Redstone has been a core element in the game Minecraft for quite some
years. It is presumably the most untrivial one as well: while anyone
could master nearly all Minecraft mechanics through experiences, it
takes not only experience but also ingenuity to design a good redstone
circuit. Few of us are bold enough to claim "I master redstone", even
after playing Minecraft for a decade.
So here comes the question: Can the design of redstone
circuits, the core of Minecraft automations, be automated? and
If so, how? (appreciate how meta this is :)
Theoretically, the answer is "yes...but". Minecraft has a finite
world, and each position has a finite number of possible blockstates. We
can write a program to enumerate all possible placements of blocks until
we find some placement corresponding to the desired redstone circuit.
However, this needs exponential time and we may need to wait for a
century before it could give us, for instance, a decent piston door.
Moreover, if a circuit involves manipulation of entities (which could
have infinite many states), then we are easily screwed.
Well, perhaps it is difficult to let a program design any redstone
circuit. But there is indeed a subset of redstone circuits whose design
can very likely be automated -- computational redstone
circuits, aka. logic gates, calculators, CPUs etc. Why? Because
software that design their real world electronic counterparts are
readily available, i.e. EDA software.
As a high school student I, of course, know little about the inner
workings of real-world EDA applications (and there doesn't seem to be a
lot of resources out there). I am convinced that this problem is NPC
(further articulated below), so designing an efficient polytime
combinatorial algorithm doesn't seem plausible. That said, what about
reducing this problem to some other NPC problems which we can solve
relatively quickly with optimized algorithms / heuristics -- say, ILP?
This is what I am trying to do here.
Formulating the problem
"Designing computational redstone circuit automatically" is a vague
idea, so it is necessary that we know what this truly means.
What's the input?
The input should describe the intended functionality of a circuit.
Recall how we usually describe a circuit: we draw a circuit
diagram. I here characterize a redstone circuit diagram by the
assumptions and constraints below:
- A circuit contains two parts: wires and
- Components are the primitives of a circuit. E.g. A
torch or a wire junction.
- A component has interfaces, either in or
out, as where the component receives signals from and sends
- A wire connects an out-interface from a component
("source") to an in-interface of another component
- Wires are directed.
- Components are independent. i.e. they do not
interfere with other components in any way other than being connected by
wires from interfaces.
A circuit diagram can be represented in a directed graph, with
components as vertices and wires as edges. Source/target interfaces as
extra information stored on edges.
What's the output?
We want our program to tell us how the circuit we described in the
input can be built in the Minecraft world. Therefore, we could define
the the output to be a set of position - blockstate pairs, (which, in
implementation, can be stored in a schematic file).
However, we don't want to jump straight from a circuit diagram to a
detailed Minecraft schematic because that means taking interference
between components, quasi connectivity, update order -- basically
everything that makes redstone engineering complex -- into consideration
in the first place.
Instead, we could first build our circuit in an ideal
world, in which we forget about all those factors above, and
then convert the ideal placement into an actual Minecraft schematic.
What's an idea world?
- A circuit consists of multiple ideal blocks.
- A component fully occupies a set of ideal blocks, some of which are
its interfaces. How many and which blocks a certain type of component
occupies depend on its size in Minecraft and how we plan to convert the
ideal placement to a real schematic.
- A wire is a chain of ideal blocks, where any adjacent two share a
face. The first block is always the source interface and the last is
always the target interface.
- Exclusiveness: All components and all wires
(ignoring their first and last block) mustn't overlap.
- Mutual Independence: Unless both blocks are
occupied by the same component / wire, anything in two adjacent cells do
not interfere with each other. To meet this constraint, we could say
(rather conservatively) that an ideal block should map to
- Wire junctions are special components and are exceptions to rule 2
and 3. A wire junction always have three interfaces (1 in & 2 outs,
or 2 ins & 1 out). Multiple junctions can overlap and they can
overlap with an interface of some component.
- There are times when we want to fix the location of some components
in the input. These components are usually just placeholders that mark
the position of IO. (We don't want to produce a circuit with an
unreachable input/output in the center of everything else, right?)
- The circuit represented by the output must have the same
functionality as described by the input circuit diagram.
- The delay of the circuit should be minimized.
Example: the AND gate
Let's see how we design a simple AND gate.
Suppose the only primitive components we have are NOT gate (torch),
wire junction, and IO placeholder. The circuit diagram of AND gate
Reduction to Integer
Once the problem statement is clear, we can proceed to convert the
problem into an integer programming. Let's start by defining some
notations. First, assume there are
wires in a circuit.
The circuit we are designing obviously must meet some space
constraints. Hence, let
be the set of all feasible ideal block coordinates.
Then we have different types of components, which can be placed with
different orientations (at most 6). Some component may not be placed in
a certain direction due to limitations in Minecraft mechanisms (such
contraptions are often known as "directional"). Let
be the set of feasible orientations of the
For each component
and a feasible orientation
be the set of ideal block coordinates this component occupies when
placed in this direction. For convenience, let
be a tight lower bound of the three components in this set. We assume
that the shape of a component, after fixing its type and orientation, is
It's finally time to introduce some variables. Let binary variables
denote whether the
component is placed with orientation
at coordinate .
Every component should be placed only once. This gives the constraint
should not overlap! Consequently,
applies for each location
in the feasible space. We enumerate all components and their possible
placements that would occupy
making sure that their corresponding variables sum to at most 1.
Now we consider wires. For convenience, let
neighbors in ,
Let binary variables
denote whether the
wire has a segment from
be the indices of the source and destination component of wire
be the coordinate of the source interface relative to the source
location when the source component of the
wire is placed with orientation
in a similar manner, denoting the coordinate of the destination
interface relative to the destination component's location.
With these notations, the constraint that enforces the connectivity
of wires can be written as
is the starting location of wire
both LHS and RHS are 1; If
is the ending location of wire
both LHS and RHS are
Otherwise both sides equal 0.
Meanwhile, given that a location is either occupied by a component or
a wire but never both, and that any two wires shall not overlap, we have
the following constraint
Usually if a wire (say,
so the RHS should be 2. At the same time, we expect that when some
component has occupied
no wires should occupy
again. We then need to use indicator
which is at most
1 by our second constraint, so we give it a coefficient of 2 to balance
it with the wire term.
The above constraint, however, isn't quite right: Wires and
components do over lap at the interface block. To fix this, we amend the
summation term on the right will be greater than 0 if
is an interface block for some component and wire.
These are all the constraints that I had thought of. Together, the
integer programming instance is
The objective is
simply the sum of all
variables because it denotes the total length of all wires, which we aim
to minimize if we want the circuit to be compact.
Keep in mind, however, that these constraints are merely the
necessary conditions of a valid circuit. Given the complexity
of the constraints, it is difficult to reason if all circuit
configurations conforming to these constraint are valid circuits. I
suppose the best way to check is to write some code and see if it gives
what we what.
I did some very rudimentary test of my ILP formulation above with the
Gurobi solver and ~1kLoC of Kotlin. The goal was to route the simple
circuit described below:
val in1 = ComponentNode(FixedLocation(Vec3(0, 0, 0)))
val in2 = ComponentNode(FixedLocation(Vec3(1, 0, 0)))
val out = ComponentNode(FixedLocation(Vec3(0, 0, 3)))
val a = ComponentNode(NotGate)
val b = ComponentNode(NotGate)
val c = ComponentNode(NotGate)
val d = ComponentNode(NotGate)
val e = ComponentNode(NotGate)
val circuit = MutableCircuitGraph()
// Connect the IO interface of in1 to the IN interface of a
circuit.addWire(in1, FixedLocation.IO, a, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(in2, FixedLocation.IO, a, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(in1, FixedLocation.IO, b, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(in2, FixedLocation.IO, c, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(a, NotGate.OUT, b, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(a, NotGate.OUT, c, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(b, NotGate.OUT, d, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(c, NotGate.OUT, d, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(d, NotGate.OUT, e, NotGate.IN)
circuit.addWire(e, NotGate.OUT, out, FixedLocation.IO)
This describes an XOR gate with NOT gate as the only primitive. It
has eight components and 10 wires -- decently complex. A
FixedLocation component takes up 1 block of space and a NOT
gate takes up 2 blocks, with the input interface in one block and the
output in another. NOT gates can only be placed horizontally (i.e. 4
Time to solve it:
val solver = MIPLayoutSolver()
val result = solver.solve(circuit, Vec3.inBox(Vec3(3, 2, 10)))
I gave the solver a lot of slack: the feasibility space is
considerably larger than what's actually needed. Anyway, the code ran
very fast (thanks to Gurobi). To visualize the result I wrote some extra
code to generate an HTML which internally calls THREE.js:
Complicated, isn't it? The rightmost magenta block is the output
out. The leftmost magenta block on the bottom
level is the input component
in1. The cyan block next to
in2. And then blocks of the same color
represents a NOT gate, and arrows represent wires. The visualization is
a mess but I couldn't do better without writing significantly more code.
If you try hard to follow the the arrows then you will find that this
routing is actually correct and does the exact thing the Kotlin
description above describes -- and indeed, the circuit is amazingly
(Note that here a component's interface is connected to multiple
wires. This might not be a good thing because by our constraints, if the
fan in/out of any component is greater than 6, the constraint can not be
satisfied. In an attempt to work around this I wrote a preprocessor that
automatically introduces OR gates in circuit graphs when necessary.
However, it turns out that with this modification things no
longer work and the solver starts giving bogus results for some reason.
I didn't have time to investigate into this issue, but this could be an
error in my ILP formulation somewhere!)
Afterwords -- Two Years
Aha, I am finally here!
I did this project in 2020 but I somehow left this article unfinished
for two years. What a shame! I spent an entire evening doing some
archaeological work today and dug out my code and notes for this project
(and confirmed they did work). The article is complete -- finally -- but
please tolerate some inconsistencies in the writing. Everything after
the AND gate example was written in 2022. Hopefully this article is
In retrospect, this small project is by no means complete. The test
was too simple and I didn't even make a Minecraft circuit out of the
result! Probably too much handwaving. I could have of course went much
much deeper if I hadn't been busy with my college applications back
then. I wrote the first part of this article on Nov. 25, 2020. A couple
of days later I would have found myself rejected by Cornell. That was
very frustrating then and I had to write more and more essays -- I guess
that was when this unfinished article got buried somewhere.
Anyway. it had been great fun doing this project and I learned a ton
of interesting stuff despite the shallow progress on the surface. I
still vividly recollect the moment I found in my inbox an email from the
Gurobi China sales team because I was the first high school student in
China to apply for an academic license and they really wanted to confirm
I was not joking. I said that I was serious and several days later I got
my license -- that reply email literally made my day back then. Things
have changed. When I re-install Gurobi to re-run my code last night, the
Gurobi server recognized my MIT IP and gave me a license instantly. That
was fast, but felt... different, certainly not as rewarding as before. I
no longer play Minecraft as much as I did now, or do these fun projects
as much as I had done. The decline in motivation on these things doesn't
seem to be a good sign to me. I can't blame everything on the course
load or UROP or anything else. It is a problem I am actively seeking a