The Castle Escape

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Problem Description

An elderly queen, her daughter, and little son, weighing 195, 105, and 90 pounds respectively, were kept prisoners at the top of a high tower. The only communication with the ground was a cord passing over a pulley with a basket at each end, and so arranged that when one basket rested on the ground, the other was opposite the window.   Naturally, if the top one were more heavily loaded than the bottom,  it would descend; but if the excess weight on either side was more than 15 pounds, the descent became so rapid as to be dangerous.  From the position of the rope,  the captives could not slow it with their hands. The only thing available to help them in the tower was a cannonball weighing 75 pounds. They nonetheless contrived to escape. How did they do it?

Adapted from Merlin's Puzzle Pastimes, Charles Barry, Dover Publications.

Background & Techniques

Dover is a great publishing house for  reasonably priced books in many areas and with reasonable shipping cost.    If you get on their mailing list, they notify you weekly of a "Dover Sampler" page where they reproduce a few pages from a dozen or so books.  This problem, from the $3.95 book, Merlin's Puzzle Pastimes,  is on this week's sampler page.  

When I decided to code this puzzle, I figured it would be about an hour's exercise to do the fun part, the solution search.  Six hours later, the bare bones version was running.  The hooker was realizing that the extra move represented by the Cannonball traveling down alone is valid, even though it violates the general rule about weight difference not exceeding 15 pounds.  Somewhere along the way, idea of animating the moves popped up,. so there went the next 20 hours of spare time. 

I think the problem would be fairly simple to solve without computer help, but being able to drag and drop the prisoners (and the cannonball)  into the baskets and letting them move around does simplify keeping track of things. 

If you are not into "how things work", click here to jump to the bottom of the page where you may download the executable version of the program. 

About the depth-first search  algorithm

Here is how the "Solve" button works. It is a depth-first graph search useful for many simple games and puzzles.

  1. The first step in implementing a depth-first search is to decide how to identify positions in the game. In this case, I chose an integer between 0 and 15. The binary representation of these numbers is a 4 digit number, each digit either 0 or 1. I arbitrarily assigned a character to each position (Queen, Daughter, Son, Cannonball) and assign "1" to mean on top of the castle and "0" to mean on the ground.

So a key value of decimal 10  for example has binary representation of 1010, which describes the condition with the Queen and Son up in  the castle,  and the Daughter and the Cannonball on the ground. Think of these 16 keys as representing the nodes (corners, vertices) of a graph.

  1.  Define the adjacency array. This is usually described as an adjacency list, but since we know there are only 16 nodes, a 16 X 16 array will do just fine. For each node, we need to identify all the other moves, nodes we could validly reach by loading up baskets and letting them move one time.  We do this by checking for each node which of the other 15 we could validly move to in a single basket trip. To be valid the weight represented by the 1's (guys on top) must be greater than the weight represent by the 0's (guys on the bottom), but not more 15 lbs greater.  There is one exception to this, the Cannonball can always move from the top to the bottom by itself. This means that any odd numbered node (Cannonball up) is adjacent to the next lower even numbered node (Cannonball down).  So for node N, we will fill in row N with some positive number for the valid next nodes (I used the weight difference between the baskets) and negative number for the invalid  moves. In hindsight, a Boolean array would have worked just fine but at the time, I thought that the weight differences might come in handy.  They didn't.   Thinking of the graph analogy, this adjacency process defines the edges of the graph, the lines connecting the nodes.   Notice by the way,  that these edges are directed, if we can get from node A to node B, we can never get directly from node B back to node A.   Such a graph is called a "directed graph".
  2. Now the game is to find a path on our graph from node 15 to node 1 (or 0) . Notice that for the starting node (1111, everyone up) the only valid move is to node 14 (1110, Cannonball moved down). From that node, row 14,  the only valid move is to node 13 (1101, Son down, Cannonball up). From node 13 we have three choices and things get interesting.  We will systematically follow the path through each node.  Each step will examine each node in the adjacency array for numbers greater than zero.  When one is found we add the move to Path, the list of moves so far, mark the node as visited by setting the corresponding node as true in the Visited Boolean array, and move to the next step using  the next node to visit.  This is implemented in   recursive procedure,  GetNextNode.   The first thing that GetNextNode does is to check to see if the node is a solution  (node number 1 or 0).  If it is a solution , variable Solved is set to True which will stop all additional searching.  If we reach a dead end, i.e. no more unvisited adjacent nodes, just take that move out of the path, mark it as unvisited and exit back to the previous iteration.  This is the "backtracking" part of the algorithm.  

That's it for the search.  The SolveBtnClick method makes the initial call to  GetNextNode with node number 15 and expects to return with the Solved flag set to true,  If not, it displays a "No solution found" message; 

The other interesting  programming challenge was the animation of the moves.  Given two nodes, "from" and "to", it's a bit tricky  determine exactly what has changed.   It turns out that the "XOR", exclusive or operation is just the ticket.  XOR'ing the two nodes will produce a number with 1's  for the items that were in the basket and  0's for those that stayed put.    It is also necessary to determine which direction the item moved and which basket they were in.   In hindsight, it would have been cleaner to make "item" and "basket" objects and let them keep track of where they were and all their other properties.  By the time I realized this, I was too lazy to start over.   We'll put that suggestion down in the "Suggestions" section.    

Two animation  "tricks" come to mind.  To improve the images,  I made their backgrounds transparent.   Do do this, character images must be loaded as bitmaps, then turn on the Transparency property in  Timage and set the transparency color in Picture.Bitmap to clwhite (or whatever color your backgrounds are)..  The second trick was to set the Doublebuffered property to true for the Tabsheet that contains the images in order to eliminate flicker while the animation is in progress. .  

Running/Exploring the Program 

Suggestions for Further Explorations

As suggested above, code would be simplified by creating TItem and TBasket objects derived from TImage controls.   They would know where they were, names, weights, their picture, etc. 
The weight of the people and the cannonball could be user input values, allowing other problems to be posed.  
The animation is a little slow on my 400mhz Celeron system.  I can't recall that I've ever done it, but it should be possible to detect CPU speed and adjust the animation accordingly. 
The drag drop processing for user play is as simple as I could make it.  More  work could display each character as it is being dragged, but you need "can drop here" and "can't drop here" versions of the image - kind of a pain.    


Created: August 9, 2003

Modified: February 18, 2016




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