Balatro
Image via Playstack

Balatro is a deckbuilding, rule-breaking poker game I can’t get enough of

You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

I realized a long time ago I was probably never going to be good at poker. It’s not that I’m bad at assessing risk; worse, I just don’t care. When I used to play casual games in-between classes in school, I’d go all-in on bad hands. I’d swap cards for a flush that probably wouldn’t show up. So imagine my surprise when Balatro, a deckbuilding poker roguelite, asked me to lean into those bad habits.

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Developed by LocalThunk and published by Playstack, Balatro made a bit of a splash during the recent Steam Next Fest. So when people started talking it up in the full release on February 20, I had a feeling I should put this on what I call my “temperature check” radar: dip a toe in, play a few rounds, and see if the hype is real. So I booted it up, expecting a bit of card-counting fun.

The Balatro UI, showing the score information in a vertical bar on the left and poker cards centered
Image via Playstack

Hours passed. I was still sitting there. I’d just lost a run to a bad discard, but I was so close; I’d made it to a high ante! Next one’s a winner, for sure. To be clear, this is not a gambling game; no real money is being exchanged. Balatro‘s poker is all about scoring, where you play poker hands from a deck. It has as much in common with the likes of euchre or cribbage, in my eyes, as it does the game it draws its scoring rubric from.

Each round, you can take on a blind and try to beat a score. Draw cards, then play the best poker hand you can. Score is determined by the numerical value of cards (chips) and the multiplier a combination offers. To make this simple for now, a pair won’t get you many points, but a flush or a straight will see your score climb high.

What gets interesting is that the deck is highly modifiable. You start with a basic deck of 52, with a normal allocation. Shops let you start to modify this, though. Some of these are simple: add a card, like a 5 of Clubs, to the deck, or make a card accrue more chips. But they can get weirder, oh so much weirder.

Balatro Fibonacci, center menu reads "+4 Mult for every Ace, 2, 3, 5, or 8 when plalyed," and noting it's uncommon
Image via Playstack

On an early run, I thought I was brilliant: what’s better than four-of-a-kind? With four discards to play with, and enough hands, I could mill through cards until I got a four-of-a-kind and handily clear whatever number they put in front of me. It worked really well at first, and I climbed up through the Antes—tiers of progression, in Balatro terms—just milling through and dropping four-of-a-kind.

But soon, the boss blinds started to throw wrenches at me. Some made all cards of a single suit not count, and another demanded I play five cards every time I tried to score a hand. The rule that did me in? One fewer card in-hand. That’s it. A meager restriction, but when my entire plan was built around milling a deck, that probability meant a lot.

Balatro's "Must play 5 cards" screen, with a poker hand of Aces, one King, and several other numbered-cards
Image via Playstack

And that’s why I brought up my penchant for bad risk assessment, because Balatro encourages the player to really try and optimize a deck for the most cheater-riffic poker hands you can make. I’ve tried to convert an entire fistful of cards into one suit; I’ve grabbed cards that can delete other ones, narrowing the possibility of what I can draw to only what I want to draw.

The allure of Balatro means I could always have a better deck, though. Keep a card marked with a blue seal in my hand at the end of the round, and it’ll spawn a Planet, which will randomly upgrade the multipliers of the kinds of poker hands I can score. I’ve barely touched on the Jokers, which are wild cards with even wilder effects. My favorite would boost my multiplier every time I discarded cards of a certain suit; as someone who loves to mill through his deck looking for one card, it enabled those bad habits quite well.

All of this is presented in a throwback, almost pseudo-video poker presentation. I say this genuinely: I would play a Balatro machine. Granted, I know most games of chance are meant to part me from my hard-earned cash, and even in Balatro, the house wins more often than not.

Similar to how Dicey Dungeons expands the idea of dice-rolling games out into an entire roguelite, Balatro simply and effectively turns poker into an absolutely splendid deckbuilder. I might not be clever enough to take on poker pros at a table in Vegas, but I’d much rather lose hours of my impending weekend to Balatro.

You can find Balatro on Steam here.


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Author
Eric Van Allen
Senior Editor - While Eric's been writing about games since 2014, he's been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.