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'Balatro' reinvents poker by forcing you to cheat

Balatro screenshot headerImage: Michael Crider/Foundry

Both roguelikes and deck-builders are all the rage in indie PC games right now, but I find it hard to engage with both genres. Aside from dalliances with smash hits like Hades and Hearthstone, they simply haven’t clicked with me, either being too dense or too capriciously randomized. Indie darling of the moment Balatro managed to break through my reticence. First by being approachable, basing its mechanics on well-known poker hands with a standard 52-card deck. And second, by letting me completely break those mechanics.

Balatro (Latin for fool or joker) looks complicated upon first glance, with its pixelated interface stuffed with numbers and multipliers. But its actual play is relatively simple. You start off with eight cards, and your goal is to build the best poker hand you can. You get four hands to reach the point goal of the current round, and three chances to discard up to five cards and get fresh ones from a static deck. In pure poker terms, it’s eight card draw with four rounds, but only one player.

On the first two rounds it’s easy enough to hit the point goals if you’ve ever played a casual game with friends. Three of a kind, full house, straight, flush — you know how it goes. With only point goals and no opponents playing, real or simulated, it seems like a pure exercise in odds and choices a la Solitaire. There’s no one to bluff or bully, no dealer’s hand to beat. Here’s where the subtle genius of the game comes into play. After each round you get the chance to use your winnings to buy cards that power up your hand, modify the cards in your deck, or make certain hands worth more.

Joker cards are permanent stat boosters that don’t take up a place in your hand. Take the familiar feeling of being one card short of a straight or a flush. Every poker player has been missing, say, the nine in a king-queen-jack-ten-nine straight. With the right joker card, your straights and flushes only need four cards to score instead of five. Suddenly you’re playing with widely expanded options. Throw in another joker that boosts the score multiplier for a straight, and you’re looking for that four-card combo in every single hand.

Other cards you can find in the shop between rounds modify the rules in different ways. Planet cards upgrade the scoring power of particular hands. So if you find enough of the Mercury card, a measly pair of twos can score more than a full house. Tarot cards modify your deck in such wild ways that you can apply them immediately, or wait for a tight spot and use them as a proverbial ace in the hole. Say you need a high hand to beat a particularly big score target, and you’re out of chances to swap cards in your deck. The right tarot card can instantly (and permanently) change three cards from clubs to diamonds, changing a handful of nothing into a clutch flush.

Balatro can get shockingly hard very quickly. Every third round is a “boss,” applying a tricky modifier to your game that might be anything from a mild nuisance to a crushing handicap. For example, I built one run around a joker modifier that scored every single card like a face card, boosting scores on every hand. Whelp, the boss’s power was to nullify face cards…instantly destroying the score multiplier for every single card in my deck. I was forced to sell the joker to disable it, and kneecap my own strategy to keep the run alive.

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The most successful runs are built around specific hands, like my straight example above. A combination of joker card modifiers might 1) make straights score with gaps, like ace-king-jack-nine-ten, 2) give an extra score multiplier for straights, 3) offer an extra card in your hand to make straights easier to find, 4) give you an extra chance to discard and pull cards from your deck in each round, and 5) give an extra multiplier boost every time you play your most-played hand that game (which will be straights, naturally). With these modifiers, finding a straight isn’t just easy, it’s almost inevitable on every hand. At that point the goal is simply to scour the shop at the end of each round for the Saturn card that boosts the score power of straights. With the right power-ups, I made straights score ten times as much as a four of a kind, and giggled like a toddler as I won each round with a single hand.

In typical roguelike fashion, the more you play, the more options you unlock. Specific goals (like getting a royal flush, “natural” or otherwise) will unlock new jokers and other power-ups that can be used on future runs. The result is that even short, unsuccessful games don’t feel like time wasted, as your total stats go up and inevitably work towards more variable games to come. A game might last ten minutes or an hour, but at the end you’ll be itching for another one.

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Balatro indulges in a few of my indie game pet peeves, like unnecessarily pixelated graphics and faux CRT effects. After poring over the gorgeous art for cards in Hearthstone I can’t help but wonder why I have to squint at some of the creative joker and tarot images here. It probably isn’t fair to compare an indie game’s visuals to a game from Blizzard (which Microsoft bought for approximately seventy Instagrams). But what can I say, I’m just that sick of every game being blocky for no reason other than it seems to be visual shorthand for indie. The synthy jazz-funk music is more tolerable, melding with the lava lamp background and helping you get into a flow state hunting for your ideal hands and power-ups.

But these are minor quibbles for an excellent game, deserving of its top spot on the Steam sales charts. Unlike some other recent hits you don’t need high-end gaming PC to run it, and at $15 it’s light on your wallet, too. Balatro is one of those immensely satisfying, simple setup-to-deep patterns games that makes me glad that it isn’t available on my phone…because if it was, I’d never stop playing it. It is available on the PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch, if that’s how you roll.

Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

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