Chapter 9. Processes

Étude 9-1: Using Processes to Simulate a Card Game

There is only one étude for this chapter. You’re going to write an Elixir program that lets the computer play the card game of "War" against itself.

The Art of War

These are the rules of the game as condensed from Wikipedia, adapted to two players, and simplified further.

Two players each take 26 cards from a shuffled deck. Each person puts her top card face up on the table. Whoever has the higher value card wins that battle, takes both cards, and puts them at the bottom of her stack. What happens if the cards have the same value? Then the players go to "war." Each person puts the next two cards from their stack face down in the pile and a third card face up. High card wins, and the winner takes all the cards for the bottom of her stack. If the cards match again, the war continues with another set of three cards from each person. If a person has fewer than three cards when a war happens, he puts in all his cards.

Repeat this entire procedure until one person has all the cards. That player wins the game. In this game, aces are considered to have the highest value, and King > Queen > Jack.

War: What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing. Well, almost nothing. War is possibly the most incredibly inane card game ever invented. It is a great way for children to spend time, and it’s perfect as an étude because

  • it is naturally implementable as processes (players) passing messages (cards)
  • there is no strategy involved in the play, thus allowing you to concentrate on the processes and messages

Pay Now or Pay Later

When you purchase an item, if you pay cash on the spot, you often end up paying less than if you used credit. If you are cooking a meal, getting all of the ingredients collected before you start (pay now) is often less stressful than having to stop and go to the grocery store for items you found out you didn’t have (pay later). In most cases, "pay now" ends up being less expensive than "pay later," and that certainly applies to most programming tasks.

So, before you rush off to start writing code, let me give you a word of advice: Don’t. Spend some time with paper and pencil, away from the computer, and design this program first. This is a non-trivial program, and the "extra" time you spend planning it (pay now) will save you a lot of time in debugging and rewriting (pay later). As someone once told me, "Hours of programming will save you minutes of planning."

Trust me, programs written at the keyboard look like it, and that is not meant as a compliment.

Note: This does not mean that you should never use iex or write anything at the keyboard. If you are wondering about how a specific part of Elixir works and need to write a small test program to find out, go ahead and do that right away.

Hint: Do your design on paper. Don’t try to keep the whole thing in your head. Draw diagrams. Sometimes a picture or a storyboard of how the messages should flow will clarify your thinking. (If your parents ever asked you, "Do I have to draw you a diagram?", you may now confidently answer "Yes. Please do that. It really helps.")

The Design

When I first started planning this, I was going to have just two processes communicating with one another, as it is in a real game. But let’s think about that. There is a slight asymmetry between the players. One person usually brings the cards and suggests playing the game. He shuffles the deck and deals out the cards at the beginning. Once that’s done, things even out. The game play itself proceeds almost automatically. Neither player is in control of the play, yet both of them are. It seems as if there is an implicit, almost telepathic communication between the players.

Actually, there are no profound metaphysical issues here. Both players are simultaneously following the same set of rules. And that’s the point that bothered me—who makes the "decisions" in the program? I decided to sidestep the issue by introducing a third agent, the "dealer," who is responsible for giving the cards to each player at the start of the game. The dealer then can tell each player to turn over cards, make a decision as to who won, and then tell a particular player to take cards. This simplifies the message flow considerably and also fits in nicely with the OTP concepts of supervisors and servers, covered in Chapter 10 of Introducing Elixir.

In my code, the dealer has to keep track of:

  • The process IDs of the players (this was a list)
  • The current state of play (see the following)
  • Cards received from player 1 for this battle
  • Cards received from player 2 for this battle
  • The number of players who had given the dealer cards so far (0, 1, or 2)
  • The pile of cards in the middle of the table

The dealer spawns the players, and then is in one of the following states. I’m going to anthropomorphize and use "me" to represent the dealer.

Pre-battle
Tell the players to send me cards. If the pile is empty, then it’s a normal battle; give me one card each. If the pile isn’t empty, then it’s a war; give me three cards.
Await battle
Wait to receive the cards from the players. Add one to the count every time I get a player’s cards. When the count reaches two, I’m ready for…
Check Cards

If either player has sent me an empty list for their cards, then that player is out of cards, so the other player must be the winner.

If I really have cards from both players, compare them. If one player is a winner, give that player the pile plus the cards currently in play. If the cards match, add the cards currently in play to the pile, and go back to "Pre-battle" state.

Note that this is my implementation; you may find an entirely different and better way to write the program.

Messages Are Asynchronous

Remember that the order in which a process receives messages may not be the same order in which they were sent. For example, if players Andrea and Bertram have a battle, and Andrea wins, you may be tempted to send these messages:

  1. Tell Andrea to pick up the two cards that were in the battle.
  2. Tell Andrea to send you a card for the next battle.
  3. Tell Bertram to send you a card for the next battle.

This works nicely unless Andrea had just thrown her last card down for that battle and message two arrives before message one. Andrea will report that she is out of cards, thus losing the game, even though she’s really still in the game with the two cards that she hasn’t picked up yet.

Hints for Testing

Modify the cards module that you wrote in Étude 7-6 to generate a small deck with, say, only four cards in two suits. If you try to play with a full deck, the game could go on for a very, very long time.

Use plenty of calls to IO.puts to see what your code is really doing.

See a suggested solution in Appendix A.