The Genius Star inventor Aron Lazarus reveals the games that inspired him… And why creativity is all or nothing for him
Aron, you’re the inventor of two products: The Genius Star and Bee Genius… But with which sort of things did you play as a child?
I grew up as the middle brother of three, in a sport-mad family, and we were extremely competitive with each other! A typical afternoon was spent playing football in the back garden. We also enjoyed table tennis, snooker, darts and finding every way we possibly could to compete for bragging rights!
And did that include bragging rights with board games?
Yes, as a family we played a lot of games at weekends. Our favourites at the time included Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and Game of Life.
All classics! What was it about them you enjoyed, specifically?
We just loved the thrill of competition and the banter that inevitably ensued! And now the three of us are in our 40s and I can honestly say we’re just as competitive – and childish – as ever. As long as things remain kind-spirited, I’m a big believer that a competitive nature can only help drive an individual to be the best they can be.
Fingers crossed! You came to my attention because of The Genius Star. For those that don’t know it, how would you describe it?
The Genius Star is a challenging logic puzzle! It involves racing to be the first to completely fill a star-shaped board using 11 coloured wooden pieces… All of which are comprised of a combination of small triangles. The challenge is different every time you play because you start by rolling seven dice. These determine the location of seven ‘blocker’ pieces, which create a unique starting position. From there, you need to complete the board. You can play as solitaire challenge, or with two players racing against each other.
My understanding is that there are thousands and thousands of unique challenges in the game… Where on earth do you start working out how to put something like this together?
Yes, there are 165,888 different ways the dice can fall. I viewed it as essential that every possible puzzle could be solved in at least one way… That proved to be a far more ambitious condition than I’d ever anticipated due to the unusual and irregular shapes of both the board and the various coloured pieces.
So how long did it take? To crack the mathematics, I mean…
It actually took me around three months to find a way to configure the seven dice so that every rolled combination produces a solvable puzzle. We even had a computer program written to test each of the 165,888 puzzles – just in case.
The game is a follow-up to an earlier product, The Genius Square. How did you start working on it?
From the moment I first played The Genius Square, I realised it was one of the cleverest, simplest and most original game ideas I’d ever seen. It’s so rare to find a game where people of all ages can genuinely compete against each other as equals. The fact that there are not just 40 or 60 different puzzles to solve but actually well over 60,000 – all of which have at least one correct solution – is what made it a truly ‘genius’ game in my eyes.
I’m with you there. I love The Genius Square; it’s one of the few games I ever actually win! And the more I play, the more the logic beds in, I think…
Exactly. If there’s one criticism I’ve heard people level at The Genius Square, though, it’s that it might even become quite easy for experienced players after a while, especially playing solo. It was this that motivated me to design an even-more challenging follow-up, which turned out to be The Genius Star.
And in what way are they different? Apart from the shape, I mean!
While a typical game of The Genius Square takes around a minute to play, The Genius Star might take three to four minutes, or maybe more to solve. It also features a brand new optional element, The Golden Star, for those who want to take the challenge up yet another level.
What does The Golden Star do?
Two of the wooden pieces feature half an image of a Golden Star. When you place them side by side, they create a complete star shape. If you can find a solution to your puzzle that includes the complete Golden Star, you score a double win! The twist is that while you can solve every puzzle in the regular way, you can only solve around 58% of the puzzles with the Golden Star intact. So you have to think carefully before attempting to complete the puzzle that way because sometime it just won’t be possible!
Got it! I absolutely love the sound of this; this I’ve got to try! You’re also the inventor of Bee Genius. Tell me about that…
The Genius Star was my first game invention and I enjoyed working on it so much that I immediately wanted to create another. Bee Genius is, perhaps, the opposite of The Genius Star. While it follows the same style of gameplay, this time it’s easier, aimed at children as young as three.
Interesting. My first instinct is that three sounds quite young! But then, I figure kids start sorting shapes much younger than that so maybe not…
My youngest child was four years old at the time and I very much created Bee Genius with him in mind. The bee theme makes the game more appealing to younger players, and I decided to make it a non-competitive, single-player game. That way, young players can focus on developing confidence in their problem solving and thinking skills, rather than worrying about winning or losing.
Got it. Makes absolute sense. And did your son enjoy it?!
The day I watched my four-year-old play the real game for the first time was one of the proudest of my life. The visible sense of accomplishment that he feels after completing a puzzle by himself is just priceless.
Billy Langsworthy is the same way… His little face just lights up! And generally speaking, then, what’s your creative process? When you have an idea, how do you go from a not-quite notion to a concrete concept?!
One thing I’ve learned is that what seems like a great idea on paper isn’t always a viable idea in practice. So, before I’ve finished mapping out an idea conceptually, I usually build a very crude initial prototype, often out of whatever odds and ends I can find in my children’s playroom, and get people playing with it.
A low-cost model – but one that works?
Right… Because creators tend to be heavily emotionally invested in their ideas, which can make it very hard to think objectively about them. It’s important to have a trusted and knowledgeable circle of people around you who can give you honest and constructive feedback about what works and what doesn’t, which ideas need to be tweaked and, occasionally, which ones need to be binned completely.
Right. So the prototype – at the very least – informs you how enjoyable the game might be.
Yes – and once I’m convinced I’ve got the workings of a game people will enjoy, I’ll return to the drawing board to add the finishing touches and details that can turn a good game into a great gaming experience.
I’m curious, then: what kind of games inspire you now?
There are a few games that literally blew me away the first time I played them. Dobble, Catan and, honestly – even before it had it’s proper name, The Genius Square! They all left me saying “Wow, that is a special game.” The thought of creating a game that could elicit a reaction like that is what motivates me to take the extra time to ensure that every detail is as strong as it could possibly be.
And in your experience, what stops you being creative?
I’m very much an ‘all or nothing’ type of person when it comes to being motivated to create. Unless an idea really excites me, I often find it hard to engage at all. I’m not someone blessed with the ability to sit down at a desk and create something from nothing.
Interesting. Why is that, do you think?
I’m too easily distracted and prone to procrastination! So instead, I wait for something to spark an idea organically, which can happen at the most random and impractical times. I have an app on my phone where I store ideas that appear at inconvenient moments in time, to ensure I don’t forget them!
When an idea does occur organically then, what’s your process?
When an idea truly grabs my interest and gets me excited, the challenge becomes less about what might prevent me from being creative and more about remembering the need to stop my creativity coming at the expense of life’s other essential activities, such as sleeping and eating!
For example, I remember clearly the day that I had the initial idea for The Genius Star. I sat down at my desk at 8.30pm and started excitedly developing the design… Any sense of the passage of time quickly disappeared and I worked intensely for several hours until I was jolted out of my state of hyper-focus by the sound of birds singing outside the window!
Brilliant. So Aron, what’s next for you?
Well, you may not be aware that I’m not an inventor by profession and it’s been very much something I’ve done ‘on the side’ until now. In fact, I have two other jobs that keep me very busy and limit the amount of time I have to dedicate towards designing new games.
What else do you do?
My main job is actually as the Director of International Sales for The Happy Puzzle Company. Since joining the company just over ten years ago, I’ve been focused on launching and developing the international sales department, seeking international distribution partners for the company’s unique range of thinking games. Happily, for the past 18 months, that’s included two of my own inventions! Things are growing very nicely and our games can now be found, at the last count, in 33 different countries around the world.
And did you say you had a second job? Because that sounds like quite enough!
Yes! Well, on the weekends and occasional evenings I work as an ADHD coach, helping individuals and families of all ages to understand the ways in which an ADHD brain works and behaves differently… And then incorporate that knowledge and understanding into their plans and strategies to help them overcome whatever obstacles are holding them back from reaching their goals.
Wow. That’s amazing! Must be very rewarding…
I’m also married with four children and a puppy so, as you can imagine, there is little time remaining in my week to dedicate towards new game ideas… Or anything else for that matter. However, I’ve been truly energised and inspired by the reactions my two games have received, including being named as The Rising Star Inventor of the Year at the TAGIE awards in November. I definitely intend to return to game design when the time is right, which will most likely be the next time an idea comes along that is too exciting not to run with!
Excellent! Well, thank you for your time Aron; this has been a fascinating insight into some games I really admire and respect so… Final question, then: what’s the most interesting thing in your office or on your desk.
Since becoming certified as an ADHD coach in 2016, I unwittingly started an ever-expanding collection of interesting and unusual fidget toys. My collection now numbers over 100 and at any point in time, you can be sure to find a little selection of spinny, stretchy, clicky or squishy devices and contraptions dotted around my desk!