Theory of Computing Systems

, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp 72-92

First online:

The Complexity of Flood Filling Games

  • Raphaël CliffordAffiliated withDepartment of Computer Science, University of Bristol
  • , Markus JalseniusAffiliated withDepartment of Computer Science, University of Bristol Email author 
  • , Ashley MontanaroAffiliated withDepartment of Computer Science, University of Bristol
  • , Benjamin SachAffiliated withDepartment of Computer Science, University of Bristol

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We study the complexity of the popular one player combinatorial game known as Flood-It. In this game the player is given an n×n board of tiles where each tile is allocated one of c colours. The goal is to make the colours of all tiles equal via the shortest possible sequence of flooding operations. In the standard version, a flooding operation consists of the player choosing a colour k, which then changes the colour of all the tiles in the monochromatic region connected to the top left tile to k. After this operation has been performed, neighbouring regions which are already of the chosen colour k will then also become connected, thereby extending the monochromatic region of the board. We show that finding the minimum number of flooding operations is NP-hard for c≥3 and that this even holds when the player can perform flooding operations from any position on the board. However, we show that this ‘free’ variant is in P for c=2. We also prove that for an unbounded number of colours, Flood-It remains NP-hard for boards of height at least 3, but is in P for boards of height 2. Next we show how a (c−1) approximation and a randomised 2c/3 approximation algorithm can be derived, and that no polynomial time constant factor, independent of c, approximation algorithm exists unless P=NP. We then investigate how many moves are required for the ‘most demanding’ n×n boards (those requiring the most moves) and show that the number grows as fast as \(\Theta(\sqrt{c}\, n)\). Finally, we consider boards where the colours of the tiles are chosen at random and show that for c≥2, the number of moves required to flood the whole board is Ω(n) with high probability.


NP-completeness Flood-filling Combinatorial games Percolation