I’ve never really found myself attracted to deck builder style games which seems antithetical to my real life history with TCGs. I still remember getting my first deck of Magic the Gathering cards many moons ago from a school friend of mine which was quickly added to my various other TCGs I had including NBA basketball and Pokemon cards. I was, however, mostly in it for the collecting rather than playing, the number of games I’d played of MTG or Pokemon being counted on two hands until much later in my life. Perhaps that’s why I’d originally let Balatro and it’s like slide by me, the notion of collecting digital artefacts simply not scratching that same itch that their physical brethren do. However after sitting on Discord with a couple of mates who’ve collectively got hundreds of hours into it I was compelled to give it a go.

Balatro’s premise is simple: you’re up against a blind of a set number of chips that you have to beat by scoring poker hands. You have a limited number of hands in which to do so, but you have a number of mechanics at your disposal to hit those numbers. More difficult hands net more chips and a higher multiplier, as you’d expect, but the real juice comes from the game’s core mechanic: the jokers. These cards, which can be purchased from the shop that you visit in between blinds, have a sweeping array of different mechanics that can amplify the score of your hand, ranging from the mundane to the absolutely bonkers. Interactions between each of those jokers aren’t limited either, allowing you to create some seriously incredible hands. There’s also a bunch of ancillary mechanics that, again, help you pump up those rookie numbers to something respectable. Balatro is one of those games where seemingly simple rules produce incredibly complex behaviour.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate but Balatro’s visuals reminded me of Hotline Miami with the same kind of pixel-art stylings right down to the gentle swaying animations. There’s been a lot of attention given to the game’s soundscape as well with the gentle lo-fi tracks providing a great background for the foley work of cards flipping out, coins dropping and all sorts of other foley work done to tickle your dopamine centers continually. Your visuals might look slightly different to mine as, after watching my mates play, I opted to switch into high contrast mode right from the get go just to make things a little easier on the eyes.

The game’s initial challenge to you is simple: beat 8 ante’s which are essentially 3 rounds of increasing difficulty. Initially you’re limited to a single type of deck (one that provides you with 1 more discard) and the pool of jokers you can draw from is limited. As you progress through your runs though you’ll start to unlock more decks and jokers, giving you more options for beating the initial 8 antes. The real game that many seem to be playing though comes after that where you go far beyond what the game initially asks of you to instead try and make the biggest possible hand you can. This has driven people to make some absolutely bonkers combos that push numbers that are simply too big for the human brain to really comprehend.

Played in its normal form Balatro is a pretty casual affair, one focusing mainly on doing the best with what RNGesus has blessed you with that particular run. I had one run that basically centred on playing a single High Card hand that got me from ante 4 through to the end without having to change any of my build. Others were more interesting, like one where I was simply juicing a couple x mult jokers by adding an insane number of cards to my deck. Once you’ve got a good feel for what works and what doesn’t winning any particular run isn’t too difficult, even if you seem to only scrape by the seat of your pants pretty often.

I have since come to realise that the kind of Balatro I’ve been playing and the one that the rest of the world (or seemingly everyone on Reddit) is are completely different beasts. Whilst this is a Roguelike in every sense of the word there’s enough mechanics at your disposal to really tame RNGesus to the point where he doesn’t seem to matter as you might first think. There are, of course, preferred decks and jokers for achieving those sky high numbers but if the amount of effort dedicated to optimising seeded runs is anything to go by it’s clear that no matter what hand your dealt there’s some way to solve it.

There’s an ongoing conversation between a friend and me about whether or not the game will only produce seeds that are winnable. My friend’s theory is that the game will simulate any particular seed to ensure that you have everything you need to get through to ante 8. Whilst that’s entirely possible I’m not so sure, given that Balatro is effectively a mathematical proof at its heart it should be theoretically solvable from a set theory perspective. The developer, LocalThunk, has mentioned in interviews that he’d been creating simulations for many years prior, so it’s possible he’s got a simulation engine somewhere for Balatro. At the same time though he’s also admitted to being rubbish at his own game so, you know, maybe not!

For me though, whilst I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with Balatro, it hasn’t managed to sink its hooks as deeply into me as it has with others. Trying the different decks, mixing up joker combinations and trying different stakes was certainly fun but it didn’t compel me to come back like other games have. I still feel like I got my money’s worth out of it though and there are times where I just want to watch big number get bigger so Balatro has found its way into my rotation of casual games I’ll hit up every so often. I will admit though that watching others play Balatro is now something I quite enjoy, in a similar vein to watching Elden Ring build videos is even though I don’t play that at all anymore.

Rating: 8.0/10

Balatro is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5.1 hours playtime with 25% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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