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