Hating on Candyland: Why most games for kids are awful

Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Hi Ho Cherry-O… These are some of the worst games for kids and I own all three. What makes a game better than another one? I think there are metrics you can use, one of them being the number of decisions you’re required to make.

  • There’s no free will in Candyland


One of my favorite game designers, Bruce Shelley (Civilization, Age of Empires) once said:

“great game-play is a stream of interesting decisions the player must resolve.”


  • Bruce Shelley and me at e3 2000

I think that is true for kids under 5, too. The games I mentioned above don’t require a single decision to be made. Candyland doesn’t even have a spinner, so its universe is completely deterministic and the game is decided once you shuffle the cards. You pick from the top of the deck and move to the next square with that card’s color. It feels like you’re doing something, but you can’t make a good move or a bad move.

Chutes and Ladders and Hi Ho Cherry Ho both use a spinner for movement, but you never make choices that affect the outcome of the game. It’s a wasted opportunity for a young mind that needs to develop a sense of strategy and solve problems.

I have lamented about this before and some have said, “it’s not about teaching them a game, it’s about teaching them to follow directions,” but all games require you to follow directions, including ones with decisions.

“What does it matter if they’re having fun?” is a valid argument, but with other choices available that are fun and mentally stimulating, why wouldn’t you choose that side instead? It’s like giving your baby soda instead of milk just because she likes it.

  • Sequence is one of my favorite kid games. The animal cards engage the kids and there are many choices to make.

So what games do I like?

Sequence for Kids, Connect 4, Memory, and of course, Dungeon Adventure. Each of these games has dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of possible moves to make and strategies to develop. Play Connect 4 with a three year old and they won’t even understand what a strategy is, but they’ll start to catch on. I knew my daughter started to get it when she first tried to stop me from dropping a token where she wanted to move next. She was anticipating her next move and finally realizing there was an interaction going on between us.

I created Dungeon Adventure because I felt like the lopsided battle between a parent and child in most games resulted in parents dumbing down their own play. I think it’s important for kids to develop strategies, but I wanted a way they could do it against the game itself. This allows the parent to be fully engaged in creating the game and constantly adjust what’s happening depending on their child’s progress. A role playing game is the perfect framework for this and I think there’s a lot of potential here for other games. Let’s see if someone can come up with a Connect 4 Adventure!

Update: A great discussion is going on over at hackernews. In one comment, I mentioned how I would fix Candyland.

Could we fix Candyland? I would give the kid 4 cards to hold in their deck and let them choose a card to play each turn. At the end of each turn you draw another from the top so you always have 4. You’ll learn all about taking turns and following directions while seeing how your choices affect the game.

22 thoughts on “Hating on Candyland: Why most games for kids are awful”

  1. Did a five year old child tell you this? You’re an adult. You’ve obviously forgot what being a child is like. Not all games are supposed to turn you into Gary Kasparov. So are meant to be fun.

    1. Haha. My daughter loved playing Candyland, but I think there’s better and more interesting games out there that are just as fun if not more.

  2. I used to think this, too, but I’m now more tolerant of kids’ games because of my own child-raising experience.

    I agree about Candyland, but I’ve discovered that there is often a huge difference between, say, 3 and 3.5 — and 3.5 and 4. I’ve only had one of my own, but I’ve been a nanny to many young kids. It seems to me that the younger the kids are, the more *process* oriented they are.

    For someone who is just learning the game-playing process, Candyland is fine. The ritualistic aspect of taking the card, counting the squares, and moving the little guy can be very intriguing to someone who is learning what a rules-based games is in the first place.

    That being said, now that he’s 3.5, he’s gotten the point. Now, he likes problem solving games and imaginative play (thank goodness.)

    1. Even if I concede that Candyland type games have a place in teaching kids about games and their structure, they blow by this phase very quickly and should be moved up to other games.

  3. The games you like are intended to remove decisions so that kids can focus on building their ability to take turns, follow directions, execute actions in the correct sequence, and hopefully improve their ability to lose gracefully.

    1. See my answer to Katherine above. In my experience, this game learning phase is very short and there are other games that can teach this without being deterministic.

  4. When you are four years old, “taking turns” and “following the rules” are actually things that are new to you, and you need to practice. As might “spin a spinner” or “draw a card” be. These things take practice! Without starting with the fundamentals, kids can’t grow into discerning higher-level game players.

  5. God, I remember hating Candy Land. It’s not actually a game at all, just a device for turning a kid into a Rube Goldberg machine that compares two random numbers. There is absolutely no satisfaction in it whatsoever.

  6. It is stupid.

    A considerably amount of the mainstream children’s play is designed around not giving children choices, and assuming rank idiocy on the part of the child.

    It’s a fundamental concept in teaching that you do not teach to someone’s level, you always teach a bit higher than that level. Assuming idiocy gets you… idiocy.

  7. I highly recommend games like “Sorry” or mancala http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mancala as starter games. The basic game mechanics presented in Candyland are important, but even having a base decision making feature like choosing what to move is just enough to learn. Every morning my baby cousin was at my house she’d bring out the mancala set. By the time she out grew it, we were making our own rules and modifications to the game.

    As a side note, she couldn’t understand or remember her abc’s until she was 8 or 9, but she could read, comprehend, and solve “Crack the Case” faster than most adults from 6y/o onward. Goes to show that sometimes what we think of as being the basics really aren’t the basics… some kids can skip ahead of “the system”.

  8. Jon Purdy:

    “When you are four years old, “taking turns” and “following the rules” are actually things that are new to you, and you need to practice.”

    You should never underestimate kids ability to learn, fast. When you wan´t to teach your kid to ride a bike you give him a bike with training wheels, you don´t start with putting him on a bike seat drilled to the ground.

    (English is not my first language so im sorry for any bad gramar ore typos).

  9. I think this view overlooks the fact that children’s games are also about social development. If one has three children, age 5,8,10 one can generally presume that the older children will have an advantage in games which require strategic thought. Games like Candyland preserves the social lessons of a group game, playing by the rules (like mentioned above), losing and wining gracefully, etc, while making the game accessible and enjoyable to a slightly wider range of players.

    1. Andrew,
      I strongly agree that kids games are about social development. That’s why I developed Dungeon Adventure which doesn’t require an adversarial relationship between players, which as you point out is a problem with age differences. It makes better sense to have co-op games and RPGs can fill that role. We can reap the social benefits and not have them run through a monotonous, pre-determined script.

      1. I definitely think Dungeon adventures is interesting, saw it on Hacker News months ago. I suppose I’m just trying to get across that I don’t necessarily think an adversarial relationship is always a bad thing. I generally think your style of game is better, but games with simple mechanics, and a script have a lower barrier of entry, which can occasionally be useful.

  10. I agree with you in a way that I also choose my kid’s games especially when it’s online. I have a 6-yr-old daughter who loves to play games on my laptop so what I do, is I choose games that are both fun and educational like what she’s playing at http://www.Clubtuki.com , she got to learn about Math games, Geography games, Music and even typing games. I think the most important factor that parents should consider is to check if the games are kids safe away from violence.

  11. maybe huh your over thinking this.

    maybe you play too many video games.

    not every person needs some overcomplicated format of playing to enjoy themselves.

    kids need simplicity sometimes.
    i hope you dont think tic tac toe isnt stimulating enough

    1. Simplicity is fine, in fact it’s desirable in most games. Tic tac toe is a great game for kids.

      But along with simplicity the game should include at least some form of decision making. That’s all I’m asking for.

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