Introduction to C Programming - Coding a Command Line Hangman Game

2014, Aug 20, 11:29 am
CLI, Game, Shell

The basics of C taught by way of a simple command line version of hangman. This is about as simple a useful C program as can be created.

I know C isn't currently as popular as the likes of Ruby, Angular, Go, Scala, CoffeeScript, etc; but it is still widely utilized in all manner of circumstances for it's incredible speed. It's also the fundamental and foundational programming language, no contest.

Prologue necessary tools


All you need is a text editor, but something better is very helpful. Something like jEdit, or even a full IDE, like Eclipse.


If you're compiling from within an IDE, you'll need to figure that out on your own. Otherwise, you simply open the command line to the directory containing your hangman.c file and issue the command gcc -o hangman hangman.c


An IDE can compile and run the code is one go. Depending on the OS, the command line option for running a executable may differ. On Linux it's ./hangman to run the result of the above compile command.

Includes accessing more C functions

At the top of any C program, the first necessary elements are the includes, which provide access to the advanced built in functionality of C. You can find more information at, which is an excellent reference site for C. These are the include we'll be needing.

#include <stdio.h>  // The Standard Input and Output library; functions for reading and writing data
#include <string.h> // The String library; functions for manipulating strings
#include <stdlib.h> // The Standard library; general purpose functions

Structs and Pointers storing and grouping data

Next, we know a hangman game requires words. In my design the program loads all the words initially, so we never need to go back to the disk. We require data structures to hold all that data.

struct word {      // define a word structure as:
    size_t length; // an unsigned integer (non-negative)
    char * text;   // a pointer to one or more characters

struct wordlist {              // define a wordlist as:
    size_t count;              // a count of words
    struct word * list[90000]; // a pointer to 90000 word pointers worth of memory
    size_t maxlen;             // the length of the longest word
} * words;                     // a pointer, named words, to a wordlist

Let's talk for a second about what we're looking at here.

Structs encapsulated

A struct is a way of grouping related data, to make it easier to manage. It's a precursor to the idea of object oriented programming, but structs contain no functionality, only data.

To learn about structs, try these tutorials: simple, detailed.

Pointers a couple small pointers

Pointers are conceptually very simple. A pointer is a variable containing a location in memory. Pointers needs to know what type of data they point to, so when the data is requested, C knows how much to read. The syntax VariableType * pointerToDataOfType defines a pointer, while the syntax *pointerToDataOfType requests the data pointed to by the pointer (de-referencing).

There is a shortcut when using pointers to structs. Namely, words->count is equivalent to (*words).count, as both de-reference the words pointer to provide access to the count variable.

For more on pointers, read this simple pointer tutorial or, if you're feeling bold, this more in depth one.

Pointers and Memory Allocation a heap of code

Now let's populate those data structures with information from a file on the disk. To keep things simple, we'll be reading a plain text file of whitespace separated words.

void load(char * path) { // word loading function, requires a wordlist location argument
    char temp[30];       // 30 characters worth of memory for holding each word temporarily
    size_t index = 0;    // which word we're currently handling
    words->maxlen = 1;   // the maxlen value from our above-mentioned wordlist struct

    FILE * pFileWords;             // FILE struct (part of C itself) pointer
    pFileWords = fopen(path, "r"); // the fopen function opens a file and returns a pointer to it
    if (pFileWords == NULL) {      // if the file couldn't be opened for whatever reason
        printf("\nno wordlist found at %s\n", path);
        exit(1);                   // tell the user and exit the program
    // the fscanf function scans a file (1st argument), according to format (2nd argument),
    // and saves the data (subsequent arguments), returning EOF (end of file) when applicable
    while (fscanf(pFileWords, "%s", temp) != EOF) {
        size_t length = strlen(temp); // the strlen function returns the length of a string
        if (words->maxlen < length) { // if the current word is longer than the previous longest
            words->maxlen = length;   // that should be the new maxlen
        // the malloc function allocates memory on the heap, which is larger but slower
        // the size we're allocating here is enough to hold a word struct
        words->list[index] = malloc(sizeof(struct word));
        // now we allocate memory for the actual characters of each word
        // (char *) casts this memory as a pointer to one or more characters
        words->list[index]->text = (char *)malloc(length*sizeof(char)+1);
        strcpy(words->list[index]->text, temp); // strcpy copies a string, copying the 2nd arg to the 1st
        words->list[index]->length = length;    // each word also remembers its length
        index++; // words->list[index] is now occupied; thus we increment index by 1
    words->count = index; // once all words have been read, the number of words == index

Whew. That's a lot of code and comments. This is a good point to pause for recapitulation and rumination.

Memory Allocation a few bits of data

When variables are created directly, without an asterisk (not a pointer), the memory is allocated automatically on the stack, which is smaller and faster. For example, char temp[30] allocates 30 characters worth of memory.

On the other hand, when memory is allocated explicitly, using malloc or the like, it allocates that memory on the heap, which is larger and slower. Usually such memory would need to be set free (otherwise you have what's called a 'memory leak'). In our case however, the entire word-list is kept on the heap throughout the game.

For more about the stack vs. the heap, see this stackoverflow question.

A less detailed overview, as well as information regarding freeing memory, check this stackoverflow question

Pointers more pointers

(To be done at some later point)

Game Loop and Basic IO the heart and soul

int play(int minlen) { // main game function, requires a minimum length argument

    srand(time(NULL));      // initialize the random number generator
    do {                    // main game loop
        struct word * word; // pointer, named word, to a word struct
        do {
            word = words->list[rand()%words->count]; // pointing to a random word
        } while (word->length < minlen);             // of at least minlen length

        int guess;
        int chances = 5;
        char wrong[6] = "";                  // incorrect guesses
        char found[word->length+1];          // found characters
        memset(found, '\0', word->length+1); // null terminate found
        memset(found, '_', word->length);    // otherwise fill with underscores

        // prints to the console, what you've found, remaining chances, and wrong guesses
        printf("solved %s | chances %i | wrong '%s'  ", found, chances, wrong);
        do {                     // loop for each ...
            guess = getchar();   // get the next character from the console
            if (guess == '\n') { // on enter, show our game state again
                printf("solved %s | chances %i | wrong '%s'  ", found, chances, wrong);
                continue;        // and move on to waiting for the next char
            else if (guess == EOF) {
                printf("\n");    // when we encounter an end of file (Ctrl-D)
                return 0;        // abandon the game function
            else if (guess < 97 || guess > 122) {
                continue;        // if it's not a lowercase ASCII char, ignore
            else {               // if it is a lowercase ASCII char
                int i;
                for (i = 0; i < strlen(found); i++) { // loop through word
                    if (word->text[i] == guess) {     // comparing to each char
                        found[i] = guess;             // adding to found as needed
                // if char guess is in neither found nor wrong
                // strchr returns the index of a char (2nd arg) in a string (1st arg)
                if (strchr(found, guess) == NULL && strchr(wrong, guess) == NULL) {
                    strncat(wrong, (char *)&guess, 5); // append guess to wrong 
                    chances--;                         // reduce the remaining chances
        // loop so long as we're still missing characters and not out of chances
        } while (strchr(found, '_') != NULL && chances > 0);
        printf("solved %s | chances %i | wrong '%s'\n", word->text, chances, wrong);
        if (chances > 0) {
        } else {
        while (getchar() != '\n') { /* do nothing */ }; // clear build-up of bad chars
    } while(1); // loop forever
    return 0;

Input / Output introduction

In this code we use two basic IO paradigms, character based and formatted data based.

Character based IO is very simple, but there are a couple subtle oddness to be aware of. First, because getchar is a blocking function, all code execution stops until it receives a character. Second, because stdin (standard input) is buffered by default, no inputted characters are handed off to the program until enter (\n) is pressed. Read the above code again with this in mind.

Formatted data based IO is more complex, to the point where I need to look it up every time I use it for anything but the simplest operations. The basic notion is to pass the functions printf or scanf a string with special markers (starting with %), which are filled with the values of subsequent arguments.

Main and Arguments initialize and customize

int main(int argc, char * argv[]) { // the main function is automatically run and accepts arguments from the command line
                                    // argc is a count of the arguments, argv is an array of arguments (space separated)
    char * path = "/usr/share/wordlist";
    long minlen = 3;                // the default wordlist location and minimum word length

    if (argc > 1) {                       // we've received arguments
        if (strcmp(argv[1], "-h") == 0) { // print help and exit if the first argument is '-h'
            printf("\nhangman command line arguments:\n\
                    \n-w path\n\tPath to a whitespace seperated list of words.\
                    \n-s size\n\tMinimum word size.\n");
            return 0;
        else {
            int i = 1;
            do {                                       // looping through our arguments
                if (strcmp(argv[i], "-w") == 0) {      // if one of them is '-w' 
                    if (i+1 < argc) { i++; }           // if there's another argument
                    else {
                        printf("\n-w requires a wordlist path\n");
                        return 1;
                    path = argv[i];                    // make that the path of our wordlist
                if (strcmp(argv[i], "-s") == 0) {      // if one of them is '-s'
                    if (i+1 < argc) { i++; }           // if there's another argument
                    else {
                        printf("\n-s requires a minimum size\n");
                        return 1;
                    minlen = strtol(argv[i], NULL, 0); // make that our minimum length
            } while (i < argc);
    load(path);                   // call our load function (remember that?)
    if (minlen > words->maxlen) { // exit if the longest word is shorter than the requested minimum
        printf("\nsize must not be larger than the longest word, %u\n", words->maxlen);
    return play(minlen);          // otherwise call our play function, which loops infinitely

Arguments debating their merits

As you can see from the code, even three fairly simple command line arguments are not simple to parse. There are actually established rules, but even those are often ignored, and they don't cover every scenario.

That being said, the -h for help with command line arguments is basically universal. This allows you to inform the user of any oddities in an accessible way.

If you want to write more complex command line options or you're a stickler for the conventions, you should probably using the getopt function.

That's All Folks seriously, I'm done.

Take this C knowledge I've (hopefully) imparted and do something wonderful.

The entire source, sans most of the comments, can be found on GitHub.


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