Episode 111: Let’s Play a Game with Trent Howell

Trent Howell Board Games

Trent Howell is the vice-president of marketing at eLearning Brothers and has over 25 years of experience in information technology and the training industry specifically. But he’s not here to talk about that – Trent is here to talk board games!

Trent’s family love board games so much they have a day of the week dedicated to playing them. They decided to turn their love of board games into a knowledgebase for everyone else with The Board Game Family (theboardgamefamily.com). They rate and review all types of board games so you can make the right decision when looking for something non-screen-related to do with loved ones.

Check out their 10th annual holiday gift guide to get the board game lover in your circle the best present!

The most popular post over the years on The Board Game Family site has been Mom’s favorite games:
And the Family Favorites is:

Check out this episode!

Hear more from eLearning Brothers!

Jon Tota (00:00):

Hey everyone, Jon Tota here. I want to thank you for tuning into the show each week. We love our Learning Life community and are so grateful for your support. We’d appreciate it. If you would take a minute to rate us and write a review for Learning Life, wherever you’re listening right now. Your ratings and comments help new people find the show so we can keep growing our community and bringing great interviews on the topics you care most about. Thanks for being here. Now on to the show.

Trent Howell (00:24):

They would want to do something fun. And so we would play a game. And then that morphed into kind of Sunday afternoons being kind of the game days where we kind of turn other things off and get some of that face-to-face time. And there’s something different and tactile about seeing it physically on the table, that that gets you more engaged.

Intro (00:42):

Welcome to Learning Life, where top experts share their business knowledge and personal journeys each week. “And The thing that I realized from the CEO to the NFL football player, to the janitor – we’re our toughest critics, and we’re hardest on ourselves.” – James Lawrence And wanted to bring education to the market. I wake up in the morning and I am constantly learning.” “The only way to grab somebody’s attention is with a story” – Cal Fussman. Happy learning. And now your host, Jon Tota.

Jon Tota (01:10):

Welcome to another episode of Learning Life with Jon Tota. My guest today is Trent Howell. Trent is the vice-president of marketing at eLearning Brothers and has over 25 years of experience in information technology and the training industry specifically. Prior to eLearning Brothers, Trent led global marketing teams at industry leaders in the training space, such as CompTIA, Certiport, and TestOut. Now I’ve done a ton of work with Trent in his role at eLearning Brothers, but I didn’t ask him here to join us today to talk about marketing, but more importantly, board games. Our regular listeners know that I’m pretty passionate about board games, collecting them, playing them, and best of all, getting my kids into them as an escape from all their screen time nowadays. And for the last 11 years, Trent and his family have reviewed hundreds of family board games as The Board Game Family. Their video reviews have been watched millions of times and their written reviews help families all over the world find fun games to enjoy playing together. They’ve got their 10th annual holiday gift guide out right now, so I thought it would be an awesome time to learn more about the joys of board gaming from Trent himself, Trent Howell, welcome to Learning Life.

Trent Howell (02:12):

Thanks, Jon. I’m happy to be on board here. Great to talk to you.

Jon Tota (02:16):

So, as you know, I am super passionate about board games, all aspects of them from selecting them, unpacking them, learning the rules, and then of course playing them. But I wanted to know from you, you started this over a decade ago and you got your whole family involved in the reviews. What was the genesis like? Why did you feel that it was so important to get this site up and running and to start sharing these reviews with the public?

Trent Howell (02:43):

It was funny at the time our kids were young and they were just starting to get where they could be, I would say competitive in a game where they started to realize that there’s some strategy or they could make some choices so we weren’t just playing games based on luck. And as I looked at other games to play, I found a couple of video reviews of a game and I would watch that. But what I discovered is there was only a couple of reviewers doing it. And they were typically old man that owned a game store, talking about a game and it wasn’t fun. And I thought, well, what parents want to know is what their kids are going to think of a game. And my youngest son was five at the time. And he described, he explained the rules for a game before we played it as a family.

Trent Howell (03:26):

And I thought, you know, he said that pretty clearly. So we filmed it and that turned into some video reviews that we started doing. And that was our first one. It was our, five-year-old doing a review talking about how you play a game and why he liked the game. And we thought, well, this will be fantastic because now parents can hear from the kids on what they like about a game. So a parent could figure out, Oh yeah, my kids like that. He might like that game as well. And so we took it from a completely family angle and, and it took off.

Jon Tota (03:53):

Yeah. And I, I have to say, I, you obviously got me turned on to this probably about a year ago I started following your website. And I think that aspect of family aspect is what’s so important, particularly to me, because I’m looking at that to say, will this actually work with my kids? I got, you know, six, 10 and 12 year old and you got varying different gaming levels there. So now you’ve really got the whole family involved. Today how do you do the reviews? Is everybody pitching in to do these reviews? Is it a real family, like kind of team effort?

Trent Howell (04:23):

Well, you know, the funny thing about kids is they grow up, [laughs] which is interesting. So when we started doing reviews, our oldest was 12 and he did the video editing himself. He wanted to learn about video editing. So each of the kids would take their terms, reviewing a game take their turn. And they would talk about games that they enjoyed the most. And so we took just a lot of our games off our shelf and would rattle through each one talking about it. And then our oldest with edit the videos. And then we would post that. And I typically write a little recap and post that out. As the kids have grown, they get involved in more activities, be it sports, be it scouting, be it dating. So the amount of in front of the camera screen diminished over the time and I would then spend more time doing the writing. And also from doing a number of surveys there’s a mix of people that like to watch videos, others like to read it at their own pace. And so it’s, it’s morphed over the years into more of a written review. So over the last couple of years, there’s been less videos and a lot more written because that’s, that’s fallen on my shoulder is they’ve gone off to college.

Ad Break (05:27):

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Jon Tota (06:28):

And I got to say, I love the reviews. I, I, and I think like you, I was struggling trying to find recommendations on games. I had a good friend who had come on this show, learning life probably a year and a half, almost two years ago. And he got me turned on to a number of games and we just loved it ever since. But exactly that reason was that it was really hard to find good recommendations and guides like you guys are doing. So I love what you’re doing. Tell me why board games? Why are they so important to you as opposed to reviewing video games or just any other things?

Trent Howell (07:07):

Yeah. And don’t get me wrong. I enjoy playing video games now, and then, but I find those as very solitary activities even if you’re playing someone online; but what I like about board games is it gets you face-to-face with someone sitting around a table talking a lot of times you’re talking about the game itself, but it gets some interaction and face time with, with my family and with my kids. We actually started doing it when they were little on Sundays just being quiet days of spending some one-on-one time with each kid and they would want to do something fun. And so we would play a game. And then that morphed into kind of Sunday afternoons being kind of the game days where we kind of turn other things off and get some of that face-to-face time. And there’s still something nice about physically the tactile element of physically touching and moving, moving pieces. Yes. You could push a button on your phone to roll some digital dice, but there’s something different and tactical about seeing it physically on the table that, that gets you more engaged.

Jon Tota (08:04):

Yeah. Yeah. And I agree with you a hundred percent. Cause to me, I think that artistic side of the game is part of what I enjoy the most. And as I was telling you, my wife gets upset with me because I buy and unpack more games than we actually play, because I just, I love the construction of the game and how they how they create the pieces and the, the board. So what one, what is your favorite part? Cause I love that aspect of it for you. What’s your favorite part of the whole process of getting into a brand new board game?

Trent Howell (08:37):

Yeah. I have discovered that I, that I like the discovery. There are so many different ways that games are being developed and designed nowadays. It’s fascinating. I hear from a lot of people that say, well, I don’t like games or, Oh my friend, he doesn’t like games. I think it’s because they haven’t experienced the breadth of games that are there. I think it’s a matter of finding the right game for the right person. Because there’s such a variety and I’ve loved discovering the variety. There’s I really like tiling games where you’re building something. So at the end of the game, it, it looks different each game to game there’s card games that are trick taking games on I’ll throw out a few terms at deck building games where you’re buying more cards for your deck and making it bigger over time. There’s what they call now legacy games where you’re putting stickers on the board and writing on the board.

Trent Howell (09:26):

So your copy of the game is going to be completely different than somebody else’s copy of the game, because it becomes personalized as you play through a series of games. And I liked binding how people come up with new ideas of mixing and matching other types of game mechanics that dice rolling with the cards that it just continues to fascinate me. Now, on the other side, my wife loves familiar territory. She doesn’t like having to learn new rules or new games. She just wants to play games that she’s already familiar with. That there’s a comfort level for her. And just say, I don’t want to have to think additionally and I found for me, I liked the discovering a new strategy of, Oh, this is going to play this way. What’s going to play out strategically. And so her and I have a little bit different interests. I have to be a little bit more judicious at what type of games I introduce her to. Because I know of her aversion to learning new games, but there’s so many, there’s about 5,000, well there’s over 5,000 new board games published every year. So the amount of variety out there is just tremendous. And so I can’t even tell you, what did you say? How many games I’ve got on my game shelf now that I have yet to play, but great anticipation to do so

Jon Tota (10:38):

I think what’s fascinating to me. And I was just thinking about it this weekend, when we were playing one of your recommendations, we got Planet, which my kids love. It’s like everyone’s favorite game now and all they’ve done. And I think this is what’s fascinating is that it’s a tile-laying game. Is that what you call that category? Tile-Laying?

Trent Howell (10:55):


Jon Tota (10:55):

Where everybody, each player has got their own board that they’re building as they go, it’s just, they did it. They kind of turned it on its ear a little bit and you’re building a planet so you’re holding a globe in your hand. And I think like to your point, it’s really interesting to see how they bend the, or press the boundaries of a certain type of game. But are there a finite amount of game styles? Is it dice rolling card game, tile-laying… Have you done that analysis? Are we kind of at the end? Are there new ones coming up?

Trent Howell (11:26):

I don’t think so. There are new ones coming out all the time. And when I look at really the resurgence of board games over the last 15 years has been because it’s so easy to share published information and to find communities that have like-minds. So, like I mentioned, when we started doing video reviews, there was maybe a handful. Now there’s hundreds of people that are out there doing video reviews of games and finding ones that tend to your, your likes. For example, ours focuses continually on, on the family focus. But as far as the type of games, deck building is a whole new genre of card games. The legacy games is a brand new thing of changing the game as you go. Tile-Laying games, I I’m blown away with the different ways that you can put tiles together. These Tetris like pieces that you can build out into your own board or a community board, they continue coming out with new iterations of it that fascinate me. So yes, you could say they’re group into trick taking or tiling or deduction games, but the variations on each of those are, are wide very, very wide open. For example, deduction, games, hidden information, or solving puzzles together, like a, an escape room type game, which is a deduction in a different way versus deducing what’s behind somebody else’s hand of cards or deducing what tiles that they have hidden behind their screen, things like that. So yes, you could call them a deduction game, but even within that, there’s, there’s a wide range of types of deduction.

Jon Tota (12:57):

I’m always fascinated by how many ways they kind of evolve the model and take something that was just kind of a standard mechanic of the mechanics of the game and then keep pressing the boundaries. If anyone’s listening now and they’re thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea for a game. I would love to be able to make a game.’ Have you ever thought about either going out and developing games, do you have ideas for, what would you recommend if someone wants to, you know, get out there and build their own game? How do you go about doing that? Do you any ideas?

Trent Howell (13:30):

Oh, tons of ideas, because I’m getting messages from people that do such things on a daily basis. One of the biggest, I guess, benefits nowadays has been Kickstarter or these, these crowds sourcing avenues that people have, that they can take their ideas, post their idea that they have for a game, do some prototypes and then go to a crowdfunding source and get people to essentially give them money to, to build those first production copies of their game and get those out. So Kickstarter has just gone huge with board games, the amount of people that can put ideas out there. And some of those fail, some of those don’t work out well. And the ones that I’ve found don’t work as well as when somebody has, they’ve got a great idea for a game, but they haven’t exposed themselves to a lot of other game types yet.

Trent Howell (14:20):

So they still think in their minds of Monopoly, okay. I grew up playing Monopoly and that’s what we refer to as more of a, a role-and-move game. I just rolled the dice and I moved to the space that it tells me to. There’s not a lot of choice. There’s not a lot of strategy. I just go. And somebody that has exposure to just Monopoly or a roll-and-move type game, they’re going to produce a game, which is same thing. It’s a board with a track around the outside. Then I move my piece around the board. Well, those don’t, those don’t do very well. Because they’re not engaging people’s choices. That’s what I’d say. If somebody’s got an idea, first thing to go is jump out on Kickstarter. Another great resource is a site called boardgamegeek.com. They are a repository or a database of essentially every game that’s ever been published.

Trent Howell (15:05):

And if you’ve got some idea, chances are there’s something out there that has been developed similar to it. So check those out first. But even within that, you can expand beyond it. A theme of a game can take it to another level. You may take just a simple two player back and forth game, but then put a theme on it. Like one of the games I love a two-player game is called Santorini. It’s an abstract strategy game, but they, but they put it around like Greek gods on the Island of Santorini and because of the theme and the style they put to it and the design and the, and the colors on the board and the artwork, it’s just a, a fun game to play visually as well as mentally and strategically because of that. So you can take a basic strategy concept and put a theme around it and have a new idea.

Jon Tota (15:51):

So checking out Kickstarter and you’re right. Some of some major games have started as Kickstarter campaigns, right? Yep. Yeah. Yep. And it’s a great place to get the prototype out there and know if there’s interest in that. And then what’d you say it’s a boardgamegeek.com. Yes. Yep. Yeah. I know I’ve checked them out too. And so that basically will give you an idea because every mechanic of the game has probably been done in one way or another. And it’s a matter of how do you have your own spin on that? How do you, how do you make it creative?

Trent Howell (16:21):

Yeah. And I, and I help people, people have reached out to me with questions and ideas and, and I’ll see an idea and it’s like, Oh yeah, that’s very similar to X, Y, and Z games. And you know, let them go check those out first before they iterate their ideas.

Jon Tota (16:34):

I want to ask you some different types of situations and what game you would recommend or some of the top ones, but first I know you’ve got the holiday gift guide out. It’s the 10th annual edition. Tell us a little bit about that. I’ve already got a number of games in my cart off of your gift guide. So I want to make sure our listeners know to go there. It’s a perfect time to buy some board games for the holidays. Tell us all about the guide.

Trent Howell (17:05):

Yeah. So we started doing this really the second year we’ve been doing reviews because we had done so many. We thought, well, let’s compile them together to say, Hey, here’s, since we’ve played hundreds of games this year, we’re going to narrow it down to 30 to 40 games in different categories. So I’ll typically put four games per category, and they’re usually games that have been published within the last two years. So they’re going to be new and fresh. And people may not have heard about them before rather than some of the old tried and true. So we’ll have a category of children’s games of dice games of two player games family games, of party games, and of cooperative games and probably four or five in each category that we’ll recommend. So you get a list of 30 to 40 games each year that are new games that we’ve played and really pass our sniff test of having a good balance between luck and strategy at different levels that we can see families can enjoy playing together in different situations like you mentioned.

Jon Tota (18:03):

And I know one of the things that you always touch on in your reviews, and I think it’s an interesting concept is replayability just tell our listeners, because that’s such an important piece of your reviews. I think what do you mean by that?

Trent Howell (18:14):

Oh, absolutely. It’s how many times you’re going to play the game or how open it is to replaying. So for example, there’s a bunch of a new trend has been escape room games where you’ll play a game and that’s pretty much a one and done type game. I’m going to play this escape room game. I’m going to learn the puzzles in it, but it’s not easy for me to play again because I know the answers to the puzzles versus a game that’s driven a lot of times on luck with the roll of the dice. It’s going to play out different every time. But the choices in the, in the game are interesting enough that I want to try it again, or I got close enough to winning last time that, yeah, I want to play that again. So that’s where we look for in replayability is something that we’re going to pull out again and again. Some games we’ll play and we either put it on the shelf or they go into our trade pile because we have hundreds of games that are in our game shelf so we’re ready for any situation. But a lot of those, because we’ve touched so many a year that we trade off and those are the ones typically that really aren’t engaging enough or compelling enough for us to say, Oh, I got to do that again.

Jon Tota (19:19):

I guess the only issue I’ve run into is that the replayability for my six year old is not necessarily the same as what I would see. [both laugh]

Trent Howell (19:28):

That’s true. That is true.

Jon Tota (19:32):

They play the same one over and over again. And I’m like, Oh man, we’ve just done the same game 20 times in a row, but it never gets old.

Trent Howell (19:38):

And what’s interesting though, at that age, they’re learning so much at a young age that they by re by repetition. They’re going to zero in on some of the things that they’re learning, some of the choices that they’re making in a game, you know, you start out with a game like Candyland, where they’re just learning to match their colors and move to the next space where then they move on to the choices that they can get in a game by how they move or whether they want to press their luck and roll the die one more time to see if they’re going to get the answer, you know, things that they’re learning that they don’t realize they’re learning like probabilities. Well, they’re not going to, you know, mathematically divine it, but intuition is coming about, Oh, what is my chance about, you know, going bust if I press my luck one more time.

Jon Tota (20:19):

Yeah. Yeah. And I, I’m always fascinated by how well they design these kid versions of the adult games that we all know like, like Catan and Carcassone and, and games like that, that everybody knows and plays like as an adult. And then they make a really good, easy version of it for kids, which is, which is always so great. So now I have to ask you, I’ve got five categories and we’re just going to go like lightning round. You tell me number one, favorite game at this moment in each of these categories. And for listeners, you just have to write these down as quickly as possible or, or rewind to listen, to try to answer it. All right. Number one, dice game?

Trent Howell (20:59):

King of Tokyo.

Jon Tota (21:00):

King of Tokyo. All right. Number two. Favorite co-op game?

Trent Howell (21:05):

Pandemic is a big one right now. There’s no doubt about it, right?

Jon Tota (21:08):

Yeah. That’s a good one. That’s a good one right now. Number three, your favorite party game. And specifically for the holidays, can people get together party, game?

Trent Howell (21:17):


Jon Tota (21:19):

Telestrations. Number four, popular one favorite couples night game?

Trent Howell (21:25):

Code Names Duet.

Jon Tota (21:27):

Code Names Duet. And final number five best family game for kids of all ages?

Trent Howell (21:35):

Oh my goodness. There are so many, but I’m going to go with Forbidden Island.

Jon Tota (21:42):

Yeah. I love all the, I know, cause there’s a couple of different versions of that too, right?

Trent Howell (21:47):

Yeah. And what I like about that with that we haven’t touched on is it’s a cooperative game. So many people have bad memories from their childhood of playing games like Monopoly, where you get sore losers or winners, but cooperative games are another one that’s come on, really big in that it’s everybody against the game. You’ll take your turn and then you’ll do something that the game reacts back and something bad happens, but you all need to work together. And you typically have, uh, special abilities that you can move around. Forbidden Island is one, that’s approachable by kids as well, where the Island is flooding and sinking. And you’ve got to move around to find some treasures. But you talked about that as a group. It’s like, okay, well, what if I go over here and I do this on my turn, then you can do that on your turn. Okay. Yeah. Then we’ll solve this problem. Um, and it’s fun to do because there’s not a, a winner or loser. So if you’ve got someone that’s a child, that’s having a hard time dealing with how to lose and how to become a good sport, cooperative games are a great way to get started.

Jon Tota (22:42):

Yeah. You know, and it’s funny because I always try to guide my family games to the cooperative games, just so that my three sons don’t end up fighting, but it’s like, they don’t always want to do the cooperative game. They really want to beat each other. You know, like, come on, man. I don’t want it. Someone ends up in tears every time. And so, but yeah, so I love it. And so now the holiday gift guide is out now on the website. If our listeners want to just read all the reviews, get to the holiday gift guide is theboardgamefamily.com the place to go?

Trent Howell (23:17):

It is, yep. That’ll be right at the top of the page. We also keep a link in the navigation for boarding gift guide, which has the list of our past guides. So you can click back through if yeah, if you’re, like I said, 30 to 40 per year, and if you want to look over 10 years there, it gives you about 300, 400 games right there that are kind of our top of the tops to say these are all great games or would recommend.

Jon Tota (23:39):

Yeah. Yeah. And then to all of our listeners, I couldn’t recommend the site more. It’s it’s where I find all my games. And as I was saying to Trent earlier, I read the instructions on a game and then I read your review because I sometimes get a better set of instructions almost anecdotally from you guys explaining it than I get from the book in the board game. So thank you for doing it every time.

Trent Howell (24:02):

I appreciate that.

Jon Tota (24:03):

Yeah. It’s great. Well, listen, man, it’s great to have you on. Everyone- definitely check out The Board Game Family.com. Get a copy of the holiday gift guide. And Trent, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Trent Howell (24:13):

All right. Thanks John. Glad I could be here.

Jon Tota (24:16):

And to all of our listeners. Thank you for joining us every week. As you know, we have a new episode that comes out every Tuesday, so wherever you’re listening, be sure to subscribe, leave us comments. We love to hear from all of you and until our next episode- Happy learning!