Developing an AI for Tic-Tac-Toe in R

How Can We Model the Game?

2018-07-13 | Johannes

Developing an AI for Tic-Tac-Toe in R

A couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary ( on the team of DeepMind. They developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI) called AlphaGo which was later capable of beating the best player in the Game Go - an ancient Chinese board game considered one of the most difficult games in the world.

As always, the best way to really understand what’s going on and how you can train an AI to play a game is coding it yourself. To start slowly, I decided to build an AI that can play the game Tic Tac Toe (TTT). Tic Tac Toe is a simple game where both players have perfect information (like in Chess or Go), but the number of possible games is limited. While there are 10^120 different games in chess and 10^360 possible games in Go, there are only 360.000 possible games in Tic Tac Toe.

Tic Tac Toe has, in addition, very simple rules. The goal of an AI model for the game would be to implement some kind of evaluation function that can determine whether or not a move is good given the situation on the board. As the possibilities of different games are so limited it is actually possible to solve TTT with a brute-force minimax algorithm ( But where is the fun in that? I want the model to figure out good moves itself. So: what do we need to write an AI that can play the game?

  1. Build the game mechanics
  2. Generate a dataset to train the AI
  3. Build a deep neural network that can evaluate a board position
  4. Implement a function that chooses the best next move

1. Build the game mechanics

There are some blog posts where people built the mechanics for TTT in R ( or However, I wanted to figure out the game mechanics myself, so I decided to build it from scratch. The full version of the code can be found here:

Basically, the TTT board represents an array with 9 elements representing the individual cells, which can be either 0 (not played yet), 1 (player 1), or 2 (player 2).

{.img-responsive .no-border} From there on we have to write some help functions: 1. determine all possible moves; 2. make a move; 3. evaluate the board if anyone has won. Then we can set up the game. In this first instance we will have two players playing each other with random moves. The function random_move() first determines the possible moves and then returns a random possible move.

game <- function(){

  # Init Board
  board <-  c(0,0,0,
  winner = NULL


    #player 1:
    next_move <- random_move(board)
    board <- make_move(board, 1, next_move)
    winner <- evaluate_win(board)

      #player 2:
      next_move <- random_move(board)
      board <- make_move(board, 2, next_move)
      winner <- evaluate_win(board)

So far so good, we can now let two random players play the game. You can also actively play the game by adding some print() functions after each move and the line

next_move <- as.integer(readline(prompt = "Next Move Player 1: "))

2. Build a training data set

To train our AI we have to give it some idea of what a “good move” is. Ideally, we would have records of games where humans played against one another. However, as there is no such dataset, we need another solution. I simulate the game between two random players 5000 times (using a slightly modified version of the code above) and keep a record of all the different boards that were played and to which outcome they lead: (0) TIE, (1) Victory Player 1, (2) Victory Player 2.

boards_df <- simulate_game()

for(i in 1:5000){
  new_game <- simulate_game()
  boards_df <- rbind(boards_df, new_game)

This provides us with a dataset with 37.961 different board settings and their respective outcomes. Using this dataset we can now train a neural network to predict which outcome is most likely given a board position.

3. Build a Neural Net

Before setting up our model we first have to pre-process the data a little bit. I mentioned above that a board situation can be represented as a simple vector. So far, there are 3 possible values for each element in the board-vector: (0, 1, 2). Using one hot encoding I create 18 features that represent the state for every field for each player. I also split the dataset in a training and a validation dataset (20 percent). Now, we can start building a simple feedforward neural network using the Keras API to Tensorflow. Neural networks are perfect for a job like this as we need a highly flexible non-linear function that maps the features to the outcome. It roughly looks as follows (Source Pic:


The neural net has 4 layers: An input layer with 18 input nodes, two hidden layers with 9 nodes each, and an output layer with 3 nodes which represent the three outcomes (Tie, Win Player 1, Win Player 2). For the hidden layers I use the relu activation function and for the outcome layer softmax activation for multiclass classification.

#Initialize model
model <- keras_model_sequential()

#Build layers of model
model %>%
  layer_dense(units = 9,
              kernel_initializer = "uniform",
              activation = 'relu',
              input_shape = c(18)) %>%
  layer_dense(units = 9,
              kernel_initializer = "uniform",
              activation = 'relu') %>%
  layer_dense(units = 3, activation = 'softmax')

# Compile Model
model %>% compile(loss = 'categorical_crossentropy',
                  optimizer = optimizer_rmsprop(),
                  metrics = c('accuracy'))

# Train Model
history <- model %>% fit(
  x_train, y_train,
  epochs = 20, batch_size = 100,
  validation_split = 0.2

model %>% evaluate(x_test, y_test)

The accuracy of predictions is at around 64 % which doesn’t sound like a good value but keep in mind that there are some very early game positions in the dataset where only one or two moves have been played.


4. Implement a function that chooses the best next move

Now that we have a model that can predict what the probability for each outcome given a certain board position is, we can use the model to make more informed moves. There is a lot going on here so let me walk you through the steps:

  • Get all possible moves using possible_moves()
  • Iterate through all possible moves, feed the resulting boards to the model and evaluate the outcome probabilities using evaluate_board_position()
  • Find the move which has the highest probability of resulting in a win
  • Return that move

I decided to code two versions of the AI player: One plays aggressively meaning that it optimises for the win probability. The other one plays defensively meaning that it optimises for the probability of “not losing”. The style of the AI is passed to the function as an argument.

AI_move <- function(board, player, ai_mode = "aggressive"){
  if(length(possible_moves(board)) >1){

    move_probas <- c()
    ### Iterate over all possible moves and calculate winning probability
    for(move in possible_moves(board)){
      potential_board <- make_move(board, player, move)

        # if aggressive it will maximize for winning probability
      if(ai_mode == "aggressive"){
        potential_board_proba <- evaluate_board_position(potential_board,
        # if defensive it will maximze for "not loosing" probability
        potential_board_proba <- 1 - evaluate_board_position(potential_board,

      move_probas <- c(move_probas, potential_board_proba)

    ### find move which creates board with best winning probability
    best_move_proba <- max(move_probas)
    next_move <- possible_moves(board)[c(move_probas == best_move_proba)]

    #if there is only on possible move left, do this move
    next_move <- possible_moves(board)

This function can then simply be added to the code above by replacing the line for next_move:

next_move <- AI_move(board, player = 1, ai_mode)

5. Results

And et voilà: There you have an AI model playing TTT. Now the question is how well it works. One of the things I was most curious about was whether the model figures out what the best opening move is. Anyone who has played TTT knows that you should always start with the field in the middle. And indeed, the model also calculates the highest win percentage for this move out of all possible opening moves:

Opening Move

Now lets see if the AI beats the random player. Therefore, I simulated 200 games each of “random vs. random”, “aggressive AI vs. random”, and “defensive AI vs. random”. And indeed, the aggressive AI wins 85 % of the time, losing only 8 % of the games. The player who makes the first move has a distinct advantage in the game of TTT so the expectation for win and losses at baseline is not equal. A random player 1 wins about 65 % of the time against another random player. Surprisingly, the defensive AI fairs even worse winning only 47 % of the time with the opponent winning just as many games.

There are several ways in which we could improve the AI. Feel free to fork the version on GitHub and play around with it ( We could for example build a new simulation dataset with games where the AI plays itself and then train the neural net again. This would go in the direction of reinforcement learning. Or we could add some kind of tree-search simulation where we not only evaluate the board after the next move but look two or three moves ahead. In this case we could discard the neural net all along and just implement a minimax solution. A very cool solution was implemented by Daniel Slater. He took all the different components that DeepMind used for Alpha Go and applied them on this smaller scale for TTT ( which is a brilliant way to understand the core concepts behind one of the most advanced AI projects out there.

The title picture of this post is licensed under CC BY 2.0.



Johannes hatte 2015 die Idee für CorrelAid und ist seitdem unser Vorstandsvorsitzender. Er studiert im Master ‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ an der University of Oxford und Policy-Analyse an der Universität Konstanz. Er interessiert sich vor allem für Evaluierungsmethoden, die Nutzung von Evidenz und Daten in Gesellschaft und Politik, und Social Entrepreneurship.