SFU students second in sports-style programming competition

A trio from Simon Fraser University had an exciting run and an overall impressive finish in a programming challenge that beckons creativity in order to instruct virtual bite-sized robots on obliterating the opponent and staking out the most territory.

The competition unfolded at IBM Corp.’s Battle of the Brains competition in Orlando on Sunday. Though it isn’t the headlining competition here, the International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC) Challenge had onlookers groaning with despair as their bots were wiped out, or applauding and exchanging high fives as they claimed victory in a bracketed playoff featuring 24 college teams from around the world.

B.C.-based Simon Fraser was in top spot with 40 wins after what could be considered “regular season” play. In the end, an aggressive strategy saw them narrowly lose a final in one division featuring teams that were given just two weeks of coding time, and eliminated in earlier brackets by a tough Russian team, the St. Petersburg State University of IT, Mechanics and Optics, in the main contest.

But the three computer science students still seemed upbeat immediately following the contest, saying they were pleased with the results. Wesley May, a fourth-year undergraduate student at Simon Fraser, says the team felt good about its focus on offense as a strategy.

“It was something to try early on and it ended up working out,” he says. “We wanted to destroy the other team’s base as quickly as possible.”

The third annual ICPC Challenge saw teams program three virtual bots to push coloured rings around a square game board. The board was divided up into triangles – some flat, others on a slant or raised on a level – and the object of the game is to own as much of the board as possible while diminishing the progress of your opponent. Once a bot pushes a team’s ring onto an unclaimed triangle, they claim the sector if the other team doesn’t intercept the play within two seconds. But a ring that becomes isolated from its territory for more than four seconds is lost to the team, becoming a neutral gray ring.

It’s a little bit like watching ants play ringette.


Watch Simon Fraser University vs. Leiden University in the finals match, as SFU team member Wesley May describes what is happening.

The best teams – including winners Leiden University – discovered a successful strategy was to try and eliminate all of the other team’s players as quickly as possible. That left them unable to claim sectors, and meant a quick defeat.

It’s not exactly the winning strategy David Sturgill had in mind when he designed the game, but the ICPC Challenge director says this competition is all about the unexpected.

“They’re genuinely figuring out a problem that no one has every solved before,” he says. “I want a game where players can think of strategies that the designers of the game never even saw.”

While the main contest at Battle of the Brains involves teams of three solving academic problem sets as quickly as possible over a five hour period, the ICPC Challenge allows three weeks of time to program. Rather than having all the information provided to them on a piece of paper, teams must probe for the most successful strategies by playing other teams in exhibition matches, then analyze what happened and determine how to refine their players’ approach.

“It gives us the opportunity to recognize some different teams,” Sturgill says.

Simon Fraser tested its mettle against Cuba-based Unversidad de las Ciencias Informaticas as it honed the set of algorithms that would guide their bots behaviour – akin to baseball coaches playing younger farm league players in exhibition games to help determine what the team’s starting roster will look like.

“We pretty much challenged them or they challenged us every single day,” says Andrew Henrey, a first year masters’ student at Simon Fraser. “We didn’t know each other, but we felt like we were the teams to beat.”

But the competition was friendly. As the finals played out in front of the schools on two large projector screens, Simon Fraser sat next to their Cuban rivals and took in the play off rounds together.

Like general mangers that can only sit and watch their players perform to the best of their abilities, the students reacted emotionally as they won several rounds, but were finally knocked out by a team using a similar strategy. Simon Fraser was recognized on stage as having placed second in the “two weeks of programming” brackets, receiving a gift package that included a flashlight as a prize.

“It’s all bragging rights, it’s all fun,” Henrey says. “That’s more important to us than the flashlight and t-shirts. It’s a nice change, it’s a totally different style of programming.”

Leiden University won both brackets of the ICPC challenge in the end. The University of Alberta also competed, winning several rounds but ultimately being eliminated early in the final.

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