cells. A massively multi-agent Python programming game.

This article describes a project of mine that has been laying around my harddrive in a rough draft for a couple of months. I want to continue developing it at some point, but can’t right now for lack of time. Many of the details described here will very likely be subject to change, but the basic concept stands.


Cells is a programming game, meaning that the player programms the agents before actual gameplay starts, and then watches pits his code against that of his oponents. It features two or more teams of hundreds or even thousands of identical agents, which I call “cells”. These cells live in a 2-dimensional simulated environment, and compete for the control of resources scattered around the world.

By identical I mean that they share the same code, but since their state need not be identical, they can specialize during the course of the game, if the programmer designed it that way. There is no central controlling instance, and therefor the behavior of each team is somewhat like that of a swarm, or a tribe of ants(the original inspiration for this). While it is theoretically possible to make one cell the commander and let all the rest do its bidding, a more decentralized and emergent style is encouraged by the design.

The two main aspects of this game are the cells and the world they inhabit. A brief description of the two follows.

The World

  • Elevations: I mentioned earlier that the playing field is 2-dimensional, which is not entirely accurate. It is really 3-dimensional, because there are different elevations. These are indicated by shades of brown in the screenshot above. Cells may only cross a certain elevation difference, ie they can’t move up or down a too steep cliff. This is important, because it makes it possible to build walls.
  • Energy sources: As explained below, cells need energy to survive. There are two sources of energy, one that is scattered around the whole world, and is not renewable. And the other, which is generated by plants, symbolized by green dots on the map. These produce this energy at different rates, and do so for ever.
  • Coordinates: The world is divided into integer coordinates. A cell may only move to an adjacent coordinate any given turn. Elevations are also given as integers.

The cells

  • Energy: Cells need a certain amount of energy every turn to survive. They can store as much energy as they want in themselves. If their energy level reaches zero, they die, and they leave behind an amount of energy at the coordinate they died in.
  • Senses: Cells are very myopic. They can only sense the fields they are on, and the ones directly adjacent to them. The information they can sense is the elevation and energy of the coordinates, the presence of any cells present and the team they are on. I’m not quite sure if they should be aware of global coordinates. Right now they are.
  • Communication: Cells can always communicate with each other. They send messages to each other through a global message cue(each team has one), and messages get delivered in the next turn. In the current version, they can send arbitrary information, but I might restrict that later on, to perhaps an integer.
  • Fighting: Fighting in cells takes place in a very game-theory-ish way. If a cell encounters an enemy, it can either choose to attack or to do nothing. If both choose to attack, they both sustain heavy damage(read: loss of energy). If both do nothing, they walk away unharmed. If one attacks, and the other doesn’t, the defending one sustains damage, but not as much as if it had attacked. I think this opens up the decision to some interesting tactical considerations.
  • Reproduce: Cells, being cells, can reproduce by splitting into 2. This requires a certain amount of energy, and the spawner can pass some arguments to the constructor of the spawnee.
  • Manipulate terrain: Cells can lift one unit of earth from the ground, reducing the elevation there by one, and later dump it at a different location. The screenshot shows an example of this, the read tribe is building circular walls around the plants they control.

This is the game so far, as mentioned earlier, it is still very much in draft form. If you would like to play around with it, I have it on git here. The only requirement is pygame.

In the next post I will outline the changes and additions I would like to make in the future. If you want to participate or have any ideas please feel free to comment or contact me.