Candy Land, Built for Pandemics, Is a Perfect Game for the COVID-19 Era

Created to help protect kids from polio and to comfort the already afflicted, the classic board game is the perfect way to kill time during quarantine.

by Amy Karafin
Originally Published: 
Children playing in fields of candy canes, lollipops and jellies in Candy Land
Ivy Johnson for Fatherly

My daughter and I have been playing a lot of Candy Land lately, which is to say that we’ve been playing Candy Land. By design, the game takes for-fucking-ever to play. You go around and around these rainbow squares without making much progress; cards send you back to the beginning, or the middle, or the end. You zip over a Rainbow Trail that propels you forward 56 squares, then get stuck in a Molasses Swamp for 10 turns, waiting for a blue card that never comes, while your 4-year-old moves past you and back again, her gingerbread-man game piece traveling around a board that’s more Möbius strip than chute or ladder.

When someone wins, making it to the gingerbread house with the “Home Sweet Home” sign, the event feels random and, as a result, anti-climactic. But winning isn’t really the point of Candy Land; no one is ever really meaningfully ahead and it often feels like no one ever will win. Players don’t compete so much as settle into a liminal state of neither-here-nor-there, floating about candy scenes until it’s time to reshuffle the deck — yet again — and pull up the same cards that they just pulled, this time in a different order.

It is, in other words, the perfect family board game for lockdown.

There’s a good reason for that. Designed by a San Diegan schoolteacher and polio patient named Eleanor Abbot in 1948, Candy Land was conceived as a kid-friendly time killer. The kids in the polio ward understandably loved it. Unlike, say, Monopoly, it’s escapist, easy to focus on, light on rules, and more about discovery than competition — players can’t do anything to affect one another or engender bad feelings. Now stabled next to Monopoly by Hasbro, the game became popular at the height of the polio epidemic, which kept millions of children indoors during the summers of the late 1940s and early ’50s.

“The point is not to win or lose, or even to finish,” wrote Samira Kawash, a former professor emeritus at Rutgers University and author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, in The Journal of Play. “The point of the game is to pass the time.”

Polio had been around for a while in the U.S., but the first major epidemic was in 1894, followed by another in 1916, when 7000 people died. But those epidemics were nowhere near as fear-inducing as the one of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when children began coming down with the virus in outsize numbers. In 1952, 60,000 Americans got the virus and 3000 of them died — a disproportionate number of them underage. Thousands were paralyzed and hospitalized, some in coffin-like iron lungs and many for months on end with visits from parents allowed only once a month.

As bad as the numbers were, the fear of the disease was massive, and disproportionate. In 1952, at the peak of the epidemic, only one of every 2700 Americans was infected with the virus, a much lower rate than coronavirus. But “polio panic” was common, in part because the disease hit children so badly and was so poorly understood. Groups advocating for polio research also played up the danger to children as a way to shock the country into action. They were successful, but they helped to freak everyone out in the process, and parents began keeping kids inside every summer, when the virus was active. Swimming pools were closed and social distancing was in effect at movie theaters. DDT was sprayed in neighborhoods to kill the flies thought to carry the illness. David Oshinsky, a medical historian at NYU and the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story, described how parents would ask kids, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life in an iron lung?” when children “begged to go swimming or play outside, when they jumped through a puddle or licked a friend’s ice-cream cone.” In that moment, what a relief it must have been to take a trip to Candy Land, a place devoid of summer restrictions.

Now, it feels that way again.

At the end of our sixth week of sheltering in place, my daughter and I are no longer fighting, no longer angry; we think much less about our pre-coronavirus lives that we miss. I was shocked to realize just now, on counting, that six weeks have passed already. It could be ten days as easily as it could be nine months. We have entered into a state of floating through life largely without aspirations or longings; we look instead to small pleasures — watching anodyne TV shows, beating our drum every night at 7pm, playing pretend, sweets. It’s a kind of Candy Land.

The game itself provides my daughter and me with a way to offer each other the comfort of company while providing us with a model for our lives. If Risk offers a blueprint for land wars in Asia and Battleship offers a glimpse into conflict at sea, Candy Land provides a window into the far more desirable experience of comfortable stasis. Candy Land is a good place for bad times. It’s a gingerbread bunker devoid of licorice clocks.

We still long for escape, but it’s one that’s not available in the outside world. Going outside has the opposite effect: People walk too close to us, we accidentally touch our faces or sniff lilacs or momentarily think we’re in control of anything. We wait on line to get our food, we fall into a Cherry Pitfall of regret at having left the house. Instead, we find our escape in a sugar-coated forest, a trail of colors and places with no geography, no logic, and no order — a world in which our helplessness doesn’t represent a concern, much less a liability, and which twirls us around in a rhythm invisible to us and eventually brings us, if we’re very lucky, back to the safety of home.

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