Faster Evaluation of Subtraction Games

Author David Eppstein

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David Eppstein
  • Computer Science Department, University of California, Irvine

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David Eppstein. Faster Evaluation of Subtraction Games. In 9th International Conference on Fun with Algorithms (FUN 2018). Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics (LIPIcs), Volume 100, pp. 20:1-20:12, Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz-Zentrum für Informatik (2018)


Subtraction games are played with one or more heaps of tokens, with players taking turns removing from a single heap a number of tokens belonging to a specified subtraction set; the last player to move wins. We describe how to compute the set of winning heap sizes in single-heap subtraction games (for an input consisting of the subtraction set and maximum heap size n), in time O~(n), where the O~ elides logarithmic factors. For multi-heap games, the optimal game play is determined by the nim-value of each heap; we describe how to compute the nim-values of all heaps of size up to n in time O~(mn), where m is the maximum nim-value occurring among these heap sizes. These time bounds improve naive dynamic programming algorithms with time O(n|S|), because m <=|S| for all such games. We apply these results to the game of subtract-a-square, whose set of winning positions is a maximal square-difference-free set of a type studied in number theory in connection with the Furstenberg-Sárközy theorem. We provide experimental evidence that, for this game, the set of winning positions has a density comparable to that of the densest known square-difference-free sets, and has a modular structure related to the known constructions for these dense sets. Additionally, this game's nim-values are (experimentally) significantly smaller than the size of its subtraction set, implying that our algorithm achieves a polynomial speedup over dynamic programming.

Subject Classification

ACM Subject Classification
  • Theory of computation → Design and analysis of algorithms
  • subtraction games
  • Sprague-Grundy theory
  • nim-values


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