also small enough to make for easy packing if you’re taking your cards on a trip.

If two-player card games are in your life, grabbing a generic playmat around this size will keep your precious decks safe without the gargantuan footprint of, well, what comes next.

In terms of neoprene excess, having a table-coating playmat, either a big rectangle or square, heavy enough to cause serious harm if wielded as a blunt instrument, is a statement in and of itself. For some games, like Cloudspire and the aforementioned Eclipse, these monster mats add substantial value in defining hexes and the overall play space. Ditto for miniatures games like Warhammer or Infinity, where delineating just where you can toss your space marines is important.

Can’t, you know, have your orc boyz galavanting off the planet, now can you?

Outside of those specific cases, big playmats make sense if your usual game nights happen in spaces somewhat outside of your control. Like, say, a church or a local game store, where remnants of pizza nights past haunt tabletops like greasy ghosts. Slapping these big boys down on top protects your precious pieces while adding just a touch of class. Then, when you’re done, just wash any stains off the waterproof neoprene and carry on.

Obviously, the bigger the playmat, the less portable it becomes, so finding the proper size to match the games you plan to play is worth the initial math. For me, Cloudspire’s playmat, which is double-sided for hex-free gaming on its opposite side, works just fine for pretty much everything else too.

Is it a tad ridiculous to roll out a table-sized mousepad for a board game? Sure, but they do feel real darn good, and I’ve yet to have anyone ask to go back to slick, stiff wood or plastic tabletops after giving it a shot.

Who Makes These Amazing Playmats?

The answer: everyone. For specific playmats, like ones giving your Ares Expedition game an upgrade, the game’s publisher is usually the best place to turn (or a store like Noble Knight, which offers a broad selection). But, particularly for smaller titles or wargames, there are some perfect playmats that offer value beyond a slab of neoprene.

Take, for example, the Old School Tactical playmats by Flying Pig Games. Designed to provide easy, visually appealing trackers for common wargame elements, like victory points, impulses, casualties, and turns. For paper map games or just to save precious setup seconds, just one of these inexpensive mats will cover your hex and counter collection.

For flashier, art-heavy playmats that reflect your favorite game or hero, look, again, to the publisher. Fantasy Flight Games has playmats aplenty showcasing Arkham and Game of Thrones characters, while a wide variety make playmats for Magic sets, showcasing characters, deck themes, or general ‘vibes’ you might want. Take a long look at the options, as there’s many.

If you want a specific piece, like making a pal a playmat with a great photo from that party they definitely regret attending, places like Inked Gaming let you order up a custom playmat either for yourself or as a gift for a friend, so they’ll never forget that wonderful and/or terrible day.

Lastly, if you find yourself awash in playmats, a not inconceivable problem if backing crowdfunding all-ins is a habit, consider storage tubes and/or clever stacking solutions, like a wine rack, to slot them into easy-access spots. And let’s be real: who needs to age a cabernet when that space could hold a fantastic Death Star Assault X-Wing mat instead?

Playmats: The Do-Everything Accessory

As optional additions go, playmats ought to be up on your list. Even a single mat can cover most of your card games, providing a safe and satisfying surface no matter where you happen to play. For card tournaments, a playmat keeps your game organized while keeping yesterday’s melted chocolate from sticking up your deck. They’re great gifts for the board gamer in your life, too.

And, should you find yourself lost in the wilderness, a giant playmat can serve as a blanket. A big, soft, mousepad blanket. What more could you want?