“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, SPL instructions.

Modern replicators spend approaching 50% of their time splitting off new processes, so we will need several consecutive SPL instructions 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 bombs.

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:

  1. look for an area of core which potentially contains an opponent,
  2. attack the selected area with a stun attack to slow the opponent,
  3. repeat from step 1, until an implementation determined point,
  4. 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:

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 SPL 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 to DJN.F scanB,<-500 to create a sequential decoy, or alternatively decrement through your scan pointer with DJN.F scanB,@ptrB.

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 b-field of 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 ptrC 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 DJN proves 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:

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:

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:

Suggested Reading

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, with the 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 SPL/JMP bomber. Continue reading with Iron Gate (CW19), Harmony II and Memories (CW19).

myZizzor by Magnus Paulsson - performs a variable length attack, followed by a SPL/DAT clear.

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 effective techniques.

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 50.