«Four in a Row» in Haskell (Part II)

Implementation of the Board Logic

In my last article, I outlined the purpose of a stock program: a non-trivial coding exercise to be done in every new programming language somebody is learning. I also stated that «Four in a Row» is becoming my personal stock program, and that I’d like to implement it in Haskell.

The main challenge in Haskell is the functional programming paradigm. Immutability is the main difference between an implementation of «Four in a Row» in a functional programming language compared to rather structured programming languages such as C or Python. The object-oriented aspect of an implementation in Python makes hardly any difference, for OOP equally allows for mutable an immutable programming beneath the surface. (In introductory courses on OOP, hidden mutability is rather praised as a virtue than frowned upon; the disadvantages of mutability are only taught in advanced courses by showing the advantages of constructs like immutable classes. Learn and unlearn, but I’m digressing…)

A later re-implementation of my stock program in Python might profit from the experiences made in Haskell. Structured programming also allows for immutability, and list comprehensions allow for compact code to produce new state based on older state, without modifying existing state. (This re-implementation could be subject matter for a fourth article, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

In this article, I’m going to show how the board logic for the game «Four in a Row» can be implemented in Haskell.

Let There Be Code

As analyzed in my previous article, the board logic consists of five building blocks:

  1. Create an empty grid with given dimensions.
  2. Validate if a move (i.e. the choice of a column) is allowed for a given board.
  3. Set a player’s stone in the right place on the grid based on the choice of a column.
  4. Detect if a player has won the game by checking if four of the player’s stones lay in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line.
  5. Format the grid as a string in order to display it on the command line.

The last building block, formatting, won’t be covered in this article. I first have to learn more about strings, formatting, and IO in Haskell, but I don’t like to wait to cover the other parts, which I’m already capable of implementing with my current knowledge.

Type Glossary

Before implementing the actual logic, let’s define a couple of type aliases:

type Grid = [Row]
type Row = [Int]
type Col = [Int]
type Stone = Int

A grid (type Grid) is a list of rows. A row (type Row) itself is a list of integers. As discussed in my previous article, 0 is going to be used for empty fields. The fields occupied by player one and two shall be represented by the numbers 1 and 2, respectively.

Just like a row, a column (type Col) is a list of integers. It is an alternative way to express the relationships between individual fields. The Grid, however, uses the Row type as its building blocks.

A Stone is an integer, too. It represents a player’s number for fields occupied by his or her stones.

Those types won’t add powerful abstractions to the program, but make the signature of certain functions a bit clearer. (It’s also possible to limit the scope of the types declared to certain values, but let’s focus on the program logic instead.)

Creating a Grid

The function new_grid accepts two integer parameters (number of rows and columns), and produces a grid of those dimensions:

new_grid :: Int -> Int -> Grid
new_grid r c = [new_row c | _ <- [1..r]]

A list comprehension is used to build up the grid as a list of r rows. The row itself is created by a function new_row:

new_row :: Int -> Row
new_row c = [0 | _ <- [1..c]]

Again, a list comprehension is used to build a single row consisting of c elements: one per column.

The new_grid function can be used as follows (> indicates the REPL, the output has been wrapped for better readability):

> new_grid 6 7

Validating a Move

A move solely consists of a column index. Let’s assume a 6x7 grid (6 rows, 7 columns) if nothing else is stated. A valid move must be in the range of 0 (leftmost column) to 6 (inclusive, rightmost column).

For a move to be valid, the column must have an empty field, i.e. it must contain the value 0. Since the columns are filled up from the bottom, a column is not full if its the top-most field is equal to 0. So this validation seems trivial.

However, in order to deal with columns rather than rows (remember, the grid is defined in terms of rows, not the other way around), we first need a way to gather the fields of a column. The function get_column expects a grid and a column index and returns the fields belonging to that particular column:

get_column :: Grid -> Int -> Col
get_column g c = [row !! c | row <- g]

A list comprehension is used to select the element at index c in every grid row using the index operator (!!).

The function is_valid_move simply extracts the column chosen by the player and checks its topmost field to be empty (equals 0, that is):

is_valid_move :: Grid -> Int -> Bool
is_valid_move g c = (get_column g c) !! 0 == 0

(Notice that no boundary checks are implemented throughout the program, unless absolutely necessary for getting the logic right.)

This function can be used as follows:

> g = new_grid 6 7
> is_valid_move g 0

Setting a Stone

The first two building blocks were easy to write without modifying state. Performing a move on the grid by setting a stone into a certain column, however, is a step that requires a modification of some sort. The solution is to not mutate the given grid, but to produce a new grid based on the given grid by accounting for a player’s move.

The function apply_move expects a grid, a column (chosen by the player and validated using is_valid_move), and the player’s number (to set the right value in the new grid):

apply_move :: Grid -> Int -> Int -> Grid

Because only a column is given, the row coordinate has to be figured out. Since stones played are falling down the grid in the physical version of the game, the bottom-most free field of a column has to be found:

bottom_most :: Grid -> Int -> Int -> Int
bottom_most g v c = length (takeWhile (\x -> x == v) col) - 1
                    where col = get_column g c

The lowest free position is found by extracting a subsequent list of a given value v, which can be handed in as an argument. (The value 0 has to be used for this particular use case by the caller.) The built-in function takeWhile is used to extract a list based on a lambda expression: Elements are taken from the column as long as the lambda expression holds true. The bottom-most position of a column with the given value v is simply the length of the extracted sub list minus one (indexes are zero-based). Again, the get_column function is used to get access to the fields of a particular column.

Now apply_move can be implemented as follows:

apply_move g c p = replace_value g r c p
                   where r = bottom_most g 0 c

Another function is needed: replace_value, which creates a new grid based on the existing grid g, by setting the player’s stone value p to the coordinate (r,c). (The row coordinate is figured out using bottom_most, as shown above.)

The function replace_move is implemented as follows:

replace_value :: Grid -> Int -> Int -> Stone -> Grid
replace_value g r c p = take r g ++ [new_row] ++ drop (r + 1) g
                        where new_row = replace_row_value (g !! r) c p

Given the row index r, the first r rows are taken. (This excludes the row to be transformed, because the index is zero-based.) The row at index r is computed as new_row in a further step. The remaining rows are extracted from the existing grid by dropping the first r + 1 rows from it. Those three components are concatenated to a new grid using the ++ operator.

The new_row looks like the old row at index r, expect that a single value at index c (the column) has to be replaced with the player’s value v. The function replace_row_value performs this transformation:

replace_row_value :: Row -> Int -> Stone -> Row
replace_row_value r c p = take c r ++ [p] ++ drop (c+1) r

The same logic using take and drop can be implemented for the column’s fields like for the grid’s rows before. The empty field at column index c can simply be replaced by a list solely consisting of the player’s stone value v. List concatenation is used again to produce the tranformed column.

A move can be applied as follows:

> g = new_grid 6 7
> g1 = apply_move g 3 1
> g1

> g2 = apply_move g1 4 2
> g2

apply_move could also be invoking is_valid_move for validation. But this task should be left for the client to be implemented later on.

Detecting a Win

Figuring out whether or not a player’s most recent move leads to a win is the hardest part of this program, no matter what implementation language is used. (However, I didn’t try Prolog yet for this.) Let’s analyze the problem.

First, what do we know? The player with a number (1 or 2) just picked a column (between 0 and 5 in our 6x7 grid). A stone was set in the bottom-most empty field of that column. The actual row where the stone landed in is unknown. However, this information can be found out: it is the top-most row of the chosen column holding the player’s stone value. All the fields above must be empty.

Second, what do we need to find out? Starting from the coordinates (given column, row figured out as described above), there are three possibilities to build a row of four values: horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines. A horizontal line is a row, and a vertical row is a column. Diagonal lines can occur in two directions: ascending or descending. So we actually need to account for four kinds of rows, which need to be extracted from the row/column coordinates.

Third, once the horizontal, the vertical, and the two diagonal lines going through the player’s stone most recently set are established, a simple check can be done: Does the line, which can be represented as a list, contain a list of four of the player’s stones? If that’s the case, the player just won the game.

Let’s implement that algorithm in a top-down manner!

The function is_win expects a grid, a column, and a player’s stone value, and returns a boolean value indicating if the player just won the game:

is_win :: Grid -> Int -> Stone -> Bool
is_win g c p = horizontal_win g row p ||
               vertical_win g c p ||
               diagonal_win g row c p
               where row = top_most g p c

Three predicate functions horizontal_win, vertical_win, and diagonal_win handle the three different shapes of winning rows. To check for a vertical win, the row is irrelevant. For the other wins, the row where the player’s stone just landed in is figured out using the top_most function:

top_most :: Grid -> Stone -> Int -> Int
top_most g v c = length (takeWhile (\x -> x /= v) col)
                 where col = get_column g c

This function expects a grid, a player’s stone value, a column, and returns the top-most row containing the player’s stone. Going through the column from top to bottom, values are read into a list as long as they are not equal to the player’s stone value. The length of that list is the row coordinate of the player’s top-most stone in that column. Again, the column is extracted using the get_column function explained further above.

Vertical and Horizontal Win

A vertical and horizontal winning row can be detected in the same manner. The only difference is that the former works on columns, and the latter on rows:

horizontal_win :: Grid -> Int -> Stone -> Bool
horizontal_win g r p = contained fiar (g !! r)
                       where fiar = [p | _ <- [1..4]]

vertical_win :: Grid -> Int -> Stone -> Bool
vertical_win g c p = contained fiar (get_column g c)
                     where fiar = [p | _ <- [1..4]]

In both cases, a grid, an index (row or column, respectively), and a player’s stone value is expected. The boolean return value indicates whether or not the row or column contains a sub-list consisting of four of the player’s stone values: fiar, which is built using a list comprehension.

For the horizontal win, the row can be directly accessed from the grid using the row index (g !! r). For the vertical win, the get_column function is used once again.

The function contained is the tricky part. This function checks whether or not a smaller list (first argument) is part of a larger list (second argument). A possible implementation looks as follows:

contained :: Eq a => [a] -> [a] -> Bool
contained [] []                     = True
contained [] ys                     = True
contained xs []                     = False
contained (x:xs) (y:ys) | x == y    = and [x == y | (x,y) <- zip xs ys]
                                      && length xs <= length ys
                                      || contained (x:xs) ys
                        | otherwise = contained (x:xs) ys

The lists processed can be of any type that supports the comparison operator (Eq a). A boolean value is returned indicating whether or not the first list is contained in the second list. The function is implemented using pattern matching, which covers the following cases:

  1. An empty list is contained in another empty list (first base case).
  2. An empty list is contained in any non-empty list (second base case).
  3. A non-empty list is not contained in an empty list (negative base case).
  4. A non-emtpy list is possibly contained in another non-empty list (complex case).

The «possibly» in the fourth case can be resolved as follows: If the first elements of the two lists do match, the remainders of the two lists need to be checked for a match. A list comprehension zipping those tails together and comparing the corresponding elements creates a list of booleans indicating matches. If all those booleans are True, the first list must be contained in the second list, if the second list is at least as long as the first list. (Notice that the zip function only picks values until the shorter of the two zipped lists is exhausted. The length check ensures that the comparison of the lists does not end prematurely.)

The otherwise case is processed when the two list’s heads do not match. In this case, the contained function is invoked again with the full first list and the second’s list tail: It shall be checked whether or not the first list is contained in the second’s list tail.

Diagonal Win

Detecting a diagonal win works in the same manner as detecting a horizontal or vertical win. However, there are two subtle details that make the implementation more complicated:

First, there are two kinds of diagonal lines: ascending and descending. This can be handled by implementing two different functions.

Second, extracting a diagonal line as a list from the two-dimensional grid is much more complicated than extracting a horizontal line (row) or a vertical line (column).

Let’s start with the diagonal_win function, which accounts for both winning rows in ascending or descending order:

diagonal_win :: Grid -> Int -> Int -> Stone -> Bool
diagonal_win g r c p = contained fiar (diag_asc g r c) ||
                       contained fiar (diag_desc g r c)
                       where fiar = [p | _ <- [1..4]]

The function expects a grid, both row and column indication, and the player’s stone value. As always, a boolean value indicating a win is returned. A win is detected, if the list of four player’s stone values is contained in either the ascending or the descending diagonal line.

Those lines are extracted from the grid using the diag_asc and diag_desc functions, respectively. The two functions look quite similar, but have subtle differences in the way they process the grid:

The function diag_asc expects a grid and both row and column indices. It returns the ascending diagonal row containing that coordinate:

diag_asc :: Grid -> Int -> Int -> [Int]
diag_asc g r c = [g !! i !! j | (i,j) <- zip rows cols]
                   nrows   = length g
                   ncols   = length (g !! 0)
                   offset  = max (min (nrows - r - 1) (ncols - c - 1)) 0
                   max_row = r + offset
                   min_col = c - offset
                   rows    = reverse [0..max_row]
                   cols    = [min_col..ncols-1]

The function is implemented using a list comprehension. The variable i is the row index, j the column index. Those indices are obtained by zipping a list of row indices (rows) with a list of column indices (cols). The starting and end point of those lists are the tricky part.

Consider this grid, in which - stands for an empty field, and the upper-case F for the field played most recently (with the r and c arguments as indices). All the fields indicated with a lower-case f are to be extracted for the ascending diagonal holding the upper-case F:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6
- - - - - - f 0
- - - - - f - 1
- - - - f - - 2
- - - f - - - 3
- - F - - - - 4 !
- f - - - - - 5

The row and column indices of F are given as 4 and 2. The starting point at the bottom-left can be figured out by shifting the coordinates by an offset. This offset is the smaller value of the following two differences:

The offset is set to 0, if either difference becomes negative (boarder clipping). The offset is calculated as follows:

offset = max (min (nrows - r - 1) (ncols - c - 1)) 0
offset = max (min (6 - 4 - 1) (7 - 2 - 1)) 0
offset = max (min 1 4) 0
offset = max 1 0
offset = 1

And the starting points max_row/min_col (bottom left) are calculated based on the given indices of F as follows:

max_row = r + offset
max_row = 4 + 1
max_row = 5

min_col = c - offset
min_col = 2 - 1
min_col = 1

The diagonal line can be drawn up to the row index 0 and the column index 6. Here, it is possible to always use the maximum value, because the zip function will stop picking values once the shorter list is exhausted.

The number of rows and columns can simply be figured out using the length function applied on the grid as a whole and on a single row thereof:

nrows = length g
ncols = length (g !! 0)

Notice that in order to create a list containing the falling values from max_row down to 0 (rows), a rising list from 0 to max_row has to be created and reversed:

> reverse [0..max_row]

The other way around, an empty list would be created:

> [max_row..0]

The somewhat easier to understand function diag_desc is simply pasted here without any further comments. Figuring out how it works is left to the reader. The extensive comments above on diag_asc certainly help for this purpose:

diag_desc :: Grid -> Int -> Int -> [Int]
diag_desc g r c = [g !! i !! j | (i,j) <- zip rows cols]
                    offset  = min r c
                    min_row = r - offset
                    min_col = c - offset
                    nrows   = length g
                    ncols   = length (g !! 0)
                    rows    = [min_row..nrows-1]
                    cols    = [min_col..ncols-1]


The complete board logic required to implement a basic «Four in a Row» game has been implemented in Haskell. The whole code described, plus some additional attempts to format the grid as a string, can be found on GitHub.

The linked code also defines a module Board which exports the public interface of the board consisting of the four building blocks discussed in this article and its predecessor. The file BoardTest.hs defines a couple of unit tests written in HUnit for basic verification of the logic.

The actual board logic requires a little less than 100 SLOC. Comparable implementations I’ve written in Python and C only take up slightly more lines. I could have made some functions shorter, but probably not clearer with my limited knowledge of Haskell.

The contained function, for example, looks a bit bulky, but actually contains very little logic. It is possible that the negative base case could be eradicated, because a length check is already performed in the complex case. However, I rather have a clear statement of the base cases than saving an easy to understand line of code.

I might revisit this code and improve it as my knowledge of Haskell improves. But the next step in my journey is to implement an interactive game based on this board, which will be the subject of an article to be published in weeks or maybe months.