This is the reference distribution for the ALPACA cellular-automaton definition language.
ALPACA is an acronym for a language for the pithy articulation of cellular automata. It is capable of succinctly expressing the rules of a 1- or 2-dimensional cellular automaton with an arbitrary neighbourhood.
As an example, here is John Conway's Game of Life automaton, expressed in ALPACA (it's short):
state Dead " " to Alive when 3 Alive and 5 Dead; state Alive "*" to Dead when 4 Alive or 7 Dead.
See the file
ALPACA.markdown in the
doc directory for a complete
specification of the ALPACA language, version 1.1. It is written in
Falderal literate test suite format; the examples given in the
spec are test cases, which can be run against an implementation.
test.sh script does this.
This distribution also contains the reference implementation of ALPACA
version 1.1, written in Python 2.7. Its source is in the
bin/alpaca is a script to start it from the command line (no
installation is required; just put this
bin directory on your executable
search path.) See below for more information on the reference
This distribution also contains a compiler for an older version (0.94) of
ALPACA, which is written in Perl and which compiles ALPACA descriptions
to Perl. It can be found in the
impl/alpaca.pl directory. It is no longer
While RUBE was being developed it became clear to the author that the "bully" approach to writing a complex cellular automaton would result in a program extremely difficult to understand and even worse to maintain.
ALPACA was developed in order to have a terse, precise and readable language in which to express the rules for any given cellular automaton. It is in ALPACA, then, that REDGREEN, a successor to RUBE, is written. Being described in ALPACA instead of C, the source code for REDGREEN is easily a hundred times clearer than the knotted mess that is RUBE.
Other cellular automata that have been successfully described in ALPACA include John Conway's famous Game of Life automaton, the lesser-known WireWorld automaton, and all of Chris Pressey's later cellular automaton designs.
The first version, 0.80, of the ALPACA compiler was written as an attributed grammar in CoCo/R from which a C source file was generated.
This was rewritten in version 0.90 to a hand-coded compiler in Perl 5 that produces a Perl program that accepts an automaton form (a start state) as input, in the form of an ASCII text file, and animates it in the terminal based on the rules of the defined cellular automaton.
Versions 0.93 and 0.94 succeeded version 0.90, but did not include any significant changes to the language, only to the reference implementation. Versions 0.91 and 0.92 possibly existed at some point as well, but if so, they are now lost.
(Note that these version numbers are highly inaccurate. Version 0.94 was not the ninety-fourth iteration of development.)
Originally, the name ALPACA was an acronym for a language for programming arbitrary cellular automata. However, as it was recognized by the author that the cellular automata expressible in ALPACA were far from arbitrary (limited to two dimensions and the Moore neighbourhood), a new backronym was sought.
Version 1.0 of ALPACA introduced a relatively formal specification, including many examples which serve as test cases, as well as an entirely new reference implementation, rewritten from scratch in Python. It also added several new features to the language, such as user-defined neighbourhoods and allowing a pre-defined CA configuration to be included with the CA description. (This last enhancement makes ALPACA CA-complete, which is almost the same as Turing-complete except that there is no way to define, in ALPACA, what it means for a cellular automaton to halt.)
The currrent version of the ALPACA language is 1.1, which clarifies a few points of the specification, adds a few (non-normative) features to the reference implementation, and introduces ALPACA Stylesheets 1.0, a system for specifying an appearance for cellular automata.
The reference implementation,
bin/alpaca, can evolve a cellular automaton,
given its rules as described in ALPACA along with an initial configuration
(which may be supplied as part of the ALPACA description itself.) It can also
The new implementation of ALPACA in Python has been tested with:
- Game of Life (
- Wireworld (
- Jaccia and Jacciata
The specification, written in Falderal format, contains examples which are run as tests. The reference implementation also contains internal tests.
- Generally clean up and document the code more.
- Animate the given cellular automaton in the terminal, using curses.
- Implement non-trivial fixpoint detection: if playfield matches any of the last n playfields, then halt.
- Implement some option to halt under other, even more complex circumstances, such as some portion of the playfield matching some pattern.
- Add the ability to display certain values (generation number, coordinates of top-left corner, etc.) in divider string, by making it a formatting string.
- Chris Pressey — bulk of the implementation
- Xenon — implementation of the
- OrangeNote — addressing edge cases in spec
Possible ways in which the language could be extended in the future:
- Allow the halting predicate to be defined in the ALPACA description itself somehow. This would make ALPACA Turing-complete.