Gettysburg College Prof. Todd Neller is a gamer. Whether using cards, dice, or a click of a mouse, he’s always up for a duel of wits and luck. This love for competition even inspired him, a few years back, to fashion his own game—Red Light.
“Red Light is a jeopardy chip or card game that was inspired by Fowl Play, which in turn is based on the folk jeopardy dice game Pig,” he said.
Prof. Todd Neller
“The idea came about when Prof. Neller wanted us to do something different for our fourth hour requirement,” said Steven Semmel ’16, a computer science and history double major, minoring in Civil War era studies. “Prof. Neller focused a lot of our assignments around the idea of using Java programming to develop games that we are familiar with, like Free Cell and Rush Hour. He also taught us how to play [Red Light] and understand the mechanics.”
Red Light is a two-player game that is played with four red poker chips, 24 green, and a bag from which to shuffle and draw them.
To play, first draw a chip. If it’s green, you have the option to draw again or hold. The more green chips you draw on one turn, the more points you could score. If you draw a red chip before deciding to hold, however, you lose all of your points for the turn. The first player to score 50 points wins. And just to make it fair, the non-starting player begins with one point (komi—compensation points).
Once mastering the game’s rules, the team sought to gain a better understanding of optimal play by reading Optimal, Approximately Optimal, and Fair Play of the Fowl Play Card Game—a paper co-authored by Neller, Prof. Clifton Presser, and Forrest Jacobs ’12, as well as Marcin Malec ’13, who earned a bronze medal at the Computer Olympiad in Yokohama, Japan, last August.
“After we understood the basics of the project, we were tasked with implementing a more aesthetically pleasing version of the game that we called Red Light Race,” said John Duncan ’17, a computer science major and David Wills Merit Scholarship recipient. “Over the course of the semester, we had a basic idea of each step that had to be completed to achieve success, including understanding the game, specifying the app design (interface, functionality), assigning team roles and responsibilities, implementing and testing the app, and publishing the app.”
John Duncan '17
“There were several nights where we would be working on the project for five or more hours just to figure out a small problem,” Semmel added. “We also had to do individual research on how to code Android software for certain things that we wanted in the app. The project took the entire semester to complete, and even then, we had a couple of bugs to fix.”
The hurdles the group faced ultimately led the students—Semmel, Duncan, Michael Booz ’16, Jeff Kohart ’17, and Edward Makinde ’15—to bond as a team and rise to the challenge.
“I learned quite a bit through this cooperation,” said Kohart, a double major in computer science and mathematics, minoring in German studies. “I was extremely impressed with the programming skills of the other group members, which gave and continues to give me motivation to become better. Also, Prof. Neller gave guidance about the difficulties that he encountered with previous apps. He helped us prioritize which features were most important for the user.”
Semmel echoed Kohart’s sentiment.
“Creating an app can be a lot harder than it seems,” he said. “I learned to never be afraid to ask each other for help or to bounce ideas off of each other. The app idea was changed multiple times because everyone had good ideas and had different approaches to the same task. I also learned the importance of communication and organization.”
Today, the Gettysburg gamers look back on their fourth hour requirement with admiration, and they even hope to build more apps like Red Light Race in the future.
“Now that the app is on Google Play, I feel extremely proud,” Kohart said. “We have managed to create an app that people anywhere can use and enjoy. It may not achieve the success that some apps experience, but the idea that the creation of a group of friends has even the smallest chance of catching on is exhilarating.”