Balatro | Developer: LocalThunk | Publisher: Playstack | Year: 2024
Expertly mixing the traditional with the unconventional, Balatro’s deckbuilding poker is a work of understated genius.
Balatro box art.


Video gaming is off to a roaring start in 2024. Palworld shattered records in January, Helldivers 2 conquered February, and one month later, Dragon’s Dogma II sold millions of copies in a matter of weeks. Wow! The month of March also brought us Balatro — an already massively popular indie game mashing together roguelikes and poker into a blend so mesmerising, it’s sure to be an awards contender later this year.

Balatro is indeed one of those special video games which is very easy to learn and just as easy to love. In this single player game (with no actual gambling), players must clear eight antes consisting of three blinds a piece. Each blind requires a steadily increasing number of chips, and players earn these by scoring poker hands whose base values are multiplied to ever greater heights by the bonuses they collect, and the enhancements they make to their deck along the way.

Players earn cash to spend at a store selling randomised booster packs full of new cards, vouchers bestowing permanent passive boosts, and game-altering jokers to eventually build entire strategies around. If you’re the sort of person who knows their flush from their full house, you’ll likely grasp the basics of discarding and assembling hands quickly, and be staring down a wealth of advanced mechanics and other cool secrets in no time.

Balatro features tense moments of mathematical card play where players must fight the random draw in search of the highest scoring hands. The joker cards remain outside of the main deck and will trigger multipliers and other helpful abilities when their conditions are met. Some jokers simply sustain your economy for the blinds yet to come, whereas rarer ones can change entire play styles with their potent synergies. In one of my earliest runs, I was gifted the “Bus” joker whose valuable multiplier continues to grow providing players never score any kings, queens, or jacks. From there the race was on for me to remove as many of those face cards from my deck as possible, whilst packing in more number cards to keep the “Bus” rolling along to victory.

The limited number of joker slots means there are agonising choices over which ones to keep and which ones to sell, and if you have a joker like “Bus” whose ability scales in response to something you do during a blind, you’ll need to constantly evaluate your play style. Do you try to win as fast as possible to earn bonus cash? Or do you risk playing suboptimal hands just to grind out a few more deck improvements? The choice isn’t always easy to make when boss blinds impose negative conditions that could hinder your chosen strategy. Players can also consider skipping a non-boss blind because doing that grants a one-time benefit “tag” (although many tags feel weak, so it’s probably not worth doing in most cases).

Jokers and regular cards can be enhanced to make them even more valuable, with the coolest enhancement being a holographic sheen granting additional multipliers. Even stronger are the special “negative” jokers which don’t count towards the usual joker limit. A single card can have several enhancements, in fact. Stamp a foiled ace with a red seal, for example, and you’ll be triggering the lucrative card multiple times for potentially huge payouts. If Balatro has one sweet mechanic you can expect future card games to copy, it’s this!

There are some abilities which are worded oddly. For instance, I had no idea what the “Egg” joker was supposed to do after first reading it, and it took me hours to realise certain consumables can’t be used from the shop screen where they’re purchased. The lack of an undo button is a bit annoying as well.

My biggest gripe with Balatro though, concerns the harder difficulty modes (or “stakes”) where the early blinds are crushingly hard if the right joker doesn’t show up within the first couple of shops. Like all roguelikes, this sort of design encourages players to keep restarting, but even then, the opening hands can feel boring until the right joker appears. The harder stakes demand players build around a strategy early, which can sometimes make this feel more like a joker building game than a deckbuilding one.

And as much as I enjoy opening Arcana and Spectral packs for their heady deck-altering effects, I practically detest opening Celestial packs whose lame “planet” cards simply level up your favoured hand type, assuming the right planet is even in there to begin with. I rarely look forward to opening Celestial packs, which makes me think this aspect of the game needs a rethink.

Nevertheless, even doomed runs can be salvaged by the subgame of collecting jokers and vouchers for your binder, and there are many unlockable starter decks and challenge runs to keep things fresh too. Just don’t expect to complete the achievements list because some of those awards have a ludicrous time investment.

Thankfully, the pre-release patch notes for the game’s first balance update promises to address some of the niggles I’ve mentioned, so it proves Balatro’s lone Canadian developer is committed to making this already fantastic game even better. Excelsior!

If nothing changed, Balatro would still be an elegantly intuitive game that is as dangerously addictive as it is chill. It’s not a flashy production — the soundtrack only has five themes! Even in pixel art though, things like the glimmering card visuals demonstrate a good understanding of the subtleties that make games like this so attractive in the first place. And that ain’t no joke!

Balatro on Steam »