Appalling Farrago

A blog about stuff

Ember: Conway's Game of Life
22 Sep 2015

This article was originally posted on the thoughtbot blog here

During my apprenticeship, we were encouraged to keep a breakable toy for trying out new concepts or developing a deeper understanding for the framework/tools you are using. The basic idea is to have a project you don’t have to ship so you can spend time experimenting.

Recently I implemented Conway’s Game of Life for the first time using Ember. This exposed me to parts of Ember that I think are interesting to talk about.

Disclaimer: As this is a breakable toy, before I start I like to choose a concept or addon that I haven’t used before to see how it feels. For this I chose ember-computed-decorators to try out.

The game

Conway’s Game of Life is a zero player game, meaning that it requires no input from any players and the result can be determined from the initial setup. The game is played on an infinite two-dimensional board made up of cells. A cell is in one of two states, alive or dead. On a turn, each cell has its state change depending on the states of its surrounding eight neighbours. All cells change state at the same time. The next state is determined from the following rules:

  1. If the cell is alive and has less than two living neighbours then the cell dies.
  2. If the cell is alive and has two or three living neighbours then it remains alive.
  3. If the cell is alive and has more than three living neighbours then the cell dies.
  4. If the cell is dead and has exactly three live neighbours then the cell will come to life.

The board

Let’s get the most obvious problem out of the way first. How should we model a infinite board? I decided to model my board as a torus, which means the top and bottom edges are considered to be attached as are the left and right sides. This means that we have an infinite, 2-dimensional board that repeats every certain number of cells.

We’ll need a way to generate the board given a width and height at which the universe repeats, and then tell each cell who its eight neighbours are. Let’s start with a game-board component:

// app/components/game-board.js
import Ember from 'ember';
import computed from 'ember-computed-decorators';
import generateBoard from 'game-of-life/utils/board-generator';
import registerNeighbours from 'game-of-life/utils/register-neighbours';

export default Ember.Component.extend(Ember.Evented, {
  width: 50,
  height: 50,
  density: 0.2,

  @computed('width', 'height', 'density')
  board(width, height, density) {
    const board = generateBoard(width, height, density);

    return board;

  actions: {
    step() {
      const board = this.get('board');
      board.forEach(function(row) {

So I’ve started here with code I wish I had. My board is initialized with the generateBoard function and then the neighbours for each cell needs to be registered with that cell. Let’s start by generating our board:

// app/utils/board-generator.js
import Cell from 'game-of-life/models/cell';

export default function boardGenerator(width, height, density) {
  const board = [];
  for (let i = 0; i < height; i++) {
    const row = [];
    for (let j = 0; j < width; j++) {
      const alive = Math.random() < density;

  return board;

The above code loops over the height and width to create a matrix of cells. We’ll need a Cell model to contain the logic for working out the next state according to the rules, but we’ll come back to that later. Let’s move on to registering neighbours:

// app/utils/register-neighbours.js
export default function registerNeighbours(board) {
  return, rowIndex, board) => {
    return, cellIndex) => {
      const left = wrapAround(cellIndex - 1, row.length);
      const right = wrapAround(cellIndex + 1, row.length);
      const up = wrapAround(rowIndex - 1, row.length);
      const down = wrapAround(rowIndex + 1, row.length);

      const neighbours = [

      cell.set('neighbours', neighbours);
      return cell;

function wrapAround(index, length) {
  if (index === -1) {
    return length - 1;
  } else if (index === length) {
    return 0;
  } else {
    return index;

This simply iterates over every cell on the board and finds the eight adjacent cells. We’ll use the wrapAround function to handle connecting our edges together giving us our Torus.

This checks if we’re trying to access a cell position that is out of bounds. If so, we move to the beginning or end of the row/column where appropriate.

Finally, we have the template for our game-board component:

<!-- app/templates/components/game-board.hbs -->
{{#each board as |row|}}
  <div class='row'>
    {{#each row key="@index" as |cell|}}
      {{game-cell cell=cell}}

  <button {{action 'step'}}>STEP</button>

The cells

Now that we have a board set up, let’s build our game-cell component:

// app/components/game-cell.js
import Ember from 'ember';
const {computed} = Ember;

export default Ember.Component.extend({
  cell: null,
  alive: computed.alias('cell.alive'),

Next we’ll need a cell model. This should be aware of what its current state is and what its next state should be based on the state of its neighbours:

// app/models/cell.js
import Ember from 'ember';
import computed from 'ember-computed-decorators';

export default Ember.Object.extend(Ember.Evented, {
  alive: false,
  neighbours: [],

  @computed('[email protected]')
  aliveNeighboursCount(neighbours) {
    return neighbours.filter(alive => alive).get('length');

  @computed('alive', 'aliveNeighboursCount')
  nextState(alive, aliveNeighboursCount) {
    return (alive && aliveNeighboursCount === 2) ||
      (aliveNeighboursCount === 3);

  step() {
    this.set('alive', this.get('nextState'));

Here we use computed properties to keep a count of living neighbours, then we use that to determine what the nextState should be. Finally, we’ve added a step function that changes the alive property to the nextState.

Let’s see how this runs:


Something isn’t right here.

Ember run loop

Turns out, we’ve forgotten that all cells change state at the same time. Our code that runs row.invoke('step') will iterate through each cell in the row and tell it to move to the next state. This causes the state to change and affect the neighbouring cells when they should be interested in the previous state. To fix this we need to look at Ember’s run loop.

The run loop is used to schedule work into queues. Each iteration of the run loop runs each queue in a particular order to ensure that operations are done in the most efficient way possible. For example, there is a routerTransitions queue which contains router transition jobs. This come just before the render queue which is responsible for updating the DOM with the current state of the application. If these queues were reversed, then it would take two iterations of the run loop to move between pages instead of one.

The default queues are as follows: sync, actions, routerTransitions, render, afterRender and finally destroy. We can put tasks into a specific queue using Armed with this knowledge let’s edit our step function:

// app/models/cell.js
  step() {
    const nextState = this.get('nextState');'sync', this, function() {
      this.set('alive', nextState);

And now our applications should look like this:


That’s better!


You can find the repository here and here’s the app in action.