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Should You Play Balatro With A Calculator?

A new Game Maker's Toolkit video asks how much information you should have about a game

A screenshot from the video game "Balatro:" playing cards on a green background

Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit put out a Balatro video yesterday highlighting what he calls a “design problem” that I thought was just me: how hard it is to know your score before you play a hand. There are solutions for this, and for the lack of transparency in other games, but should you use them? 

The video points out that Balatro only shows you your hand’s base chips and multiplier, and doesn’t calculate your score in other ways before you commit to it. Brown quotes Balatro designer LocalThunk from a Reddit AMA where he wrote, “My personal belief is that the game is more fun when you set up your Rube Goldberg machine and watch it go before knowing whether or not the hand will win the round.”

Obviously, you can figure out your score by simply doing math, adding up the cards in your hand and taking your jokers into account. Brown says that many players use outside sites or their calculator app for this purpose, something I’m embarrassed to admit never occurred to me to do. I figured you were just supposed to be doing this out-of-game math in your head, that all the really good players are into math and that I was doing rough finger calculations and then clicking "play hand" because I already spend a ton of my workday doing math and don’t want to do any more in my leisure time. I didn’t know the lack of score prediction was an intentional design choice to highlight my favorite, usually run-ending aspect of the game: playing a hand and watching through my fingers to see if it’s enough to beat the round. Later in the video, Brown quotes LocalThunk as saying, “If I add an option to have this score preview, people are just going to click on it, and they’re not going to experience the game that I wanted to create.”

Brown’s video discusses other games whose designs explore transparency, most notably The Binding of Isaac, which doesn’t tell you what found items do. Players, being players, have created their own wikis to overcome this intentional ambiguity, and Brown quotes Isaac designer Edmund McMillen as saying, People would always say, ‘You can't play Isaac without a browser open on your phone.’ I hated that that's how everyone played for so long.” I didn’t realize McMillen felt negatively about this aspect of the game, which feels interwoven into the experience to me, the way the Stardew Valley or Don’t Starve wikis do.

I was actually wrestling with this question of outside help last night, while trying out Interloper, the hardest difficulty in my favorite survival game, The Long Dark. I tend to play on Voyageur, the game’s second easiest difficulty, but there’s a universe of player debate about how Interloper is the “true” game, with its punishingly cold weather and scarcity of necessary items like matches. I knew that map knowledge would be key to surviving Interloper, which isn’t my strongest suit, but I wasn’t prepared for how brutal the mode is: in a dozen runs, my longest was less than a day, as I wandered in the cold unable to find shelter, or couldn’t find anything to start fires for warmth or to make water.

The Long Dark’s only in-game map is the one you make yourself, tediously uncovering areas with charcoal. There’s fierce debate about whether player-created outside maps are acceptable; I want to eschew them, but I’ll admit I rarely play the game without one open on my phone. I love the mystery of a new area, and I love learning it myself through play, but I also hate losing a good run to my own ignorance when the ability to keep going is just a browser window away. After a few Interloper runs that ended as soon as they began, I looked at maps right after spawning to get a sense if there was any hope for me in a new area at all. (There wasn’t. Interloper is for sickos! I wish I were playing it right now!)

The really good Long Dark players, with their 500-or-more day Interloper runs, know the maps like the backs of their hands, but they also know where certain loot is likely to spawn. Lots of the tips I read after an evening of snowy in-game deaths advised making a beeline for the necessary loot, and even memorizing the loot tables to do so. But like Balatro’s score, this feels to me like it ruins the fun, even though spending most of my playtime in the menu screen starting a new run isn’t much fun either.

I don't want to mine all the mystery out of a game by mastering its systems. I love being lost in The Long Dark, or not knowing for certain that my Balatro hand will win--but at the same time, the feeling of losing a run by a couple of chips sucks (in a really good way, but it still sucks!). I both admire and am horrified by players who minmax games, impressed by how they can bend a game’s systems to their wills, but a little put off by how that can just turn every game into a spreadsheet (another thing I spend far too much of my workday inside). 

How much outside help do you go to in games? Is it cheating, or otherwise not playing the game the way it’s meant to be played? Or is life too short, and god gave us wikis for a reason? If I don’t reply to your comment right away, I’m probably dying in minutes in The Long Dark again.

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