Candy Land: Why it works

Ah, Candy Land. Fancy a game? Of course you don’t — unless you’re a two-year-old.

Raph Koster wrote a post defending Battleship and other kid’s games in response to a BoingBoing post outlining the case Against Candy Land and other games for young children. However, Raph didn’t defend Candy Land, dismissing it with a single sentence. So it falls to me to rush to Candy Land’s defense, to erect towers of spun sugar and moats of molten chocolate, flinging gumdrop boulders against naysayers. To arms, Princess Frostine, to arms!

(Of course, the greatest indictment of Candy Land has already been written, on The Sneeze.)

The BoingBoing piece (and also The Sneeze piece) denounce Candy Land because there’s zero strategy; they point out (correctly) that the game is an extended coin flip, where you have no influence on the game’s outcome.

So what? Agreed, it’s not a fun game for adults. Agreed, it’s not a strategic game. To dismiss Candy Land for those reasons escapes the point entirely. It’s as misguided as giving a Mister Rogers episode a bad review because the plot is dull and there’s no conflict.  The point is, Candy Land is a starter game for very young chldren. Not only is it an extremely attractively packaged game (“strongly themed” in the parlance of board game geeks), but it serves its intended purpose very well: Its audience is 2-3 year olds who don’t know any other games and need to learn the very act of how to play a game.

The skills Candy Land teaches are:

  • Color recognition (although in the travel edition we have, they print the orange so close to the red that even I have a hard time distinguishing these two colors from each other if the light isn’t good)
  • Simple counting (one color square vs. two color squares)
  • Remembering which piece is yours
  • Understanding how your piece represents you in the game
  • Following rules of how to advance your piece, by matching the board squares to the drawn card and finding the location of the next color square to advance to
  • Appropriate turn-taking
  • Watching for victory conditions and ending the game at the right time
  • Dealing with random setbacks and unpredictable events
  • Winning gracefully
  • Losing gracefully
  • Not cheating

Some of those lessons are only taught with heavy parental guidance, of course.

To make the game palatable (not drawn out, and not likely to induce a tantrum), there are two optional rules described in the official rulebook that I highly recommend:

  1. Young children who draw a location card that would cause a backwards move get to draw again instead of moving backwards.
  2. Older children may draw two cards, and choose the one they want.

The second rule introduces very modest strategy, teaching children the basics of how to evaluate one move against another. It also speeds up the game significantly.

Candy Land is fun for children in the same way that reading a simple story is fun: It has a beginning, middle and end, and the outcome is in doubt. That the game is not fun for adults is irrelevant. Candy Land is not intended for adults, or even for five-year-olds. (Five year olds could use the pieces as a springboard to inventing their own, much more interesting, game.) It’s a gateway to better games, for children who need to acquire the skills I described above. It’s far better to learn how to play games using a simple game as a starting point, rather than one too complex for the child to understand.

If you’re upset about the sugar-laden and calorie-rich theme, you may prefer The Busytown Board Game instead. It’s basically the same race game, but with trappings of Richard Scarry instead of trappings of confections.

My son Sammy, who is three, still loves Candy Land. But now that he’s starting to get the hang of what games are about, he’s also interested in many other types of games. Lately we’ve been playing Rush Hour (which Sammy picked out of my game shelf himself because he loves cars and trucks). Even though intended for eight-year-olds, it’s easy enough for a three-year-old to understand the basic concept, so we’ve started designing our own puzzles for each other. To see him go through the logic of untangling the traffic jam and get the red car to escape is simply amazing. But without a background of Candy Land, I don’t think he’d have either the interest or skill set to play Rush Hour.

In about three years I’ll start teaching him Settlers of Catan.

One Response to “Candy Land: Why it works”

  1. Scrappy Says:

    I’m so happy that Candy Land is such a wonderful game for Sammy! I miss playing it with him…

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