Thursday, April 1, 2010

Candyland Rocks

I'm not up for a full on joke post for April first, but it does seem a good day to have a serious post about a slightly silly topic: Candyland.

Candyland has been getting a bad rap lately. As more sophisticated games are entering the general awareness, we're getting second stage snobs who are totally excited by 'new' games like Settlers of Cataan[1] and taking this opportunity to step up and inform us all of what a terrible game Candyland is. After all, there's no play to it - you just draw cards and follow the colors and it's all dumb luck! That's a horrid game and should be destroyed!

This makes me crazy.

I like games. Not just RPGs, but games of every stripe. I have a one year old son who I am chomping at the bit to get the chance to play games with, and he's going to grow up in a household where there will be an abundance of choices. With my luck, he'll decide he hates games, but I'll deal with that when I come to it. In any case, I've already bought a copy of Candyland, and I can't wait for the day that I get to bust it out. And I've got three big reason's why.

1. Education
See, what these excited game experts forget is that there are a lot of incidental skills to playing games that are not necessarily intuitive to kids. Taking your turn, moving your piece, drawing a card and acting - these are all things that need to be learned. Yes, you can absolutely try to teach those things while also trying to teach a game with strategy (even simple strategy) but that seems like unnecessarily muddying the water. Now, you can pretend that the educational advantage of these games is something else, like color matching (or numbers in the case of Snakes and Ladders or War) but I feel that's a pretty thin argument. My kid can learn those things in lots of ways (including games) but that's not why I'm playing these games. I'm playing them to teach games in a way that is fun and which I can participate in.

2. Realization
Kids are smart, and they will eventually figure out why Candyland sucks on their own. Usually pretty fast.[2] When they do, they want more, and conveniently there's lots more available. Letting them figure this out for themselves will get way more investment than telling them ever will.

3. Hackability
My kid will learn from an early age to house rule. You want to make Candlyand more interesting? Try one of these:
  • Draw 2 cards and pick which one you go to
  • Keep a hand of 5 cards, and choose which one to play, then draw a new one
  • Allow the special square cards to be played on other people
  • If you draw the color of your playing piece, it always counts as a double.
  • Let candymen on the same square kung fu fight.

None of these make it a sophisticated game, but they all change the dynamic in ways a kid can appreciate. They can even introduce new mechanical ideas that will be useful for other games. Given time, I bet we could make it pretty darn crunchy if we really wanted, but that's not the point. The point is that it shows the kid that there is more to be done with the game than maybe immediately apparent.[3]

So, in summary, Candyland teaches kids how to play, helps them realize what's not fun, and provides a platform to show how they can own their games and make them more fun for themselves. What's not to love?

1 - If you want a game that makes me crazy, it's Settlers. I'll still play it because people like it, but it's always my last choice - in my book it is a worse game than Candyland because it violates a very simple rule of game design that I have come to consider very important. In settlers, it is entirely possible to have nothing to do on your turn (and, if that happens once, it will probably happen many times). If I'm going to be sitting on my hands, then I;m uncertian

2 - I don't want it to be news to my kid that Candyland sucks when he's old enough to have their own blog or bestselling book. It's just embarrassing to watch.

3 - When I was maybe 5, I played checkers on a board that had variant rules on the back, and when I discovered this it absolutely blew my mind. The only variant I still remember was Fox and the Geese (because that one looked awesome) but the very idea that there were OTHER WAYS to play checkers was really compelling to me. Sadly, it was not compelling to many other people around me, so I never got to really try them, and instead I got to stare at the older people playing Risk, which looked awesome but incomprehensible at the time.


  1. I love your suggested hacks, particularly the 5 card hand and the special square card hacks. I don't think Candyland has survived in our house yet, but if there is a copy around, I may have to institute them tonite.

    If you want to see Candyland as a combat game, see Run For Your Life Candyman. We don't play it with the kids yet, but it is largely Candyland with a combat mechanic bolted on. It has yet failed to please.

  2. Just to add to your list of skills that can be taught early and well with Candyland:

    * How to lose gracefully.
    * How to win gracefully.

    These may even be sufficient to encapsulate "grace" nicely.

  3. See, I think the flaw with Settlers is that it's entirely possible to play the game with other people entirely by yourself. No need to trade, you can isolate yourself on a corner of the board, whatever. But it's still fun for me.

    Anyways... Who says Candyland sucks? It's a game boiled down to an extremely simple form. I don't think I ever "realized it sucked" but just found other games with more elements and strategies held my attention more.

    As for checkers - one of my fondest early gaming memories is losing to my great uncle at checkers. He once told me that the reason he wouldn't just let me win is that he wanted to teach me how to play. He would point out strategies and "are you sure you want to go there?" and that made it fun.

    And you just blew my mind... I did not know there were other ways to play checkers!

  4. I have a version of Settlers for my iPod, and it includes as a default a rule that gives you a free resource if you've gone N rounds (3, I think) without gaining a single resource. Doesn't totally mitigate being in the shaft corner, but it helps more than you might think.

  5. @Brad Yeah, those definitely should be on the list.

    @Sam The Candlyand sucks sentiment is one I've sen on some parenting forums when they talk about games for kids, and more recently it also came up in Seth Godin's otherwise pretty good book, Linchpin.

  6. Two Words. Nightmare Chess.

    I remember when you bought me my first Nightmare chess deck and how that so fundamentally altered the play of chess that it blew my mind.

    Great post as always.

  7. @eric Weirdly, I still have fun playing Cataan against computers because it is easier to speed past dead turns.

  8. I'm glad to hear from someone else who doesn't like Settlers. It fails on two really big issues for me: initial placement and random rolling. Poor or unlucky choices at the beginning of the game can make for hours of miserable play experience, and 2d6 curve for material distribution can further enhance that misery. Blah!

    Oh, and Candyland also has some subversive sexual interpretations in its characters and locations. O.O

  9. I agree - if you want a game based on complete randomness and bullying, it's Settlers - Candyland is a much more civilized game.

  10. I'll add another dead-horse to the list: Hi-Ho Cherry-o. There isn't a person alive who didn't get an introduction to simple arithmetic from that game.

    My 4yo's current favorite is the Ladybug Game, which is basically a glorified version of Candyland with a few more hack-style additions, e.g., if you don't have 10 aphids by the time you get to the ants, you have to go on the side loop. Really spiffy art and a cute theme. Recommended.

    And ditto what Brad said: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose is a great lesson to teach in a consequence-free environment.

  11. Anytime someone brings up Candyland I think of this comic. It lacks a bit of the characterization but still it's funny.

  12. Even worse than Catan is the dice version of the game. It's an awesome solo game, however if you play with more than one person it's basically a bunch of people all playing solitaire at the same time. Zero player interaction.

  13. I was always curious about Candyland, a game which has seemed to have entered the American zeitgeist, at least according to popular media, but had never encountered a copy.

    Then again, you've probably never encountered Squatter, either. <grin>

  14. I think the pure chance games are valuable for kids. Particularly because it levels the playing field with the adults and offers them the opportunity to win. At the age of four, a pure random game is almost a most.

  15. My friends and I joke that we can tell how "hard core" a board gamer someone is with Settlers - it is usually most people's gateway drug into different sorts of board games (versus what Hasbro produces), but frequently the people who start looking at how a game function see the flaws - primarily around several turns of not doing anything.

    Settlers did introduce a 36 card deck to mitigate this flaw that'll go through every number.

  16. I adored Candyland as a kid. The thing I loved about it is it had a transportation quality to it -- it whisked me away and spoke of another world, of myths and ideas geared toward the child's notion of a fantasy land (holy crap! everything is candy!).

    -- c.

  17. My daughter is turning 3 in a month and I've been perusing the available board & card games for us to start playing. The attention span is finally there for a short 20-30 minute span of sitting. The early classics are classics for a reason. Although I enjoy the wave of board games available, let's face the fact that a very young child isn't ready to play Settlers or Smallworld or Carcassone. There are some non-mainstream games available, such as Rat-a-Tat-Cat, but they're more difficult to find for the very young gamer! I'm all about introducing new games when the time is right. There's no point in adult and child having a miserable time trying to play a game that's just too advanced.


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