“They will gather intelligence, lay false trails and strike at their opponents suddenly and with determination.”
- A. K. DEWDNEY, Scientific American (January 1987)
Philosophy of the Scanner
In Corewar, a battle program will execute either one, or multiple copies of itself. A program which is running just one copy will often lose the round after a single successful attack against it. A program which has multiple copies will not be beaten until each of these copies has been successfully dealt with.
A battle program which is continually creating new copies of itself is described as a replicator. No program can hope to attack copies of a replicating program sufficiently fast enough to keep up with the new copies which are constantly being spawned.
The only practical solution is to use a two stage attack. First, slow the rate at which the replicator is producing new copies. Next, destroy all copies of the opponent program while they are incapacitated.
The manner in which a replicator can be slowed is by making it split off
useless processes. We achieve this by overwriting it with, or otherwise
forcing it to execute,
Modern replicators spend approaching 50% of their time splitting off new
processes, so we will need several consecutive
to have any chance of being effective. The number of cycles to place these is
considerable - compared, for example, to the time taken to drop single
Before spending a substantial number of cycles, it would make sense to check the area we are about to wipe contains an opponent, rather than empty core. This is precisely what a scanner is designed to do:
- look for an area of core which potentially contains an opponent,
- attack the selected area with a stun attack to slow the opponent,
- repeat from step 1, until an implementation determined point,
- the end-game - change the means of attack from stun to destroy.
Let's take a closer look at each of these stages:
1 - Typical Scan Loops
First, our scanner will look through core for a location which differs from empty core. If we are lucky, this will contain an active copy of the opponent. Alternatively, it may have been bombed by the opponent.
Scan loops come in a variety of speeds. The ratio of scanner size to scan speed can make a big difference to the effectiveness of a warrior. A small/fast scanner will find and attack a bigger/slower opponent more frequently than that opponent finds and attacks it. It is therefore desirable to have the lowest possible value of size/speed.
The example code in this section is labelled in a manner consistent with a great deal of published code. Conventions used are:
scan- the top of the scan loop, and the entry point for our examples. Would
ptrbe a better entry point to the scan loops below? Why?
ptr- the instruction holding either one or two pointers to the location(s) to be scanned.
inc- an instruction holding the constant
stepin both fields, so a single
ADDinstruction can update two pointers.
step- the distance between two scanned locations. Some important literature on good scan steps is listed below in Suggested Reading.
hop- certain scanners look at two locations which are close to each other. When something is found, they use an attack which covers both locations.
hopis the distance between such a pair of locations.
start- the first location to be scanned. Often chosen to maximise the length of time before the scanner detects itself.
Some examples of the most common forms of scan loop follow:
.5c: the simplest, with a comparatively poor size/speed ratio.
Upgrade from a .5c loop to .66c for a guaranteed improvement. Instructions
with zero a & b fields such as
SPL #0,0 are invisible to the
f-scan used here.
scanA ADD #step, ptrA ptrA JMZ.F scanA, start ; scan 1 location every 2 cycles
.66c: for scanners up to length 8, .66c provides the optimal ratio.
The data at
incB will usually be combined with another
instruction. For example, in Blur 2 the data is held in the
above the clear.
Having two scan pointers is one disadvantage of this loop. When the scan triggers it is necessary to either determine which pointer holds the location to be attacked, or else attack both.
An effective variation is to change the
JMP instruction to
DJN, to colour core against other scanners. Use something similar
DJN.F scanB,<-500 to create a sequential decoy, or
alternatively decrement through your scan pointer with
scanB ADD incB, ptrB ptrB SNE start+hop, start ; scan 2 locations every 3 cycles JMP scanB ; ... incB DAT step, step
.75c: gives the optimal size/speed ratio for scanners between 9 and
15 instructions. The location at which something has been found is held in the
ptrC. As with the .5c scan, instructions with zero a
& b fields are invisible. If we re-enter the scan loop, the pointers need
to be reset;
MOV.BA ptrC,ptrC should do the trick.
It appears at first glance, if the
SNE detects something
through its a-field, the scan loop will not drop through into the attack
phase. Stepping through the code however, reveals how some simple arithmetic
copies the value from the a-field of
ptrC to the b-field.
The scan loop can then drop through with the b-field of
pointing to whatever has been found.
scanC ADD incC, ptrC ptrC SNE.X start, start ; scan 3 locations every 4 cycles ADD.X incC, ptrC JMZ.F scanC, @ptrC ; ... incC DAT 2*step, step
.8c: ideal for scanners of more than 16 instructions, this extension
to the basic .66c loop has the same disadvantage of two scan pointers. As with
its slower relative, changing the
JMP to a
effective against other scanners.
scanD ADD incD, ptrD ptrD SNE start+hop, start ; scan 4 locations every 5 cycles ADD incD, ptrD SNE *ptrD, @ptrD JMP scanD ; ... incD DAT step, step
2 - Common Forms of Offence
Once the scanner has found something, what comes next? We hit it. We hit it hard with a stun attack intended to bring the enemy's processes to a virtual stand-still. There are four main types of offence to consider:
- Permanent - a.k.a. one-shots. Switch to a core-clear with one or more
SPLpasses though core, beginning with the location found by the scan. After this, the clear wipes with
DAT. Simple and effective. See Scanny Boy for an example.
- Fixed Length - switch to a fixed length attack. Afterwards, switch back
to scanning. The two most common types of fixed length attacks are
SPLcarpets and special bombs (stun and incendiary for example). Take a look at Rave and Beholder's Eye, which use these techniques.
- Variable Length - switch to a linear
SPLwipe beginning at the location where the scan detected something, continuing until it reaches empty core. After this, switch back to scanning. This technique proves the most effective against paper/imps. Check Mini HSA for a good example.
- Ongoing - a linear
SPLwipe runs parallel to the scan. When something is found by the scan, the pointer for the
SPLwipe is adjusted to point to the scanned location. However, the most common implementation of this technique introduces an extra instruction to the scan loop, reducing the speed. Blur 2 is a clear example of an ongoing attack.
The scanner needs somehow to ensure it doesn't attack itself. One way to achieve this is to check the scan pointer isn't within a range which points to our scanner before attacking. Other alternatives are to use a scan pattern which avoids detecting the scanner, or using some means of hiding the scanner from itself (reflections).
3 - The Switch
Perhaps the trickiest requirement is the need to implement a switch from the attack to the end-game. The one-shot avoids this altogether by entering the end-game as soon as something is found. In a traditional scanner however, we have a choice to make:
- When our scanner detects itself either once, or a number of times, enter the end-game. For example Mini HSA switches after 16 self-scans.
- After a number of iterations of the scan loop, drop through to the end game. In Blur 2, there is a counter which is decremented by the scan loop. When this reaches zero, control will pass into the end-game.
- Switch when a pre-determined location is altered by the attack. See myZizzor for an example, which has a small decoy the scanner detects and attacks, thus altering the checked location.
4 - The End-Game
After our scanner has completed its main attack phase, what next? It needs to dispose of the enemy processes we've worked so hard to stun. The two most effective methods are:
- Clear - switch to a core-clear, which wipes core with
DAT. Optionally, the clear may wipe with
SPLprior to the
DATwipe. The most frequently used core-clear is the d-clear, with spiral clears also being a popular choice. Scanners containing a spiral clear include Eggbeater, Memories, SETI and Win!
DATSwitch - the scan continues, bombing with
DATinstead of its previous attack. Many of the HSA-style warriors work in this way, including Mini HSA. Another example is the scanner from Enough is Enough!
A selection of material discussing step sizes can be found in Push Off 07 September 1993, Core Warrior #11, and Mathematical Models for Step Sizes (Morrell 1996). Stefan Strack provides a useful tool for finding good step sizes, mOpt v1.2, for which there is a tutorial in Core Warrior #32.
Below are some references to a few instructive examples of scanners. These illustrate the methods discussed above. Generally, those which function in a similar manner are grouped together, with the most readable example in the group listed first:
Blur 2 by Anton Marsden (CW36) - implements an ongoing attack from the scan loop, followed up by a d-clear end-game. After reading Blur 2, continue with Hazy Lazy, Silver Talon, Stalker, Eggbeater (CW46) and the scanner from Enough is Enough! (CW79).
HAL 9000 by Justin Kao (CW50) - an alternative means of implementing an ongoing attack, or scan directed clear.
Mini HSA from Electric Head by Anton Marsden (CW59) - provides an excellent
introduction to the workings of HSA. Scanning continues into the end-game,
SPL wipe becoming a
DAT wipe. Also, check
He Scans Alone, Mischief (CW80) and Razor.
Beholder's Eye v1.7 by W. Mintardjo - an easy to read
bomber. Continue reading with Iron Gate (CW19), Harmony II and Memories
myZizzor by Magnus Paulsson - performs a variable length attack, followed by
Origin of Storms by John Metcalf (CW86) - a variable length attack realized in the scan loop, followed by the ever-present d-clear.
Rave 4.1 by Stefan Strack - a good example of a .66c scan with a fixed length
SPL carpet. Also, you should take a look at SETI. Next study Win!
and Recon 2, two warriors based on the same concept, employing an abundance of
Scanny Boy by David van Dam (CW29) - drops straight through from the scan
loop into the end-game's
SPL/DAT clear and provides a good example
of a one-shot. See also Tiny BiShot 2.0, The Bloodhound, G2 and Phantasm