Eleanor Abbot's Candy Land is in most cases the first boardgame to which children in the United States are exposed. As a result, it constitutes a touchstone, a referent which we almost all consider when contemplating the nature of the ars ludorum, and its evolution and recomplication in our own interactive, nay hyperactive, era.
There are those who criticize Candy Land as being jejune and ultimately futile, since the nature of its rules construct and the (non-existent) emergent complexity it supports is utterly unsusceptible to any sort of rational analysis, or indeed, choice of player strategy.
Each turn, a player draws a card, upon which is printed a color. He, or as it may be, she, thereupon advances his or her token to the next square along the track printed with the same color. The first player to reach the final goal -- the mighty castle of King Kandy -- is the sole victor of the game. While there are a few "short-cuts" across the track, accessible only by landing on the starting square of each, and thus a mild Snakes and Ladders (well, Ladders, anyway) element, this avails strategy nought, since you have no capacity to plan for the use of such short-cuts, no ability to reduce or advance your movement. Consequently, Candy Land is, to the adult player, purely a game of luck, with first-movers having a mild competitive advantage; victory is a consequence of the luck of the draw.
Yet to view the game purely in this light is to utterly ignore the characteristics that make it fascinating, both as a game, and as a cultural artifact -- and that make it appealing to children, its intended audience.
To begin with, let us view Candy Land as a mathematical entity. It is very nearly a Markov chain, a stochastic process in which, given the current state, future states are independent of past states. (It would be a pure Markov chain if the deck were shuffled after each play; instead, it is a crippled Markov chain coupled to a push-pop stack.) As such, it is a metaphorical representation of the fundamental ideology of the United States; the past is no constraint on the future, and each individual should strive resolutely for personal advance despite whatever the past may hold. The child born in a log cabin may achieve the presidency, an immigrant boy who grows up in the slums of Brooklyn may become a real-estate magnate, an Ivy-educated scion of wealth may wind up on a bread line, and a double green will speed you to the fore. Though there are winners and losers, initial conditions are no determinant of outcome in the freedom of America. The subtext, of course, may be that success and failure is entirely random and has nothing to do with individual initiative and hard work, a concept alien to the Platonic ideal of the American dream, but perhaps a more accurate representation of reality than the Horatio Alger myth.
Next, let us consider the role of Candy Land in the acculturation of the American child. The characters represented in the game, through whose desmenses the players pass, are all representations of sickly, in many cases objectively repulsive, sweets: Princess Frostine, the Gingerbread People, Mr. Mint, Gloppy the Chocolate (formerly Molasses) Monster. There's a clear message to the American child here, one our business establishment is at pains to transmit through all forms of media -- most importantly, of course, through the thundering waterfall of commercial blandishment none of us is permitted to escape, whatever media we peruse. That message is, of course: CONSUME. Consume candy. Consume everything. But for children, candy above all; the natural childish instinct to like what in more mature mouths is repulsively saccharine is the key, the first way in for inculcation of the consumer instinct. Candy good. Consume candy. Whine at your parent until she, or as it may be, he, buys you the packet of Lifesavers. St. Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits, said "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man," meaning, of course, that if you brainwash small children with any idiot set of beliefs (like, say, the virgin birth, divinity of Christ, necessity for ritual cannibalism, and triune nature of the Godhead), you'll have them by the frontal lobes of the brain for the rest of their lives. They will never escape it. Thus, while Abbot no doubt had no such intention for her game, Candy Land also serves as an important element in the indoctrination of American youth in the cult of excessive consumption and extravagant and unnecessary use of resources, the fundament of our society and economic growth since the end of the Second World War.
The replacement of "Gloppy the Molasses Monster" with "Gloppy the Chocolate Monster" in the 2002 edition is instructive in this regard; molasses, once used by every home cook in a variety of tasty treats, has been entirely replaced by high-fructose corn syrup, baked into commercial products by large conglomerates, as our government has sought to bar or reduce the importation of cane sugar and molasses, its industrial precursor, in favor of less efficiently produced forms of sugar provided at higher cost by American farmers who vote for congressmen. Unfortunately, Brazil has no votes in the American legislature, so molasses has no constituency.
But to think of Candy Land in terms of its dialectical role in acculturating American children to consumerism, or indeed to think of it in mathematical terms, is to consider its external indicia, rather that its pure characteristics as a game qua game. Let us return, therefore, to its formal game nature.
I have argued that as a game, it is in effect, nugatory, since its outcome is wholly dependent on chance. Yet its audience is not game sophisticates, who will divine its nugatory nature; its audience is small children. They have neither the experience nor sophistication to delve beneath the surface sufficiently to understand that it is wholly chance based. Instead, they experience the game much as we, supposedly more sophisticated adults, experience other games, like, say, World of Warcraft or slot machines. One token advances, then another; there is a contest for the ultimate victory. Each new turn of a card has an effect on the gamestate, and just as we sit on the edge of our seats as we strive to use our mastery of the interface and our perception of what trick is required to kill this boss in a Zelda game, or hang as the slot machine wheel trembles between an orange that produces a payoff and an image that does not, so they may feel the same sense of urgency and hope as they near the finish line. Similarly, the child may feel a sense of fiero, of triumph over adversity, if they are the first to enter King Kandy's castle, and thereby win, particularly if they do so in victory over their otherwise evidently more sophisticated, knowledgeable, and dominant parent. The sophisticate sees in this chance; the naive player, to whom the game caters, sees merely the triumph.
In short, the wholly chance-based nature of the game's narrative is eminently suited to its target audience; the five year-old player has just as much chance of winning as the forty-something one. Why would a player so young play Chess against his parent? Surely, he would soon perceive that however he strives to master the knight's move, he has no chance of winning, not until he is much older. Yet with Candy Land he is on an equal footing.
Thus, a pure ludological analysis of Candy Land might conclude that "this is a brain-dead game that only an idiot would play;" but a more encompassing analysis, considering the nature of its audience and the environment in which it is most commonly played, might conclude instead that it is ideally suited to its audience, and a laudatory example of a game design that places players of vastly different ages and analytical capabilities on an equal footing. Indeed, we might draw from it a potentially important conclusion: Outcomes strongly influenced by chance are not, as some would have it, poor game design, but instead appropriate for games that mix players at divergent levels of skill.