By Thomas Gerbasi
For those of a certain age, playing a boxing game as a kid bore little resemblance to what is available these days.
Let’s put it this way. In 1983, the ColecoVision game Rocky Super Action Boxing was considered to be state of the art when it came to graphics, mainly because Rocky’s pixelated haircut differentiated him from Clubber Lang’s Mohawk. And it was. But it was a far cry from what was to come from the gold standard for video game boxing, EA’s Fight Night series, with its nearly photorealistic graphics and animation.
But there are no “woe is me” cries from those who were seeking out boxing simulation in the late 70s and 80s. We had Title Bout, the brainchild of Jim and Tom Trunzo and a game published by The Avalon Hill Game Company. You didn’t need a TV or a gaming console to play it, just the board game and a little imagination. What a novel concept.
So with a few calculations, a flip of some action cards, and a look at a few charts, you could determine how a fight between Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier would play out, or if Muhammad Ali could withstand the thunder from Joe Louis. In other words, if you had a fantasy matchup in mind or just wanted to replay a favorite fight from history, Title Bout was your go to board game, just like baseball fans had Strat-O-Matic or APBA to recreate history on the diamond.
It may be hard to believe now, but back then, it was a golden age for sports board gaming, and the reasons were simple: A) It was fun. B) They were the only games (pardon the pun) in town.
But ultimately, video games became more prevalent in households, and the graphics eventually became so good, imaginations weren’t necessary anymore because you could see nearly lifelike replicas of your favorite athletes on the field or in the ring, and you were controlling them. So just like video killed the radio star, video games killed the sports board game.
Not completely, of course, as several companies still produce their games for a generation that grew up on them. But the days when you could walk into a book or toy store and pick up a sports board game are over.
Jim Trunzo didn’t let the world pass him by, though. There were various computer-based versions of Title Bout once the board game went out of print by the early 90s, and he also met success with a Gladiatorial combat board game named Gladiator: Quest for the Rudis. His next project was a book called Boxing by the Numbers: The Heavyweights. Yet during the research for the book, Trunzo realized that he might just be able to update Title Bout at the same time, using the research to re-rate the fighters from the original game. He consulted his partner at Nocturnal Media, Stuart Wieck, and he was off and running with Title Bout II.
But when Wieck tragically passed away from a massive heart attack at 48, Trunzo was at a crossroads. Does he forget about the game or carry on and figure out how to produce it on the fly?
“It was either scrap it all or go for it and I went for it,” Trunzo said. “I made it at least twice as hard on myself by making a lot of mistakes, but live and learn.”
Yet while the growing pains were lessons for Trunzo to take with him, the positive side of all this is that when he announced the revival of the game, the Kickstarter campaign to fund it exploded, with 185 backers delivering $14,485 to bring TBII to life. As you read this, the first 300 games produced are sold out, with pre-orders now available for the next batch. It’s been a satisfying time for Trunzo and for the players of the game, who aren’t reliving their youth as much as doing the same thing now as they did back then, which is playing out dream matchups and figuring out the answers to the what ifs of the sport.
In my first two bouts, Jack Johnson got rattled by a couple Cleveland Williams bombs to take control and win a comfortable decision, and Jack Dempsey rose from a late fight knockdown to defeat Ingemar Johansson. Random matchups, yes, but fun ones which produced believable fights and outcomes. And that’s where Trunzo’s designs have always delivered. Yes, there’s plenty of detail and the type of simulated accuracy you expect, but not the type of detail that bogs down the flow of the game and makes it a mathematical exercise more than a game. That’s a fine line to walk, and not many can pull it off, but Trunzo has.
“I think it really comes down to trial and error and common sense,” he said. “My basic rule of thumb is if I don’t enjoy it, I’m betting other people won’t enjoy it. The statistics that are going to be in the book that’s coming out that spurred me to go ahead and release this, I’ve gone over the details and gleaned statistics from 4,000 bouts, and the minutiae that’s there, I could have worked into the game. I could have put dozens of steps in that may have fine-tuned things to a point where the game came much closer to being as accurate as possible. But the number of steps that it would take to do it were laborious.
It would be kind of like playing a baseball replay where instead of a pitcher facing a batter and you roll or flip a card and get a result, you get a ball or a strike. And you do every pitch. Well, if you want to put three hours into a game, just like real baseball, I suppose that’s a good thing, and I’m sure there are people out there who would want to do that. But the key word here is that it’s a game. It’s not a historic representation in the sense that we’re going to make sure every bout comes out within a round or two rounds of the actual outcome. There’s something left to chance there.”
That means that while Mike Tyson will beat Buster Douglas more often than not, there will be the opportunity for upsets to take place and for the steel-chinned to possibly hit the canvas.
“Primo Carnera could probably, in a fluke, knock out Muhammad Ali because it’s a game and you allow for a slim possibility of something like that happening,” Trunzo said. “I could have made the game where this would never happen, but that kind of takes the fun out of it. I’ve taken some precautions to make sure that it doesn’t happen too often, but it’s a delicate balance and things are gonna take place. Now if Carnera beat Ali ten times out of ten, then something is drastically wrong. If it’s one out of 50 or one out of a hundred, I can accept it.”
If you’re new to the idea of a boxing board game and intrigued, you’re not alone. The sell out of the first run of TBII games proves it. But what about a younger generation raised on Fight Night and not Title Bout? Is there a market for this game among those folks? Is Trunzo concerned that this generation just isn’t interested?
“I’ll be brutally honest – it’s not a concern,” he said. “If you did the demographics of the people who currently have or play the game, you’re probably in the 40 to 50 age bracket. With the current young generation of players, if it were a mixed martial arts game, it would probably do much better. Boxing, right now, is a niche sport at best. It’s not what it was when I put out the first game. We were riding the cusp of the Leonard-Hearns-Duran period. Ali was still fresh in everybody’s mind. Then Tyson gave boxing a boost. You can go and ask ten 25-year-olds who won the Super Bowl and probably get 50-60 percent of them answering correctly. If you ask one hundred 25-year-olds who the heavyweight champions in boxing are, if you got five percent, I’d be shocked. That’s why the fighters in the game are historic as opposed to current.”
It’s a realistic assessment, but I’m of a different opinion. I think that once you get a boxing fan in the door for something like this, it’s impossible for them to leave. I know I was an 11-year-old kid in 1979, just getting into boxing, and Title Bout dragged me in and made me an even bigger fan of the sport while giving me a history lesson with each fight played. And when the new version arrived earlier this year, it was like Christmas in March. I’m not alone, either. But even if there remains just a small little group of us still flipping cards, Jim Trunzo is fine with that.
“It’s extremely gratifying,” he said. “I’m humbled by it and I say that with every ounce of sincerity that I have. I think it’s a testament to the enjoyment factor that the game brings, even with its imperfections, and I certainly don’t have the ego to pretend that it’s the perfect game. When I think of the people who have really made boxing what it is as a sport, outside of the fighters themselves, to even be on the fringe of that is a real honor and that, more than any financial motivation, is what keeps me up until 11:30 revising rules and making sure I crossed every T and dotted every I. It’s a tremendous compliment and I just want to try to live up to that.”
For more information on Title Bout II, visit www.straightjabmedia.com