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IDA-Star(IDA*) Algorithm in general



Iterative deepening A* (IDA*) is a graph traversal and path search algorithm that can find the shortest path between a designated start node and any member of a set of goal nodes in a weighted graph. It is a variant of iterative deepening depth-first search that borrows the idea to use a heuristic function to evaluate the remaining cost to get to the goal from the A* search algorithm. Since it is a depth-first search algorithm, its memory usage is lower than in A*, but unlike ordinary iterative deepening search, it concentrates on exploring the most promising nodes and thus doesn’t go to the same depth everywhere in the search tree. Unlike A*, IDA* doesn’t utilize dynamic programming and therefore often ends up exploring the same nodes many times.Source

IDA* is a memory constrained version of A*. It does everything that the A* does, it has the optimal characteristics of A* to find the shortest path but it uses less memory than A*.



  • It will always find the optimal solution provided that it exist’s and that if a heuristic is supplied it must be admissible.
  • Heuristic is not necessary, it is used to speed up the process.
  • Various heuristics can be integrated to the algorithm without changing the basic code.
  • The cost of each move can be tweaked into the algorithms as easily as the heuristic
  • Uses a lot less memory which increases linearly as it doesn’t store and forgets after it reaches a certain depth and start over again.


  • Doesn’t keep track of visited nodes and thus explores already explored nodes again.
  • Slower due to repeating the exploring of explored nodes.
  • Requires more processing power and time than A*.

Prerequisite knowledge 

There are a few thing you need to know before trying your hand on programming IDA*.

  • You need to know how to convert your problem into a graph i.e into nodes and edges.

This is most important stuff that you need to get right, so what is a graph? A graph is a representation of a set of objects where some pairs of objects are connected by links. The interconnected objects are represented by mathematical abstractions called vertices (also called nodes or points), and the links that connect some pairs of vertices are called edges (also called arcs or lines).Source.


Figure 1.

As shown in Figure 1 above. From programming point of view a node is where all your information is stored for a particular state of the problem, like current coordinates in pathfinding. The edge is nothing but the pointer to the next node which is stored in the previous node.The distance between each node is called the cost.

There are various types of graphs like cyclic graph, acyclic, directed cyclic,directed acyclic etc etc, explaining them will be off topic.

Let’s take the example of the water jug problem.In this particular example we have one 5 gallon jug and one 3 gallon jug, we have to collect 4 gallons.


Figure 2.

As you see in Figure 2 the problem is converted into a tree and as you know a tree is a special case of a Directed acyclic graph(DAG) thus IDA* can be applied here as well.

The figure is almost self explanatory still I’ll explain how it goes, so the nodes have data as the amount of water in each jug and these are further linked with each step possible from the previous node. As you see, the initial node is the start node where both the jugs are empty from here there are two possible states i.e either fill the 3 gallon jug or the 5 gallon jug, thus the two nodes linked to the start. Now if we see the LHS of the tree at depth 1 there are two possible steps i.e either pour the water from the 3 gallon jug to the 5 gallon jug or fill the 5 gallon jug which is described by the nodes.

This is a simple example of converting your problem space to a tree for implementation of IDA*.

Note: The water in jug when poured to a container with less capacity  then the extra water will not be counted. Also the jugs can be emptied as a move.

  • You need to have an admissible heuristic for the problem for optimal and faster search(Optional).

What is an admissible heuristic?

An admissible heuristic is which calculates the estimated cost to the goal state and is always lower than or equal to the actual cost of reaching the goal state i.e it never overestimates the cost to reach the goal. A consistent or monotone heuristic can also be used which means that it is admissible and it is equal to the cost to goal plus the estimated distance from each neighbor  in which case the solution will be found the fastest and the least unnecessary nodes would be generated.

Why do we need heuristics?

Heuristics are the main component of the algorithm i.e the brains of the algorithm without it the algorithm is not intelligent, heuristics give boundaries to the algorithm, as in which not to select and which to not since heuristics give the general estimate of the distance to goal node helping the algorithm to choose the optimal node in the next step.

  • You need to know or figure out the cost required to travel from one node to other.

Usually the cost is taken as 1 but it can differ according to where you want to implement it. For example a diagonal move can cost 1.41 if you are implementing it in a 2D map with each tile as a square of 1 x 1 through Pythagoras or for example if a node represents a tile containing water which slows down the movement can be valued 2 etc.

  • You need to be familiar with recursion.

Recursion in computer science is a method where the solution to a problem depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem. In recursion we call the same function within that function and thus infinite set of objects can be defined by finite statements. The reason you need to be familiar with recursion is because you need to understand the flow of program in recursive functions otherwise it will be very tough to customize and terminate the algorithm according to your convenience.


The key feature of the IDA* algorithm is that it doesn’t keep a track of each visited node which helps in saving memory consumption and can be used where memory is constrained. It is mostly similar to Iterative deepening search, the only difference is that instead of reaching same depth for every branch it decides the depth using the f score called as the ‘threshold’ which increases when a node with greater f score is reached and the algorithm starts all over again from the beginning upto to the new depth.

So we use an infinite loop which is the base the function that is called in recursion, when the function returns from the threshold it starts from the beginning through this infinite loop where the function is called initially and the threshold is increased after each return.

The threshold is not just randomly increased but it depends on what the recursive function returns as the new threshold. During the recursion whenever a node with higher f score than the threshold is reached that node is not futher explored but he f scored is noted, since we encounter many such nodes, the minimum of these f score is returned as the new threshold.

What is f score?

f score is nothing but the sum of the cost to reach that node and the heuristic value of that node.

For any give node the f score is defined as:


where g(x) is the cost of that node, h(x) is the calculated heuristic of that node and x is the current node.

What is g score(cost)?

g score is defined as the sum of g score of the parent node and the cost to travel to that node from it’s parent.


What is h score(heuristic)?

Heuristic score is different for each question as explained above heuristic needs to be admissible for each type of problem. I’ll not discuss about various heuristics here as this is just to explain general working of IDA*.

Below is the exact working of the IDA* algorithm


Here is the same animation more clearly visible than the one above.
The numbers written in the center of the nodes are f scores.
Here we are initially considering the threshold as 3 and cycling through the algorithm. In every branch we visit the depth till the f score is greater than the threshold and note down that f value, we do this till all the branches are explored upto the certain depth. Then the cycle continues from the starting node again with the new threshold value that is the minimum of the f scores we noted down. This continues until the goal is found or the time limit is exceeded.

Now that the explanation is out of the way lets come to the basic algorithm in practice.



root=initial node;
Goal=final node;
function IDA*()                                             //Driver function

(1)             //run for infinity

integer temp=search(Start,0,threshold); //function search(node,g score,threshold)
if(temp==FOUND)                                 //if goal found
         return FOUND;                                             
if(temp== ∞)                               //Threshold larger than maximum possible f value
         return;                               //or set Time limit exceeded


function Search(node, g, threshold)              //recursive function


(f>threshold)             //greater f encountered

         return f;
if(node==Goal)               //Goal node found
         return FOUND;
min=MAX_INT;     //min= Minimum integer

foreach(tempnode in nextnodes(node))

//recursive call with next node as current node for depth search
integer temp=search(tempnode,g+cost(node,tempnode),threshold);  
if(temp==FOUND)            //if goal found
return FOUND;
if(temp<min)     //find the minimum of all ‘f’ greater than threshold encountered                                min=temp;

return min;  //return the minimum ‘f’ encountered greater than threshold

function nextnodes(node)
             return list of all possible next nodes from node;

Make sure you implement this algorithm practically and read my posts on pathfinding and N-Puzzle and implement them using IDA* algorithm explained above instead of A*, everything else remains the same. Coding these will make it clearer practically on how to use IDA* for graph search and how to convert problems into graph for using this algorithm.

If you see anything wrong with the post or if you have any queries regarding the algorithm. Post them in the comment section. There can be things wrong with this as I am still a beginner on the path of learning and this is based on what I have learnt so far with examples from external sources as well. So experts, please let me know through the comments section.





  1. Brian says:

    Great article! Any ideas on how to implement this and retrieve the actual traveled path instead of just the distance between nodes?


  2. If you understood the algorithm above, you can implement it in any programming language.
    As far as the path retrieval is concerned, when within the recursion you reach the goal, you can print the node just before recursion scope ends with a condition that it is showed if goal is reached.


  3. Dylan Galea says:

    What if the graph is directed and has cycles?


  4. It works on directed cyclic graphs as well


  5. Dylan Galea says:

    however you must keep track of the visited nodes no?


  6. Not in IDA* no, that’s the whole point of IDA*, It utilizes processing power instead of memory. Thus memory used in this is very less.


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