Repeat after me: "It doesn’t have to start with Candy Land." If you love playing games but dread the thought of playing some mind-numbing toddler fare branded with popular cartoon characters, I offer you hope.
Recently, on Wil Wheaton’s advice my wife picked up Carcassonne for those times when we want to play something German but can’t dupe a friend into stopping by for dinner. (Honestly, we feed them and almost always let them leave before 2am…) No sooner had we gotten the box unwrapped before our geeklet (age 3) saw it and asked when he could play "that castle game" with us.
We had previously tried inculcating him with a love of the 2d6 by introducing Dwarves and Dice, which sounds like toddler D&D but is actually a color matching game, and Max, which involves rolling to see if three backyard creatures can get to safety before the eponymous cat catches and eats them. (Boy, the tension that one can cause.) The experiment was almost too successful; he proceeded to turn every activity into a game, carrying around a six-sided die and rolling to see if I was allowed to take my next action. (I am not making this up.)
Our first response to his question about "that castle game" was "not for a while, sweetie." We had already classified it as an older-kid game, but he blew past that with a single question: "Does it require reading?" I opened my mouth to respond, but then actually thought about it. Carcassonne requires minimal setup. In fact, the game itself could be considered the "setup phase". The strategy aspects of the game are easily dialed back without taking away the construction aspects that keep it interesting.
So now we play Carcassonne together. For the geeklet it’s a matching game with roads and cities and fun little meeples and a puzzling lack of dice. For us it’s fun to watch him start down the path to gaming geekdom.