Connect Four in Rust

20 Aug 2016

I have this thing where I learn a new language by implementing a command-line Connect Four game. The last time I did this I used Go. The nice thing about this is that I have a full test suite that I can just translate into the target language, and begin the implement to game using test-driven development (TDD).

Rust has interested me for awhile because of it’s lack of a garbage collector and functional programming aspects. I’m not so interested in the performance improvements you get when you don’t have GC. What’s more interesting to me is how the language approaches memory management. I’ve worked in other languages like C where it is loosely convention based, Objective-C without Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) where it is more strictly convention based, and Objective-C with ARC where it is managed by the compiler without a separate garbage collector. Objective-C with ARC seemed to work well although it’s not hard to wind up accessing a released weak reference or with a retain cycle (especially when working with closures).

Some of the functional programming features Rust includes are closures, immutability, pattern matching, and standard library iterators which you can fold over. The Rust Programming Language book was my primary learning resource, and it is excellent.

If you want to follow along, the code for Connect Four Rust is on Github. I started with a simple test that the board has the expected number of rows and columns.

mod test {
    use super::*;

    fn should_have_7_columns_and_6_rows() {
        let board = Board::new();
        assert!(board.rows == 6);
        assert!(board.columns == 7)

This is really easy to make pass, and introduced me to structs and traits, which functionally seem more similar to Golang’s methods on structs rather than Scala traits.

pub struct Board {
  pub rows: usize,
  pub columns: usize,
  markers: HashMap<Index, Marker>

impl Board {
  pub fn new() -> Board {
    let rows = 6;
    let columns = 7;
    // markers initialization elided
    Board {
      rows: rows,
      columns: columns,
      markers: markers

Once a Cargo.toml is defined, we can run the test using cargo test.

Next, I added the following test for a method that returns all the board indices as tuples type Index = (usize, usize).

fn it_should_have_rows_times_columns_indicies() {
    let board = Board::new();
    let indices = board.indices();
    assert!(indices.len() ==
      board.rows * board.columns);

Implementing this, we get to use some methods on iterator which take functions. There are a couple cool things going on here. First, there is a concise range syntax–a feature I love in languages like Swift and Scala. We can map over the range of 0 until the number of rows to create a tuple of (column, row). Rust has first-class support for tuples like in Python and Haskell. When we map over the rows, we can pass a closure to create the tuple. Finally, we call collect to consume the iterator into a Vec collection.

impl Board {
  // ...
  pub fn indicies_from_rows_and_columns(rows: usize, columns: usize) -> Vec<Index> {
    (0..columns).flat_map(|column: usize| {
      (0..rows).map(move |row: usize|
        (column, row))

  pub fn indicies(&self) -> Vec<Index> {
      self.rows, self.columns)

The next test added checks for board emptiness.

fn it_should_be_empty() {
  let board = Board::new();

To implement this, we create a method which checks that all the board markers are zero.

pub fn is_empty(&self) -> bool {

markers is a map whose keys are index tuples and whose values are Marker values as defined below. Another aspect of Rust that reminds me of Haskell is that certain traits can be automatically derived.

#[derive(Copy, Clone, Debug, PartialEq)]
pub enum Marker {
  Empty, X, O,

The next test implements a getter and setter for marker indexes. The implementation is pretty straight forward except for clones in both methods in order to transfer ownership. In the case of set_marker, we want the markers map to own indexes since they will be used as keys. In the case of get_marker I don’t think the clone is necessary, as the caller should just be able to dereference an Option<&Marker>, but that is the code I wound up with.

pub fn set_marker(&mut self, index: &Index, marker: Marker) -> () {
  self.markers.insert(index.clone(), marker);

pub fn get_marker(&self, index: &Index) -> Option<Marker> {
  self.markers.get(&index).map(|r| r.clone())

Implementation continued in a mostly trivial way, but one thing that confused me was calling to_owned on literals. Below, I implement the Display trait for Board, which will show something that looks like this:


In order to use the join method on Vec<String>, I need to return a String reference from the map. If I return just a "_", I would be returning a &String instead. Having tried a few other things, this is the best I’ve wound up. I do think that perhaps I could instead write! on each iteration and then fold the resulting fmt::Result values into a single value which is returned.

impl fmt::Display for Board {
  fn fmt(&self, f: &mut fmt::Formatter) -> fmt::Result {
    let result: String =
    (0..self.rows).rev().map(|row: usize| {
      (0..self.columns).map(move |column: usize| {
        match self.get_marker(&(column, row)) {
          Some(marker) => format!("{}", marker),
          None => "_".to_owned(),
    write!(f, "{}", result)

It was a fun exercise, as it usually is. If you’re interested in other implementations, try this Connect Four repository which collects all of the other projects using git submodules.