Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Defense of Candy Land

In a recent episode of the Dice Tower podcast, Eric Summerer gave some surprising praise for the classic Milton Bradley board game "Candy Land." To those who are casual gamers, rather than obsessive hobby gamers, it might seem odd to call praise of "Candy Land" surprising, but it is.  While the "child's first game" is a staple in most households, it isn't a well thought of game in the hobby gaming community.  For example, the hobby gamer's go to website for opinion research is the excellent Board Game Geek website, and its members have given the game a lowly 3.2/10 rating (with an N of 1568).  This rating falls somewhere between "bad" and "not so good."

My opinion of the game has changed over the past year, and now falls pretty squarely in line with Eric Summerer's praise, and also with Rob Donohue's.  He praised the game as a great introductory game that he was playing with his son.  If memory serves, Mr. Summerer stated that "Candy Land" was the first game where his son actually started playing by the rules.  I had a similar experience with my 3 and a half year-old twin daughter's Mystery and History.  They adore this game, and have learned some valuable game playing lessons from the game.  Like Mr. Summerer's son, they play the game by the rules...well with one small exception.  Rather than the goal of the game being to "go home" as is written in the rules, Mystery and History are on a journey to have tea at Hello Kitty's house.  To add to the immersion, they have placed Lego Duplo "cat legos" on the board at both the home and peanut brittle house squares.  The home square represents Hello Kitty's house and the peanut brittle house is the domicile of Hello Kitty's apocryphal twin sister "Boxie." 

I am pretty sure that my own heightened opinion of the game is stronger than that of Mr. Summerer's.  Where I once found the game "simple" and not really worth playing, I now believe the game to be a vital addition to any gamer's collection.  But one must own the game for the right reasons.

"Candy Land" was created in 1948 by Eleanor Abbott.  Eleanor was a retired San Diego school teacher who suffered from Polio, and she created the game as a fantasy world into which children suffering from the disease could escape.  The game was first played by children in a polio ward in a San Diego hospital and was published in 1949 to great success.

The game is quite simple.  Players draw cards which have and illustration of either a colored square (or two) or a board location. The player then places their game piece on the next square of the color drawn, or the location in the illustration.  The first player to follow the track all the way to the "home" square wins.  The cards are only shuffled once, unless the entire deck has been gone through and then you shuffle again.  There is no strategy to playing the game efficiently, and the players make no tactical decisions.

It is a game of pure chance.

I believe that this one of the primary causes for the low rating the game receives on Board Game Geek.  To elaborate, I believe the following to be the reasons the game is so disdained:

  1. The game is purely random with player decisions having no influence on play.
  2. Due to the single shuffle, the game's outcome is effectively decided before the first piece is moved.
There seems to be a preference on Board Game Geek on games where players have control and where the role of luck is minimized, but this is a view that I personally don't share.  I love games of skill, but most games of skill are also solvable games akin to Nim.  An eventual "best strategy" can become known and that means that the game is only fun/challenging insofar as the people playing the game have incomplete knowledge.  Tic Tac Toe is only fun when both of the players lack mastery.  This is never true of a game that incorporates chance.  Chance allows for variation in play, and allows weaker players to beat stronger players.  Reiner Knizia, in his book Dice Games Properly Explained, describes games of luck in the following way, "Even though you have no tactical influence, these games provide great entertainment.  It is like watching a good movie.  You cannot change the course of the action, but you join in the excitement."

I agree.

A good game of "Candy Land" is very much like watching a good movie, especially if you are playing with people of the recommended age group of 3 to 6 years old.  Watching Mystery and History act out their journey is a great part of the fun of the game play.

But the benefits of "Candy Land" are more than just the entertainment of play, which does in all honesty have limits.  The highest benefits of playing the game are as follows:

  1. Teaches turn taking
  2. Teaches following the rules
  3. The lack of tactical contribution minimizes "bad losing/gloating by winners"
  4. Teaches color matching
  5. Engages the imagination in storytelling
  6. Introduces all the basics of future board game play in a conflict free environment
That's a  lot of benefits.  One could add "can be used as the basis for a discussion of Markov chains and even a full discussion of statistics" if one were so inclined, but I don't think my 3 and a half year-old daughters would be up for such a discussion.

I think that the benefits of "Candy Land" far outweigh the first criticism of the game, that of "pure" randomness.  Opposition to chance in games is more a personal taste issue than any transcendent rule of game design.  That said, I do think that the second criticism -- that the game is decided before play actually begins -- has a good deal of merit.  Therefore, I'd like to offer the two following variant rules for "Candy Land."

Bag Draw
In this version of "Candy Land," all of the cards are placed into a bag, or hat, and the players draw a random card from the bag on their turn. This makes the game more purely random, and eliminates the pre-determination factor of the game.
If players wanted to eliminate completely the influence of prior draws from future play, cards can be immediately put back into the bag after it has been used for movement determination.
1 to 4 and Left or Right
In this variant, players shuffle the cards as normal at the beginning of the game thus setting the order of cards for the remainder of the game.  The first player draws as normal and is considered Player 1 for the remainder of the game.  The other players in counter-clockwise rotation are players 2 through 4. 
 After the first player's draw, all future draws are decided through the roll of a six-sided die.  On a result of 1 to 4, the player of that number draws the next card.  On a result of 5, the player to the left of the current player draws a card.  On a result of 6, the player to the right of the current player draws a card. 
Neither of these optional rules eliminates the role of chance in play, but both add a level of mystery and change the Markov dynamics. of play.

I have found that this game is perfect for its intended audience, and believe it a vital part of any gamer's collection.  It can also be used as a point of departure for design and the creation of house rules.

The "Boxie" character should not be confused with Hello Kitty's real twin sister Mimi, and is a creation of my daughter Mystery.

Walsh, Tim (2004). Timeless Toys.

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