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A Day With Francis Tresham

by Dean Washburn

Spring 1996/Vol 3, no 1

In 1979, while attending a local game convention, my friend, Steve, and I learned a new and unique game under the tutelage of Colin Barnhorst. After playing this game?1829?I determined to find a copy for myself. After several games of 1829, I was hooked...

May 29, 1995 and I've just boarded the train at London's Euston Station that will take me to Leighton Buzzard to visit with Francis Tresham, the man who created 1829, 1830, 1853, Civilization, Spanish Main and several other games. As the train left the station and headed out through the suburbs of London on what seemed fairly rough trackage, I wondered if I would have built my London & North Western Railway here. Probably not. The people I play with rarely let me have the LNWR.

Forty five minutes out of London the train stopped at the Leighton Buzzard station. Just my luck! The up-to-now intermittent rain started coming down heavier as I walked onto the platform and no one was waiting for me. Due to a number of circumstances, Francis and I hadn't been able to coordinate my arrival time so I called him from the station.

I had met him briefly the year before at Origins in San Jose but I didn't object to his suggestion that I could recognize him as the older gentleman with an 1829 game box under his arm. Within a short time he arrived at the station and, sure enough, he carried an 1829 box--red, not green--under his arm.

A short drive from the station and pulled up to the modest duplex the Treshams call home. I met Francis' wife, Eileen, his daughter, Isabella, and his son, Edmund. I had expected to find a large collection of games but was somewhat disappointed to find that Francis, while a prolific designer of games, doesn't own many copies of games other than his own (Most of the games he does have are the copies of 18xx games that he requires before he will grant license to use his unique tile and stock system.). He admitted that he spent about thirty percent of his game-playing time on railway games, but then qualified that statement by stating that even that percentage was due to his current development of 1825, his newest 18xx game. He showed me mock-ups of some of the game boards and the computerized designs for the other boards. While I found them fascinating, I had to admit to him that I was mainly interested in past designs rather than future projects.

With that, he had Edmund bring out Mainline, which I had never seen before nor even heard of. He explained that he had designed Mainline for a group he occasionally gamed with. The tile play was similar to what we now know as 18xx games, but the map was abstract and in the shape of a diamond. While a fun rail building game, he had decided that Mainline lacked something: a touch of reality. So he had decided to place the Mainline game system onto a map of southern England and, voila, 1828. I took a double take when I saw the map?it looked exactly like my 1829 board except for the name. He explained that he later had decided to name the game 1829 to be more historically accurate. The other part of the game system, the stock manipulation/stock market system evolved from his play of another game, Monopoly. Unlike this perennial favorite where the money circulates and eventually ends up in the hands of one player and the other players drop out of the game along the way, he wanted a game where the system allowed players to generate money by their own play and where no player was ever out of the game until the game ended. He then dropped the bomb on me; it seems the initial design was not a railway game at all, but an airline game where commodities moved from place to place.

Fortunately for me and a lot of other gamers, the people in his group were interested in railways so he changed the game to a railway game.

I had never really thought about the evolution of the stock market before except that there must have been some complex formula that determined the initial prices of the stock. Not entirely true. It seems that after deciding that 100, 90 and 82 were proper starting prices and the subsequent designing of his trains, Tresham noticed that his stencil set still had a lot of sevens, sixes, and ones.

Now, I understand the rationale for the remaining companies' starting prices of 76, 71, 67, etc.

We took a break for lunch and drove to a local pub, the Globe Inn. After we ordered and obtained a couple of local brews, we went outside to side down. The Globe is situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and, while we were sitting there discussing transport in general and water transport in specific, a beautiful boat pulled up and docked. The boat was reminiscent of the style of canal boats once used on the Erie Canal, except that this one was motorized and was painted in a color scheme that reminded me of the colors of the Midland Railway. My remarks about the boat and a few curious questions revealed what I believe to be Francis' true passion?canal boats!

Francis spends at least three afternoons each week helping out at the Wyvern Shipping Company Limited, a firm which rents canal boats to vacationers (generally families). He uses his skills as a retired engineer to inspect the boats, make or order any necessary repairs, and give orientation rides to renters who have never handled one of these craft before. On one rare occasion, Edmund and he were called upon to retrieve one of the company's boats from a few miles away when, apparently the crew and captain had a disagreement and the crew mutinied and abandoned the boat.

I commented that the canal boats were very much like the houseboats which tourists rented on the Mississippi river near where I had grown up. So, after lunch, Francis took me over to Wyvern shipping and, as luck would have it, found a boat in. I looked over the boat closely?the roominess of this narrow boat surprised me. I could understand why these craft were best suited for a family; if you didn't know your fellow travelers well when you started your journey, you would by your trip's end.

I also learned about the color schemes for the boats. All the major boat rental companies have their own scheme, much like the old railways of Britain. Wyvern Shipping's livery is a light blue with a red trim.

After the visit to the boatyard, Francis took me up to Milton Keynes, just a little to the north of Leighton Buzzard to look at the aqueduct. We walked along the canal and watched the boats negotiate their way through the locks. It was interesting to watch as the children (crew) opened and closed the locks while their father (captain) handled the tiller and throttle. Further along the canal to the aqueduct, itself, we studied this impressive feat of engineering completed nearly a hundred years ago and which allowed the canal to pass approximately thirty feet above the Ouse river. From the side, Milton Keynes aqueduct looked like any old railway or road bridge but when you saw a boat going across it, it seemed positively impressive.

During our walk we talked about many places around the world where Francis had lived and worked during his career. Most fascinating were his times in Israel and South Africa. My favorite recollection is his tale of catching the train for Jo'burg (Johannesburg) to Durban. He was unable to catch the shiny, modern train and instead caught a later train which was older but had more character?polished wood trim and open air platforms between the cars were something that the modern train didn't have.

Francis stood on the platform and watched the veldt by the light of the full moon...

Back at his home, we continued looking through his games. I was pleased to be able to see an early version of Civilization, where there were areas on the board with a population level of 0; i.e. where population could only exist if a civilization had learned agriculture. I also took a look at his collection of 18xx games, probably the only complete collection I shall ever see.

It was then that I was surprised to learn the reason that 1830 had been delayed from its original release date. The playtesters at Avalon Hill moved the C? from its location along Lake Erie to its true start position at Richmond. They then could not understand why the play of the game was unbalanced. The debate came down to a standard argument that rages even today?whether to have a game that played well versus a game that was truly historically accurate. Francis admitted that the C? didn't even get Cleveland until 1919. But, we all know who won that argument.

The games I mentioned at the start of this article are not the only ones that Francis has designed. He showed me a special inner track that he designed for his own use with Monopoly. He also designed an interesting stock game which was marketed briefly in England without a great deal of success. What I found fascinating about the stock market was that a company could only rise in value if the space above its current price stood vacant; on the other hand, if a stock price fell, it went to the next available lower price which could be a long drop. He also described a mechanical game of horse racing that created some years ago. It was based on a random principle of string wrapping around an axle. Unfortunately, the number three horse seemed to win more often than any of the others.

One of the truly delightful British traditions is tea time. I was happy to be invited to take tea with Francis and his family. While enjoying our tea and various pastries, we watched a video of the marching band of his children's school. I couldn't resist saying that I recognized that tune as My Country Tis of Thee knowing full well that in Britain it is only known as God Save the Queen. This led to a discussion of the American version of the English language versus the English version. With the time getting late, I decided to head back to London. Francis took me back to the train station and I caught my train just as it started to rain again.

When I left London, I had purchased a ticket to Northampton and return, as well, having formed the intention of going on after I visited with Francis in Leighton Buzzard. In the end, I found Francis such an interesting individual that I never made it to Northampton. I would like to share some of his comments, while interesting, did not fit within the context of this article:

Francis Tresham on the Norman Conquest

As we were driving past an old country church, I commented about its Norman architecture. Frances replied that "Some people think that English civilization began with the Norman conquest but most people agree that it merely put English civilization on hold for a few hundred years." I wasn't sure how to take that comment since my English ancestors were Normans. I asked if he had ever played the game, Britannia? He responded, "Once, just once."

On His Trip to Origins

Francis said that everyone had told him that the train ride through Nebraska would be extremely boring. He said that if you've never seen it before it isn't boring at all. Unfortunately, Darwin Bromley (President of Mayfair Games, Inc) wanted to play train games all the way from Chicago to San Jose so his view of the scenery was somewhat limited. He also recalled a stop the train made in New Mexico where the temperature outside was somewhere around 110 yet the Native American merchants lined up on the platform to sell their wares didn't seem to notice. He thought that they must be used to the heat but he couldn't understand how, or even, why.

On Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road/Car

When he attended Origins in Michigan some years, ago, Francis rented a car in Windsor, Ontario and commuted to the convention in Detroit. He admitted that it was different to drive a car on the right side of the road while sitting on the left side. Having driven cars (and large trucks) in various places around the world, he said the only situation he had any problems with was drivng an English-style car on the right side of the road. I found it interesting that large English trucks have the steering wheel on the left side so that the driver can better watch the edge of the road rather than the center.

... 1995 and a plethora of 18xx games to feed my addiction born that far away day in 1979. We, all of us, have come so far. As my day with Francis Tresham fades to a fond memory, the best way I can think of to end this article and to thank him for what he started is to return to him the toast he made to me during our lunch:

To your health, Sir.


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