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Backtracking and Recursion

Vibhor Bhatnagar
Last Updated: Jan 17, 2023


Hello ninjas. In this blog, we will discuss the concepts of backtracking and recursion and will also see the contrast between them. Recursion and backtracking are two of the most crucial algorithms and techniques for solving various problems. 

Backtracking and Recursion

Recursion can massively reduce the length and complexities of our code and is a more optimal approach against iteration. All sorts of tree and graph traversals and the famous Euclid's GCD(Greatest Common Divisor) can be efficiently done using recursion.

Backtracking is a technique which involves recursively finding solutions to a problem. It undoes the recursive changes if conditions are not met while discarding the less optimal ones to arrive at the best solution. It is a way more efficient technique than brute force. Though exponential in time complexity, backtracking is a fascinating approach that can easily solve the most complex problems of N-Queen and TSP(Travelling salesman problem).

Now, let's learn more about these techniques and conclude their differences.

What is Recursion  

Recursion is a phenomenon in computer science where a particular algorithm is repeated until it reaches its base case. In other words, when a function calls itself, it's called recursion.

It would be a lot simpler for the ones who have seen the movie Inception to understand the concept of recursion. As seen in the movie, Leonardo ambiguously has a dream. The character then has a dream inside the dream and has yet another dream, and this chain continues. 

This can be theorised by taking a function dream() and repeatedly calling itself to eternity.

void dream()
    cout << "Dream inside a dream" << endl;

Recursion follows a similar concept of a function repeatedly calling itself until it arrives at the base case.


Recursion is used in solving problems that can break into smaller sub-problems of a similar kind. Let's take a simple example to understand how recursion functions. Let us find the factorial of a number.

Implementation in C++

using namespace std;
int factorial(int x) {

    // Base Case
    if (x == 0)
        return 1;
    // Recursively calling the function
    return x * factorial(x - 1);

// Driver Code
int main() {
    int n;
    cout<<"Enter the number: ";
    cout<<"Factorial of the number= "<<factorial(n);
    return 0;


output of recursion


The flow chart shows how recursion works for factorial(4):

flowchart for factorial

Base Case

Every recursive function has a terminating condition called the base case. The base case condition is the one for which the answer is already known, we know the answer for that condition, and we need to return it. 

So here, in this problem, we know that factorial(0) = 1, so when x is equal to zero, we return one. 

Else we break into smaller sub-problem, i.e., factorial(x-1). 

If we don't include the base case, the function will keep calling itself and never end.

Time Complexity

For the base, the time complexity, i.e., the time complexity f(0), is 1, which can be computed in 1 unit of time because there is only one comparison. 

Still, in the general case for factorial(n), there is only one comparison and, one multiplication, one subtraction. Therefore, the time complexity can be computed in 3 units of time.

So the recurrence relation can be written as:

T(n) = 1  {where, n=0}


T(n) = T(n-1) + 3

        = T(n-2) + 6

        = T(n-3) + 9

        = ….. 

       = T(n-k) + 3k

Substitution method:

If k=n, then, 

T(n) = T(0) + 3n, (as, k=n)

        = 1 + 3n

Therefore, the time complexity is O(n).

Space Complexity

For every call in the recursive function, the call is saved in the program stack till the value is computed and returned to the function.

f(5) → f(4) → f(3) → f(2) → f(1) → f(0)

f(5) → f(4) → f(3) → f(2) → f(1)

f(5) → f(4) → f(3) → f(2)

f(5) → f(4) → f(3)

f(5) → f(4)


As you can see from the above picturisation, the f(5) will require a stack of size five to store all the calls from 5 to 1. 

Since n calls will be stored at max in the stack, the space complexity would be O(n). 

What is Backtracking

Backtracking is a technique which involves recursively finding solutions to a problem. It undoes the recursive changes if conditions are not met while discarding the less optimal ones to arrive at the best solution. 

We break the problem down into smaller sub-problems. We check if that solution does or does not fulfill our needs, backtrack to our main problem, and check for other smaller sub-problems. We solve every problem, one piece at a time and discard the solutions that do not satisfy the problem's constraints.


Let's understand backtracking with an example. 

N-Queen’s Problem: We are given a chessboard of size NxN, and we need to place N queens so that no queen attacks the other queens. Queen can attack in three directions: vertical, horizontal and diagonal.

Backtracking Approach

We will place queens in different columns one by one, starting from the leftmost column. After placing a queen in a column, we will check if any previously placed queen is clashing with this queen. 

If we find any row in the current column with no clash, we will place the queen there and mark this row and column. 

If we do not find any row in a particular column where a queen can be placed, then the solution does not exist for this chessboard of size N, and we will backtrack and return false.


  1. We will start with the leftmost column.
  2. If all queens get placed, we will return true.
  3. We will try all the rows in the current column one by one.
    • If the queen is safe on this row, mark this row and column in the solution, and then check if placing a queen here will lead to a solution.
    • If placing a queen on this cell leads to a solution, we will return true.
    • If placing a queen on this cell does not lead to a solution, we will unmark this cell (backtrack) and repeat the first step.
  4. If all rows have been checked and we didn't find any solution, we will return false to the primary function.

Dry Run

The following illustrations will help you understand the working of the algorithm in a 4×4 Chessboard.

  • We place the queen in the leftmost column of our chessboard.
first queen at {1, 1}
  • Now, we will place the second queen in the second column without being attacked by the previously placed queen.
second queen at {3, 2}
  • Now, we will place the third queen without being attacked by the previously placed queens. As one will realise, placing the third queen is impossible. Hence, we will backtrack to replace the second queen.
second queen at {4, 2}
  • We will now place the third queen in the second row of the third column.
third queen at {2, 3}
  • Now, we will place the fourth queen without being attacked by the previously placed queens. Once again, it is not possible to place the queen safely. Hence, we will now backtrack to replace the first queen. We will place the first queen in the second row of the first column.
first queen at {2, 1}
  • Now, we will place the second queen in the safe row of the second column.
second queen at {4, 2]
  • Similarly, let’s place the third and fourth queens in the third and fourth columns, respectively.
third queen at {1, 3}
fourth queen at {3, 4}
  • This is our final result.

Implementation in C++

#include <bits/stdc++.h>
using namespace std;

    This function will check if the queen will clash
    with any previously placed queens in any
    row or column.
bool notClash(int board[][4], int row, int column)
    int i, j;
        To check the left column
    for (i = 0; i < column; i++)
        if (board[row][i] != 0)
            return false;
        To check the upper left diagonal
    i = row, j = column;
    while(i >= 0 && j >= 0){
        if (board[i][j] != 0)
            return false;
        To check the lower diagonal of the left side
    i = row, j = column;
    while(i <4 && j >= 0){
        if (board[i][j] != 0)
            return false;
        If the queen does not clashes with any
        previously placed queens
    return true;

    This function will solve the N-Queen Problem
bool solve(int board[][4], int column)
    // Base case
    if (column >= 4)
        return true;

        We will need to check every row of every column
        one at a time.
    for (int i = 0; i < 4; i++)
        Now, we will use notClash() function
        to check if the queen can be placed on board[i][column]
        without clashing with any other queen.
        if (notClash(board, i, column))
            // Place the queen on board[i][column]
            board[i][column] = 1;

                Now we will perform recursion and call the 
                function again to solve for the rest of 
                the queens.
            if (solve(board, column + 1))
                return true;

                If placing a queen on this co-ordinate
                does not lead to a solution then
                remove the queen from this co-ordinate
                and backtrack to the previous column.
            board[i][column] = 0;

    // If the queen is impossible to be placed
    return false;

// Driver code
int main()
    int board[4][4] = {{0, 0, 0, 0},
                       {0, 0, 0, 0},
                       {0, 0, 0, 0},
                       {0, 0, 0, 0}};

        If this function returns false then 
        the solution does not exist.
    if (solve(board, 0) == false)
        cout << "Queens cannot be placed";
            If the queen is placed on any cell
            then that cell would have a value of 1.
        for (int i = 0; i < 4; i++)
            for (int j = 0; j < 4; j++)
                cout << board[i][j] << " ";
            cout << endl;


output of backtracking


For N=4, the output can also be visualised as 

visualisation of n-queen 1

This is similar to the output received from our code, which is visualised as: 

visualisation of n-queen 2

Time Complexity

The time complexity of the N-Queen problem is ‘O(n^2)’. As we have only two choices for each queen, i.e., we can either place or not place it at a certain position.

Space Complexity

The space complexity of the N-Queen problem is ‘O(n^2)’, where ‘n’ denotes the number of queens. This is due to the usage of a 2-D array which will have a linear space due to the recursion.

Difference between Recursion and Backtracking

Sl. No.RecursionBacktracking
1.Backtracking is only sometimes required to do recursion. Recursion is always necessary to do backtracking.
2.It is comparatively more straightforward.It is comparatively more complex.
3.Recursion involves a function repeatedly calling itself until it arrives at the base solution.Backtracking involves finding solutions one at a time and discarding the less optimal ones at every step.
4.Applications include, Graph and tree traversals like DFS, Postorder, preorder and merge sort, quick sort etc.Applications include complex problems like N-Queen, Rat-in-a-maze, Travelling Salesman and graph colouring.


Frequently Asked Questions

What do you understand by space complexity?

The space complexity of a program can be defined as the total space taken in the memory by the algorithm with respect to its input.

How can we calculate the time complexity of a program?

An algorithm's time complexity can be computed using substitution or recursive tree methods.

What is an application of recursion?

Many well-known sorting algorithms (Quick sort, Merge sort, etc.) use recursion.

What is one application of backtracking?

The travelling salesman problem is a salesman wants to travel all the cities on a map only once. He must find the optimal path to reach every town before crossing a city twice.

What is the time complexity of Backtracking problems?

The backtracking problems generally have an exponential time complexity of ‘O(k^n)’, where ‘k’ is the number of times the function calls itself and n is the time spent doing the work on each function.


In this article, we discussed both backtracking and recursion. We hope you have gained some knowledge about backtracking and recursion.

You can refer to this to learn more about backtracking and recursion.

  1. Backtracking
  2. Recursion

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