Wargame Counters Using the GIMP

The GIMP is an image manipulation program intended to allow people to manage and manipulate images. It has a reputation for being difficult to use. In part, this is due to a different image model than people are used to, and a lack of handy creation tools (I haven't found a good polygon generator in GIMP, for example). For this reason I'm not going to be talking much about creating images. I'm assuming that images you need have already been created. And if not, a tool like Microsoft Paint or mtPaint should be enough.

As we will be talking about wargames, at least two resources are important before we begin. There is the "Making Your Own Counters" page, which I think simply must be read before beginning. There is the discussion on the forum of Board Game Geek of folding board creation, which is excellent. Please also note that Board Game Geek has a section on "Do It Yourself" games, and a section on "Board Game Design", all of which are useful.


You'll need spray glue, chipboard, access to someone who can do color printing (or a color printer), something to cut chipboard, and a rolling pin. Though many of the tutorials recommend fancy cutting tools, a pair of scissors works best for me. I do my printing by uploading graphics to Fedex Office and picking them up in the morning. I don't print enough color images to make purchasing a dedicated color printer worthwhile. If you use scissors, you might want to invest in a simple scissors sharpener.


GIMP is a particularly good layout tool, able to work in small fractions of an inch. Once you "get it", it becomes relatively simple to create larger masters of the counters you desire, and then assemble them into sheets in the form you want.

GIMP is also free. No cost, so your initial investment in time and energy costs you nothing.

Third, if map making is your cup of tea, there is an online forum called the Cartographer's Guild, which is a collection of enthusiastic map makers. They focus on role playing maps, but that's a small step to battle maps in a modern context. One GIMP tutorial in particular to point out is RobA's "Using GIMP to Create an Artistic Regional RPG Map".

GIMP Education and Youtube

There are an overwhelming number of GIMP tutorials on Youtube, showing you step by step how to do things. The biggest problems with those tutorials is that they're using old versions and getting to specific tools is often version specific. That said, watching a tutorial on layers in GIMP and learning how to use layers is critical to getting best performance out of GIMP.

Specifics - AH Panzerblitz games

To start, fire up GIMP and create a new canvas. Make sure you're working in full color (that's the default) and that your foreground is black (color 000000) and your background is white (color ffffff). You'll want to make a canvas that is 3.125 inches in size and has 320 pixels per inch. The reason for this is that Panzer Blitz family counters are 5/8 inches in size. So your working materials will turn out best if you use multiples of 80 pixels per inch. 320 ppi has the advantage that the resultant square is a 1000 pixel by 1000 pixel array, a nice size to be working in.

The 3.125 inch square is a counter master. You'll build counter masters at a larger size than your counter sheets themselves. A counter sheet should be built at a size of 7.5 inches by 9.375 inches. Be sure to use a multiple of 80 pixels per inch for the counter sheets. I'm using 320 pixels per inch. Multiples of 400 should work well. As the more pixels you use, the more memory you consume, you'll need to make an educated guess as to the resolution you'll want in the end. Fedex Office can handle at least 400 ppi.

Make sure you have the following dialogs open at all times: these are the Toolbox dialog and the Layers dialog. On my version of GIMP, you can get to these by selecting Windows -> Dockable Dialogs and then selecting Tool Options and Layers. Layers come up in my version using CTRL L. To note, there are keyboard shortcuts in GIMP and you'll want to learn these, especially 'm' for the movement tool and 'SHIFT T' for the size transformation tool.

Select an image and load it into the GIMP. The GIMP understands a variety of formats and uses the XCF format as its native format. I work in XCFs, because in the end, I'll "print to file" to convert my XCF sheets into PDFs for posting on the Internet. If you want output as GIF or JPEG it will merrily convert to those formats as well.

I'll assume the image you loaded is a silhouette, a dark outline with white inside. To make a PB silhouette you'll need to darken the middle pieces. I use a bucket fill to do this. To note, this tool has many options. With black as foreground, I set up the bucket to do a foreground fill, the bucket to fill similar colors. If the region you're filling is not entirely closed off, you might end up filling the whole page, so blacken any lines that aren't complete.

If you're working with JPEGS, you'll note a fuzzy character to images. Even hand drawn silhouettes have color spots in otherwise white regions. You can erase those. Dark lines may not be entirely black, you can expand the view and fill those. Complex mixed areas of black and white, you're going to want to black out with a pencil. If the image is shaded, at some point, you're probably going to want to use the color threshhold tool (Colors -> Threshhold). This gives you a device to reduce the image to two colors, and can save you some work.

Challenger tank template

Once you have the image the way you like it, select it and then start working on the master square. Create a new layer, and make sure the layer is transparent. Use the Layer dialog to make sure that the layer is selected and paste the image into the transparent layer. Use 'shift T' to select the size, and change the size appropriately. I like to make sure my X and Y sizes are linked - there is a chain icon in the transform tool, make sure it looks connected. Once you're happy with the size, press 'm' and move the image into place. Then anchor (Layers -> Anchor Layer) the floating layer into place. At this point save your work in a format that preserves layers. I call this a template save. You should have two layers, a background layer, and a transparent layer on which your image resides. Nice thing is you can change the background without affecting the image; you can fix the image without affecting the background.

Next, to add text. Create a transparent layer above the image layer. It's on this layer we will add text. I use a number of fonts, but Mario Valerio Bonelli's Panzerleader 1970 variant uses a font very similar to Freesans, so often that's the font I use. I size the 4 corner text items at about 250 pixels, the middle weapon type icon I size to about 165. Text under the graphic is sized variously. Perhaps 105 or so. Please note that each individual piece of writing you do creates a layer. You'll have a stack of many layers at this point. I save this whole thing, and call it my base save. It's an ugly stack of layers, but the advantage in saving here is that I can go back and easily correct values and move things around before making my final image.

Challenger tank base

Positioning text: I use a grid, without turning snap to grid on. The extra size means manual positioning works well, and I can move text so that I have a reproducible space between the edge of my counter and the text location. With a 1000 pixel by 1000 pixel master, a grid of 50 is a reasonable choice. You can set up the grid with View -> Turn Grid On and you can size the grid with Image -> Select Grid Size.

Next, to make an image I can put on my counter sheet, I collapse all the layers into a single layer. Use Layers -> Merge Down. Use the Layers window to make sure you have selected the top most layer (highlight that layer in blue, on my machine) and collapse down to a single layer. I save this. If I were working with a Sherman tank, for example, my three saves to date would be Sherman template (image only), Sherman base (image with text, all layers), and Sherman collapsed (image to be used). This collapsed image is what I'll eventually place on my sheet.

Once you have a collection of collapsed images, you'll load them onto the counter sheet. This is time consuming, but pretty easy. Build your 7.5" by 9.375" master. Go View -> Turn Grid on, and also View -> Snap to Grid. Then go to Image -> Select Grid Size and use a 0.625 inch grid. Then on each and every collapsed image, load it into GIMP, select all, and copy. Paste into the sheet. Resize using shift T. Hit 'm' and move into position. CTRL C once in place to move into clipboard, and CTRL V to copy. Move the new copy into place. Repeat until you have as many copies as you like. Anchor the last selection using Layer options. Rinse, repeat, until you have all your counters in place.

When writing text on the counter sheet, turn off snap to grid, as it messes with positioning of text. Once you have the text, save the image. This is your master XCF sheet. To make a PDF, print to file. To make a PDF with a printed grid, first use Filter -> Render -> Pattern -> Grid. On a 7.5 x 9.375 master at 320 dpi, your spacing will be 200 pixels. 3 works well as a width, and offset should be zero. This will print a grid on your master. To note, *where* you place this grid counts. If you place the grid on the background layer below your text, text will overlay the grid. If you build a layer above your text, and build your grid on that, the grid will overlay your sheet text.

Color Backgrounds

Challenger tank color base

If you've been building masters in black and white, converting to color backgrounds is straightforward. Make a square. Find a color you like, or image you like, and then copy it. Paste it onto the master square, resize it and move it into place. Using View -> Snap to Canvas Edge is very useful here. Anchor the new layer into place. Save this file as a color background.

You can now take a collapsed image, and use the tool Colors -> Colors to Alpha. On the bar that sets the color to turn transparent, select it, and then look for the icon of the color selector; select the white background color with that tool. Then use the tool to make the background transparent. Select all, copy, and paste onto the color background. Center and Anchor the layer.

Perhaps simpler though would be to load your base image, and then load the color background file as a layer just above the white background template. Then collapse all the layers down and you have a color master for your counter sheet.