Marlowe Language Guide

Marlowe is designed to create the building blocks of financial contracts: payments to and deposits from participants, choices by participants, and real world information.

Marlowe is a small language, with a handful of different constructs that, for each contract, describe behaviour involving a fixed, finite set of roles. When a contract is run, the roles it involves are fulfilled by participants, which are identities on the blockchain. Each role is represented by a token on the chain and roles can be transferred during contract execution, meaning that they can essentially be traded.

Contracts can be built by putting together a small number of these constructs that in combination can be used to describe and model many different kinds of financial contracts. Some examples include a running contract that can make a payment to a role or to a public key, a contract that can wait for an action by one of the roles, such as a deposit of currency, or a choice from a set of options. See the Sample Escrow Contract below.

Crucially, a contract cannot wait indefinitely for an action: if no action has been initiated by a given time (the timeout), then the contract will continue with an alternative behavior, for example, take a remedial action like refunding any funds in the contract.

Marlowe contracts can branch based on alternatives and have a finite lifetime, at the end of which any remaining money is returned to the participants. This feature means that money cannot be forever locked in a contract. Depending on the current state of a contract, it may make a choice between two alternative future courses of action, which are themselves contracts. When no further actions are required, the contract will close, and any remaining currency in the contract will be refunded.

Using Haskell Types

Haskell types are used to represent the various components of the contract, including accountsvaluesobservations, and actions. These Marlowe elements are used to supply external information and inputs to a running contract to control how it will evolve.

In modelling basic parts of Marlowe a combination of Haskell data types are used, that define new types, and type synonyms that give a new name to an existing type.

In addition to writing contracts in the textual version of Marlowe, you can also use one of the following visual programming environments:

  1. Using Blockly
  2. Using JavaScript
  3. Using Haskell


What does a Marlowe contract look like?

A contract is built in Marlowe by combining a small number of building blocks to describe many different kinds of financial contracts, like making a payment, making an observation, waiting until a certain condition becomes true, and so on. The contract is then run on a blockchain, like Cardano, and interacts with the outside world.

Marlowe itself is embedded in Haskell and is modelled as a collection of algebraic data types in Haskell, with contracts defined by the Contract type:

data Contract = Close

              | Pay Party Payee Token Value Contract

              | If Observation Contract Contract

              | When [Case] Timeout Contract

              | Let ValueId Value Contract

              | Assert Observation Contract

Marlowe has six ways of building contracts. Five of these methods – PayLetIfWhen, and Assert – build a complex contract from simpler contracts, and the fifth method, Close, is a simple contract. At each step of execution, as well as returning a new state and continuation contract, it is possible that effects – payments – and warnings can also be generated.


A payment contract Pay a p t v cont will make a payment of value v of token t from the account a to a payee p, which will be one of the contract participants or another account in the contract. Warnings will be generated if the value v is not positive, or if there is not enough in the account to make the payment in full (even if there are positive balances of other tokens in the account). In the latter case, a partial payment (of all the money available) is made. The continuation contract is the one given in the contract: cont.


A contract Close provides for the contract to be closed (or terminated). The only action that it performs is to provide refunds to the owners of accounts that contain a positive balance. This is performed one account per step, but all accounts will be refunded in a single transaction.

Before moving onto other forms of contracts, we need to outline valuesobservations, and actions:

  • Values - include quantities that change with time, including “the current slot interval”, “the current balance of some token in an account”, and any choices that have already been made (volatile values). Values can also be combined using addition, subtraction and negation, and can be conditional on an observation.
  • Observations - are boolean values derived by comparing values, and can be combined using the standard boolean operators. It is also possible to observe whether any choice has been made (for a particular identified choice). Observations will have a value at every step of execution.
  • Actions - happen at particular points during execution, for example:
    • depositing money
    • making a choice between various alternatives, including an oracle value
    • notifying the contract about an observation that became true
  • Oracles - are being developed for Cardano blockchain, and will be available for use within Marlowe on Cardano. Until then we have introduced an oracle prototype, which is implemented in the Marlowe Playground. We model oracles as choices that are made by a participant with a specific Oracle role, “kraken”.


The conditional If obs cont1 cont2 will continue as cont1 or cont2, depending on the boolean value of the observation obs when this construct is executed.


This is the most complex constructor for contracts, with the form When cases timeout cont. It is a contract that is triggered on actions, which may or may not happen at any particular slot: what happens when various actions happen is described by the cases in the contract.

In the contract When cases timeout cont, the list cases contains a collection of cases. Each case has the form Case ac co where ac is an action and co a continuation (another contract). When a particular action, for example, ac, happens, the state is updated accordingly and the contract will continue as the corresponding continuation co.

In order to make sure that the contract makes progress eventually, the contract When cases timeout cont will continue as cont once the timeout, a slot number, is reached.


A let contract Let id val cont allows a contract to record a value, in a particular point in time, and give it a name using an identifier. In this case, the expression val is evaluated, and stored with the name id. The contract then continues as cont.

As well as allowing us to use abbreviations, this mechanism also means that we can capture and save volatile values that might be changing with time, e.g. the current price of oil, or the current slot number, at a particular point in the execution of the contract, to be used later on in contract execution.


An assert contract Assert obs cont does not have any effect on the state of the contract, it immediately continues as cont, but it issues a warning when the Observation obs is false. It can be used to ensure that a property holds in any given point of the contract, since static analysis will fail if any execution causes an assert to be false.

Sample Escrow Contract

Suppose that alice wants to buy a cat from bob, but neither of them trusts the other. Fortunately, they have a mutual friend carol whom they both trust to be neutral (but not enough to give her the money and act as an intermediary). They therefore agree on the following contract, written using simple functional pseudocode. This kind of contract is a simple example of escrow:

 When aliceChoice

      (When bobChoice

            (If (aliceChosen 'ValueEQ' bobChosen)



The contract is described using the constructors of a Haskell data type. The outermost constructor When has two arguments: the first is an observation and the second is another contract. The intended meaning of this is that when the action happens, the second contract is activated.

The second contract is itself another When – asking for a decision from bob – but inside that, there is a choice: If alice and bob agree on what to do, it is done; if not, carol is asked to arbitrate and make a decision.

In general, When offers a list of cases, each with an action and a corresponding contract that is triggered when that action happens. Using this we can allow for the option of bob making the first choice, rather than alice, like this:

 When [ Case aliceChoice

              (When [ Case bobChoice

                          (If (aliceChosen 'ValueEQ' bobChosen)


                             arbitrate) ],


        Case bobChoice

              (When [ Case aliceChoice

                           (If (aliceChosen 'ValueEQ' bobChosen)


                              arbitrate) ],


In this contract, either Alice or Bob can make the first choice; the other thens makes a choice. If they agree, then that is done; if not, Carol arbitrates.

Escrow in Marlowe

Marlowe contracts incorporate extra constructs to ensure that they progress properly. Each time we see a When, we need to provide two additional things:

  • timeout after which the contract will progress, and
  • the continuation contract to which it progresses

Using Timeouts

Timeouts are used where the condition of the When never becomes true. So, timeout and continuation values are added to each When occurring in the contract:

 When [ Case aliceChoice

              (When [ Case bobChoice

                          (If (aliceChosen 'ValueEQ' bobChosen)


                             arbitrate) ],

                    60              -- ADDED

                    arbitrate       -- ADDED


        40          -- ADDED

        Close       -- ADDED

The outermost When calls for the first choice to be made by Alice: if Alice has not made a choice by slot 40, the contract is closed and all the funds in the contract are refunded.

Marlowe Accounts and Token Usage

A Marlowe Account holds amounts of multiple currencies and/or fungible and non-fungible tokens. A concrete amount is indexed by a Token, which is a pair of CurrencySymbol and TokenName. You can think of an Account as a Map Token Integer, where: data Token = Token CurrencySymbol TokenName

The ada token of Cardano is represented as Token adaSymbol adaToken, however, you can create your own currencies and tokens.



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