Preschool board game syndrome: Why Candy Land fries my brain

© 2008 -2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Candy Land. It’s reportedly the best-selling preschool board game of all time. It’s also a major pain the *%!@&#.

Why? In part, it’s because Candy Land suffers from preschool board game syndrome. The players have no decisions to make.

There are no strategies to discover or puzzles to solve.

The outcome is determined purely by chance.

Little kids don’t seem to mind these shortcomings, and I suspect it’s because they don’t really grasp the concept of chance. They can’t understand that their every move is dictated by the rules.

But for the adults like me, these games are tedious.

So can we toss Candy Land into the waste bin? I’m not sure. There are several, more adult-friendly, alternatives to Candy Land. But kids like it, and the game has its virtues. Here's the case as I see it.

Overview

For those of you who don’t know, the rules of Candy Land are simple.

• Players take turns moving their game tokens around a colorful, winding track.

• Instead of using dice, the game relies on color-coded cards. Example: If you draw a card with a yellow square on it, you move your token along the multi-colored track until you reach the nearest yellow space.

• Once in while, a player draws a special card that moves him far ahead or sends him back.

• The first player to reach the end wins. This person should always (God help us) be a child. Otherwise the parent is hectored mercilessly to play “just one more game.”

The Prosecution

Why does the mere threat of playing this game fill me with dread? Well, for one thing, there is very little going on.

Strip away the toddler-entrancing graphics of the Molasses Slag Monster, and all you’ve got is a race, with the outcome determined strictly by chance.

At least, that’s true if you don’t cheat, which I do.

When the kids aren’t looking I fix the deck to ensure a reasonably timely conclusion. For instance, I’ve been known to sneak a peak at the next card in the deck to make sure the front-runner doesn’t draw a last-minute “Go Back to the &%$*# Beginning of this Freakin’ Game” card.

Which brings up another big problem:

Like the slow decay of Uranium-238 into Thorium-234, Candy Land can take more than 4.4 billion years to finish.

If you don’t believe me, check out this mathematical analysis.

Using Monte Carlo simulations, Barry Wise discovered that the average Candy Land session runs considerably longer than those of its (perhaps equally hideous) competitors, Cootie and Chutes and Ladders. (Wise 2000; and I’ll bet you thought I was going to get through this article without any scholarly references.)

But the real horror becomes apparent when you look at the normalized distribution of game lengths. Whereas Cootie and Chutes have a miniscule chance of running more than 100 moves, the probability runs much higher for Candy Land—almost 1%.

You might think that you are willing to run this 1% chance. After all, your little cherubs are so happy when you play with them.

But consider this:

People who play Candy Land for more than 100 turns suffer permanent brain damage to the prefrontal cortex.

Moreover, time spent playing Candy Land is inversely proportional to time spent learning linear algebra.

Okay, so that’s a bit speculative. I don’t really know what happens to you if you play the game that long. But do you really want to be the one who finds out?

The Defense

What does this preschool board game have going in its favor? Granted, the color-coding thing permits kids to play even if they can’t read or count. Kudos for that.

In addition, kids learn about the importance of placing a game token precisely where it belongs on the game board (as opposed to, say, in some mysterious part of the dog).

Kids also learn about taking turns. And other stuff, too:

• The symbolic game token. That’s right, kiddo. That little green gingerbread guy stands for YOU.

• Rules. You’ve got to conform or else nobody will want to play with you.

• Directionality. Everybody needs to move in the same direction, which we call “forwards.” Moving backwards is a bad thing.

• Staying on track. No matter that you could get to the end faster by jumping track and cutting through Lord Licorice’s real estate. You have to stay on the path. Or else.

• Cheating. Play the card you’re dealt. Digging through the deck for a better alternative is a no-no (unless you’re the parent--see above).

Admittedly, this isn’t a bad list. But these lessons come painfully.

Quite aside from the sheer tedium of the thing, there are technical problems with the board. In the version I have, the spaces are too small for the tokens, which undermines the precision-placement concept mentioned above.

Even worse, the path meanders and piles on top of itself like a writhing tapeworm. Toddlers quickly lose their sense of direction, and the slightest bump of the board causes preschool board game chaos.

So where does this leave us?

With a preschool board game that kids love and parents loathe.

Can we do better?

I think so.

For instance, consider this preschool board game. It's based on chance, too, but it's fast-moving and it teaches kids important math concepts. And it's been tested by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

In addition, I like the alternatives I discuss in this article about cooperative board games for young children. Recent research suggests that young children don't understand some competitive tactics (Priewasser et al 2013). As a result, cooperative games may be better suited to their abilities.

More information

Looking for more evidence-based information about play? See my articles about the cognitive benefits of board games and other toys, games, and puzzles.



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References: Preschool board game syndrome

Priewasser B, Roessler J, and Perner J. 2013. Competition as rational action: why young children cannot appreciate competitive games. J Exp Child Psychol. 116(2):545-59.

Wise B. 2000. Cootie, Candyland or Chutes and Ladders: Solving a Parent's Dilemma with Monte Carlo Simulation. Game & Puzzle Collectors Quarterly, 1(3): 19-21.

Content last modified 3/14