Recursion: Solving a Maze

The Problem

A robot is asked to navigate a maze. It is placed at a certain position (the starting position) in the maze and is asked to try to reach another position (the goal position). Positions in the maze will either be open or blocked with an obstacle. Positions are identified by (x,y) coordinates.

[Example of a simple maze] At any given moment, the robot can only move 1 step in one of 4 directions. Valid moves are:

Note that positions are specified in zero-based coordinates (i.e., 0...size-1, where size is the size of the maze in the corresponding dimension).

The robot can only move to positions without obstacles and must stay within the maze.

The robot should search for a path from the starting position to the goal position (a solution path) until it finds one or until it exhausts all possibilities. In addition, it should mark the path it finds (if any) in the maze.


To make this problem more concrete, let's consider a maze represented by a matrix of characters. An example 6x6 input maze is:

''- where the robot can move (open positions)
''- obstacles (blocked positions)
''- start position (here, x=0, y=0)
''- goal (here, x=5, y=4)

Aside: Remember that we are using x and y coordinates (that start at 0) for maze positions. A y coordinate therefore corresponds to a row in the matrix and an x coordinate corresponds to a column.

A path in the maze can be marked by the '' symbol...

A path refers to either a partial path, marked while the robot is still searching: (i.e., one that may or may not lead to a solution). Or, a solution path: which leads from start to goal.


We'll solve the problem of finding and marking a solution path using recursion.

Remember that a recursive algorithm has at least 2 parts:

Recursive parts

Because our algorithm must be recursive, we need to view the problem in terms of similar subproblems. In this case, that means we need to "find a path" in terms of "finding paths."

Let's start by assuming there is already some algorithm that finds a path from some point in a maze to the goal, call it FIND-PATH(x, y).

Also suppose that we got from the start to position x=1, y=2 in the maze (by some method):

What we now want to know is whether there is a path from x=1, y=2 to the goal. If there is a path to the goal from x=1, y=2, then there is a path from the start to the goal (since we already got to x=1, y=2).

To find a path from position x=1, y=2 to the goal, we can just ask FIND-PATH to try to find a path from the , , , and of x=1, y=2:

Generalizing this, we can call FIND-PATH recursively to move from any location in the maze to adjacent locations. In this way, we move through the maze.

Base cases

It's not enough to know how to use FIND-PATH recursively to advance through the maze. We also need to determine when FIND-PATH must stop.

One such base case is to stop when it reaches the goal.

The other base cases have to do with moving to invalid positions. For example, we have mentioned how to search of the current position, but disregarded whether that position is legal. In order words, we must ask:

Now, to our base cases and recursive parts, we must add some steps to mark positions we are trying, and to unmark positions that we tried, but from which we failed to reach the goal:


  1. if (x,y outside maze) return false
  2. if (x,y is goal) return true
  3. if (x,y not open) return false
  4. mark x,y as part of solution path
  5. if (FIND-PATH( of x,y) == true) return true
  6. if (FIND-PATH( of x,y) == true) return true
  7. if (FIND-PATH( of x,y) == true) return true
  8. if (FIND-PATH( of x,y) == true) return true
  9. unmark x,y as part of solution path
  10. return false
All these steps together complete a basic algorithm that finds and marks a path to the goal (if any exists) and tells us whether a path was found or not (i.e., returns true or false). This is just one such algorithm--other variations are possible.

Note: FIND-PATH will be called at least once for each position in the maze that is tried as part of a path.

Also, after going to another position (e.g., ):

if (FIND-PATH( of x,y)¹ == true) return true²
if a path to the goal was found, it is important that the algorithm stops. I.e., if going of x,y finds a path (i.e., returns true¹), then from the current position (i.e., current call of FIND-PATH) there is no need to check , or . Instead, FIND-PATH just need return true² to the previous call.

Path marking will be done with the '' symbol and unmarking with the '' symbol.

Using Algorithm

To use FIND-PATH to find and mark a path from the start to the goal with our given representation of mazes, we just need to:

  1. Locate the start position (call it startx, starty).
  2. Call FIND-PATH(startx, starty).
  3. Re-mark* the start position with ''.

*In the algorithm, the start position (marked '') needs to be considered an open position and must be marked as part of the path for FIND-PATH to work correctly. That is why we re-mark it at the end.


An important capability that the recursive parts of the algorithm will give us is the ability to backtrack.

For example, suppose the algorithm just marked position x=2, y=3 in this maze. I.e, it is in the call to FIND-PATH(x=2, y=3). After marking...

First, it will try to find a path to the goal from the position of x=2, y=3, calling FIND-PATH().

Since the position is not open, the call FIND-PATH() will return false, and then it will go back (backtrack) to FIND-PATH(x=2, y=3) and resume at the step just after it went .

Next, it will go of x=2, y=3, calling FIND-PATH().

This position is not open, so it will backtrack to FIND-PATH(x=2, y=3) and resume at the step just after it went .

Next, it will go of x=2, y=3, calling call FIND-PATH().

This position is not open, so it will backtrack to FIND-PATH(x=2, y=3) and resume at the step just after it went .

Finally, it will go of x=2, y=3, calling FIND-PATH().

This position is not open, so it will backtrack to FIND-PATH(x=2, y=3) and resume at the step just after it went .

Since is the last direction to search from x=2, y=3, it will unmark x=2, y=3, and backtrack to the previous call, FIND-PATH(x=1, y=3).

To better illustrate this backtracking, let's look at an example run in which a dead end is reached at some point in the search:

Symbols: '' = open, '' = blocked, '' = start, '' = goal, '' = path

Run Speed: Slow Medium Fast

Follow: Algorithm Recursive Calls

Current: Step description: Goal: Search:
x= y=

Feel free to follow the search algorithm using other input mazes and parameters.


In order to demonstrate an understanding of this problem and solution, you should be able to answer the following questions:

BU CAS CS - Recursion: Solving a Maze
Copyright © 1993-2000 by Robert I. Pitts <rip at bu dot edu>. All Rights Reserved.