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Implementing GKGameModel: gameModelUpdates(for:) and apply()

Now you understand how GameplayKit approaches AI, it's time for some action. Open up Board.swift, then make your Board class conform to the GKGameModel protocol like this:

class Board: NSObject, GKGameModel {

As soon as you do that, your beautiful project will stop compiling and you'll see two errors: the Board class does not conform to NSCopying or GKGameModel. We covered NSCoding in previous projects but not NSCopying, so let's start there.

As you'll no doubt remember(!), NSCoding is used to encoding and decode objects so that they can be archived, such as when you're writing to UserDefaults. This is great for when you want to save or distribute your data, but it's not very efficient if you just want to copy it, and that's where NSCopying comes in: it's a protocol that lets iOS take a copy of your object in memory, with the copy being identical but separate to the original. As you saw in the last chapter, GameplayKit will be taking a lot of copies of our game board, so we definitely need to conform to NSCopying.

Implementing NSCopying is as simple as adding one new method, called copy(with zone:). The "zone" part is an optimization hangover from many years ago, and has been ignored for years. In our particular case, we're going to take a little shortcut by merging two things together: taking a copy of the game board and applying a game state.

If you remember, GameplayKit takes multiple copies of our board so that it can evaluate various moves. It then re-uses those copies by setting their game state, which is where GameplayKit resets the board so that it matches the position after one of its moves. To remove some code duplication, we're going to make copy(with:) call the method used to apply a board state. That is, copy(with:) will make an empty Board object then call a new setGameModel() method to actually copy across the slot data and set the active player.

This is helpful because setGameModel() is part of the GKGameModel protocol, so we needed to implement it anyway. This method needs to accept a GKGameModel object as its only parameter, but of course we know that's a Board object so we'll do an optional downcast before copying across the properties.

Here's the code – add this to the Board class:

func copy(with zone: NSZone? = nil) -> Any {
    let copy = Board()
    return copy

func setGameModel(_ gameModel: GKGameModel) {
    if let board = gameModel as? Board {
        slots = board.slots
        currentPlayer = board.currentPlayer

Next, GameplayKit will ask us to tell it all the possible moves that can be made, if any. This will be called on a copy of our game board that may already have had virtual moves applied to it, but that's OK because the copy has its own slots array that we can read from to find where moves are possible.

Because we're conforming to the GKGameModel protocol, this method needs to have a precise name, accept a precise parameter, and return a precise data type. Specifically, it needs to be called gameModelUpdates(for:), it needs to accept a GKGameModelPlayer object, and return a GKGameModelUpdate object. In our game, the last two map to the Player and Move classes, both of which conform to those protocols.

We've already written several methods that make this code surprisingly easy: if isWin(for:) is true either for the player or their opponent we return nil, and we call canMove(in:) for every column to see if the AI can move in each column. If so, we create a new Move object to represent that column, and add it to an array of possible moves.

To make sure you understand all the code, here it is broken down:

  1. We optionally downcast our GKGameModelPlayer parameter into a Player object.
  2. If the player or their opponent has won, return nil to signal no moves are available.
  3. Otherwise, create a new array that will hold Move objects.
  4. Loop through every column in the board, asking whether the player can move in that column.
  5. If so, create a new Move object for that column, and add it to the array.
  6. Finally, return the array to tell the AI all the possible moves it can make.

Here's the code, with the number comments matching the list above:

func gameModelUpdates(for player: GKGameModelPlayer) -> [GKGameModelUpdate]? {
    // 1
    if let playerObject = player as? Player {
        // 2
        if isWin(for: playerObject) || isWin(for: playerObject.opponent) {
            return nil

        // 3
        var moves = [Move]()

        // 4
        for column in 0 ..< Board.width {
            if canMove(in: column) {
                // 5
                moves.append(Move(column: column))

        // 6
        return moves

    return nil

The next step for the AI is to try all of those moves. GameplayKit will execute a method called apply() once for every move, and again this will get called on a copy of our game board that reflects the current state of play after its virtual moves. This method needs to accept a GKGameModelUpdate object as a parameter (that's a Move for us), then apply that move to its copy of the board.

Again, we've already written the methods required to make this happen. Our Move class contains a column number that represent's an AI move, so we just need to downcast the GKGameModelUpdate to a Move, call add(chip:) for that move, then change players. Here's the code:

func apply(_ gameModelUpdate: GKGameModelUpdate) {
    if let move = gameModelUpdate as? Move {
        add(chip: currentPlayer.chip, in: move.column)
        currentPlayer = currentPlayer.opponent

Once GameplayKit has made a move, it will want to know whether the move is good or not. Obviously this varies from game to game, so Apple's implementation is simple: it will ask us to provide a player score after each virtual move has been made, and that score affects the way GameplayKit ranks each move.

The method name this time is score(for:), and we'll get passed a GKGameModelPlayer object that we need to evaluate. This is a Player object in our game, so we'll optionally downcast it. Now, as I said already our game doesn't have a meaningful score that can be passed back as this method's return value, so we'll use a very lazy heuristic: if the player has won we'll return 1000, if their opponent has won we'll return -1000, otherwise we'll return 0.

Here's the code:

func score(for player: GKGameModelPlayer) -> Int {
    if let playerObject = player as? Player {
        if isWin(for: playerObject) {
            return 1000
        } else if isWin(for: playerObject.opponent) {
            return -1000

    return 0

There are only two further changes required to make our Board class conform fully to the GKGameModel protocol, both of which are easy and just do typecasting. You see, GameplayKit wants to see these two properties:

var players: [GKGameModelPlayer]?
var activePlayer: GKGameModelPlayer?

We don't have these right now, because we use our custom subclasses of NSObject. Rather than duplicate data, we're going to use computed properties to just return what we have – Swift will then correctly treat them as GKGameModelPlayer types. So, rather than adding those two lines of code above, use this code instead:

var players: [GKGameModelPlayer]? {
    return Player.allPlayers

var activePlayer: GKGameModelPlayer? {
    return currentPlayer

That's it: the Board class now conforms fully to the GKGameModel protocol, the Player class conforms fully to the GKGameModelPlayer protocol, and the Move class conforms fully to the GKGameModelUpdate protocol – we're finished with all these classes and those protocols, which means we can get onto the next task: configuring the AI player.

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