PD_DistributedSystems PD_CloudComputing TCPP_Programming TCPP_Algorithms TCPP_CrossCutting K_12 CS1 DSA Systems visual movement

Originally described by William S. Lloyd (Lloyd1994)

No web-link to independent description available. See paper (Lloyd1994) for additional details.


Students learn of the classic Byzantine Generals problem by acting out scenarios.

The Byzantine Generals problem is a classic description of the consensus problem in distributed computing, where many independent processes must agree on a “true” value for a particular measurement (especially in the case where some processes become unreliable due to faults). Byzantine Fault Tolerance (BFT) describes fault tolerance to “Byzantine” faults, where a rogue process may (instead of gracefully failing) continue to generate arbitrary data, making it difficult to detect as a faulty process.

Today, the Byzantine General problem and BFT has its most well-known application in the creation of the Bitcoin, where the Byzantine-tolerant block-chain enables the generation of a consensus of the system’s state at any given time.

Prior to the activity, students are familiarized with the conspiracies of the Byzantine Empire. (Lloyd1994) suggests telling the story of Empress Irene of Athens, who ruled in stead of her underage son, Constantine VI from 780-790 AD. When Constantine assumed power, Irene was deposed and exiled. Through a conspiracy, Irene re-seized the throne in 797 AD, gouging out her son’s eyes to prevent him from retaking the throne (he succumbed to his wounds days later). Irene herself was overthrown by conspiracy in 802 AD.

Introducing the Problem

The Byzantine generals problem is then introduced through the following scenario. It is midnight, and the Byzantine army is preparing to attack an enemy fort at dawn. The armed forces are split into several brigades, each led by its own general and occupying separate hills surrounding the fort. Each general must remain with his or her troops, and communicates with other generals by utilizing messengers that run from camp to camp. The generals must come to agreement on whether to attack at first light or retreat. The enemy’s strength is such that unless a majority of the brigades attack, it will be a total rout and the Byzantine army will suffer a major defeat. The generals have agreed to abide by the vote of the majority, and will retreat if a majority decision cannot be reached.

While the army’s lines of communication are secure (the messengers carry unforgeable messages stamped with the seal of the sender), there is a very real possibility that one or more of the Byzantine generals are traitors to the realm. For example, the traitors may trick a few of the loyal generals in attacking when the general consensus is to retreat, leading to a major military defeat. The problem is this: how can a loyal general ensure that his or her decision is the same as the majority of generals? What plan can be devised to ensure that the honest general will be joined by all loyal brigades to attack?

The Activity

The instructor should start by choosing three students to play generals, and have them stand in different corners of the classroom. A separate student is picked to act as a runner carrying messages between generals.

Ask the class:

Consider the case where students A and B are loyal and C is a traitor. A wants to attack, and B wants to retreat. In a simple “majority vote” situation, all C needs to do is send an attack message to A to trick A into attacking, and a retreat message to B (or no message) to trick B into retreating. It may be helpful to write the messages received by each general on the board in separate columns (for example, A’s column will read: A - Attack, B - retreat, C-attack, consensus - Attack).

Next, the students are asked to consider the scenario where a fourth general (D) is added (pick a new student to play this part, and have them stand in a fourth corner of the room). Like general A, suppose general D also favors an attack.

Ask the class:

The answer is yes. All C needs to do is send A an attack message, and B and D to retreat. A will receive three attack messages (from A and D), and, having three of the four generals in agreement, prepare to attack. B and D however, will receive two votes for attack (from A and/or D) and two votes for retreat (from B and C). As a reminder, the decision is to retreat in the case of ties. Therefore, come morning, general A will attack alone while B, C, and D retreat.

Next, ask the students:

With some guidance, students should come up with the solution that generals should circulate another round of messages, comparing notes to ensure that each general voted the same way in all messages. Thus, in the next round, all the generals send out the votes received by all the other generals.

Each loyal general determines the “true” vote of another general by seeing how the general voted to everyone else. So, A may write the following: (A): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack, D - Retreat; (B): A- Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat, D - Retreat; (C) A- Attack, B- Retreat C-(Attack or Retreat), D - Retreat; (D) A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat, D - Retreat.

Based on this, general A can see that generals B and D always indicates retreat, while C either indicates attack (50%) of the time, or retreat (75%) of the time. Therefore C’s vote is recorded as retreat. General A can then note one attack vote (from A) and three retreat votes (from B, C, and D), and determine that it is best to retreat.

Next ask the students:

With two traitors, it is even easier to fool A into attacking, and B into retreating. A can be sent the messages from C and D saying to attack, while sending B messages to retreat. However, the exchanging of messages does not work this time. Consider the following scenario where C and D send A the message attack, and send B the message to retreat. A will therefore write the following:

(A): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack, D - Attack; (B): A- Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat, D - Retreat; (C) A- Attack, B- Retreat C-Attack, D - Attack; (D) A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack, D - Attack.

From this set of messages, it will appear to A that C and D are indicating that they will attack (even though B correctly reports that C and D sent a message indicating that they are retreating). So, A will attack.

In contrast, B may write the following:

(A): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack, D - Attack; (B): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat, D-Retreat. (C) A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat D - Retreat, (D) A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat, D-Retreat.

In this case, B is fooled into thinking that C and D are in agreement of retreating, and will retreat. In the case of two traitors, it is impossible for them to be overcome.

Lastly, ask general D to sit down. Ask the class:

In the first round of messages, C can tell A to attack and B to retreat. In the second round however, C can forward seperate messages to A and B.

A could then write the following: (A): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack; (B): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat; (C) A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack.

In this scenario, while B correctly reports that C told them to retreat, the majority decision for C is two attacks and one retreat. So, A will interpret C’s decision as “attack”, and will attack.

Likewise, B can write the following: (A): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Attack; (B): A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat; (C) A - Attack, B - Retreat, C - Retreat.

In this case, while A correctly reports that C reported to attack, the majority of B’s messages indicate that C indicates to retreat. Therefore, B will interpret C’s decision as “retreat”, and will retreat.

Conclude with the fact that in order for loyal generals to defeat traitors, there must be at least over three times as many loyal generals as traitors (i.e. 3t +1, where t is the number of traitors). (Lloyd1994) also recommends telling students that while the above dramatization is useful for exploring the problem, formal proof methods are necessary to make the argument correctly to computer scientists.

Relating it to Distributed Computing

Each general represents a process executing on a separate distributed processor. A traitor represents an unpredictably faulty processor. The entire army represents a distributed computer system in which separate elements cooperate to achieve a task. Prime questions for discussion include:

Lastly, the instructor can guide discussions on more advanced issues related to viruses, hacking, and encryption. For example, message passing amongst generals can be used to illustrate encryption techniques. Lastly, the instructor can relate the Byzantine General problem to the construction of the block-chain.

CS2013 Knowledge Unit Coverage

Distributed Systems (Elective)

9. Give examples of problems for which consensus algorithms such as leader election are required. [Usage]

Cloud Computing (Elective)

2. Explain strategies to synchronize a common view of shared data across a collection of devices. [Familiarity]

TCPP Topics Coverage

Programming Topics

Algorithm Topics

Cross Cutting and Advanced Topics


Blind students may have issues with this activity (playing the role of generals, unless Braille (attack/retreat) cards are provided in advance for them to receive.

We don’t anticipate this study to be difficult for mobility impaired students, since they can sit in a corner of the classroom.


While formal assessment is not provided, the author reports that they “have found it to be one of the most popular topics covered” in the high school and CS1 environments (Lloyd1994).