Friday, October 30, 2009

Misere Hardness

I'm very pleased with the way my software engineering class is going. I've accidentally asked the students to code up some difficult games at times, but they've done a good job of figuring out exactly how to fix these issues. For the most part, using a game suite as the continuing project has worked extremely well!

Early on, I asked them to include both nim and misere nim. As with all misere games, misere nim is the same game, except that the person who makes the last move loses. Thame Plambeck used to maintain Advances in Losing, a blog solely about misere games. My first combinatorial game, Atropos, was misere: the first player to create a 3-colored simplex (triangle) loses. The misere notion is very intuitive for many games.

As we continue with the ongoing class project, I have continued to add difficult parts but at some point I stopped asking them to add more games to the suite. Oops! Currently, I've given them another tricky task: have users make moves through a series of mouse clicks (instead of entering choices in text boxes). I figured it was time to throw in some new games along with that. At the same time, I hope they realize they can apply "misereness" with any games, and not just with Nim.

Solution? They've already programmed a simple version of Kayles and Hex, so why not include misere Kayles and misere Hex? Even after thinking about that, I became immediately interested in misere Hex. How does that game work? Whichever player first creates their bridge between both sides loses? Weird! Who wins misere Hex? What is the complexity of this game?

In 1999, Jeffrey Lagarias and Daniel Sleator tackled that first question. They find the immediate intuition---that the first player never has a winning strategy---incorrect and instead base the winnability on the parity of the board size. They do this by showing that the losing player can stretch out the game play until the final hexagon has been colored. Thus, on boards with an even number of hexagons, the first player can win! The proof they give applies to games starting from the initial (empty) game configuration.

Does this answer the complexity question? Not in any obvious way. In order for the complexity to be solved, an algorithm would have to work for any game state. One can invoke a board where the game cannot be dragged out to fill in all the cells. (Give red two nearly-complete paths with only one hex missing, and let the rest of the board be filled in. If it's red's turn, what can they do?) It could be that the proof generalizes well into an algorithm.

Thinking from the complexity angle, as this blog (too?) often does, is there anything we can say about the relationship between the complexity of a game and it's misere counterpart? Again, I am interested in considering Atropos, which is already misere. The non-misere version means that the first player to create a 3-colored triangle wins. In this impartial game, each player may choose to color one circle any of the three available colors. The circles are laid out similarly to hex---so that each has six neighbors---inside a triangle with borders colored to suffice for Sperner's Lemma. This means that any play along the borders can win: there are always two different neighboring colors, so simply paint that circle with the remaining color.

Thus, the strategy from the initial position is easy. Choose one of those bordering circles and paint it the third color. Game over. In mid-game positions, however, a player must choose to paint a circle that neighbors the last-painted circle (if an open circle exists). Thus, the game might not be quite as simple from any given situation; one of the border circles may not be adjacent to the last play. (But why wouldn't the first player have just won the game? Why would you ever get to this situation?)

In general, are there any results about misere games and complexity? It's been a while since we phrased a question, so let's do it: (I've been marking the relevant posts with question# labels).

Question (2): Given a game G and it's misere version, M, must the complexity of determining the winner of one of these games be in P?

I think this is the best way to phrase the "What is the relationship between the complexity of G and M?" question. Consider nim and misere nim: both are easy. With Hex and Atropos, each has a PSPACE-complete version, but the opposite looks like it might be easy. Is there a game I'm overlooking which is hard both normally and misere...ishly? (someone help me out with French!)

Of course, I'm still curious about misere Hex.

Question (3): What is the complexity of determining whether the current player in misere Hex has a winning strategy?

For those interested, user Zickzack at has a good description and list of misere games.

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