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The Nerve of Balatro For Being This Good

A really cool hand in Balatro

OK so I have a card that makes Flushes more likely, a 3x multiplier for repeated hands, the ability to discard face cards for money, and a card that makes all cards face cards….Credit: LocalThunk

I have so much shit to do. Final Fantasy Rebirth is almost here. The servers on Helldivers 2 are slightly more stable. We are within spitting distance of Dragon’s Dogma 2. And then suddenly,  out of nowhere, here comes Balatro, just waltzing in and being one of the best games I have played in ages, a time destroyer set to ruin all of my plans.

Balatro is a deckbuilding roguelike poker-themed game. It is not poker in the strict sense, since you are not competing with anyone else, but are simply trying to beat a minimum score for each blind. Blinds go from small, large, and then boss before looping to the next ante, and there are 8 antes in a run. Beat the last one and you win. You can also choose to skip non-boss blinds for certain perks, like potentially powerful cards. Different poker hands give different multipliers, with higher value cards giving more value than other cards. 

Where it gets interesting is that cards and hands in your deck can be improved, upgraded, or modified by purchasing various cards in stores between rounds. You can buy booster packs of cards. In addition to this, you also have up to five joker cards that you can use to modify your play experience. If you lose, your game is over and you start from scratch (although you may unlock some special cards and decks in the process). This all sounds terrifyingly confusing when explained in the abstract, but if you play it for five minutes it will completely make sense. 

A really cool hand in Balatro
OK so I have a card that makes Flushes more likely, a 3x multiplier for repeated hands, the ability to discard face cards for money, and a card that makes all cards face cards....Credit: LocalThunk

What makes Balatro so fascinating is the counter-intuitive situations you can end up in. On one of my runs the jokers dictated that face cards were more or less bunk, but any card on the fibonacci sequence was a jackpot. Another time I got a joker that made clubs and spades the same, as well as hearts and diamonds, meaning that basically every hand had a flush in it. Watching the meta evolve is fascinating, and I have enjoyed watching Northernlion’s streams for this reason. 

Here's a good Northernlion stream where he found a way to repeatedly clone foil aces.

In many ways, Balatro’s use of poker less as a game but more as a verb reminds me of one of my favorite oft-overlooked puzzle games, Solitaire Poker aka Ryukyu, an arcade game developed by ASCII (the company) that I only know because I own a MiSTer. You should try that game out, it rules.

Balatro does so many things right it’s upsetting. There is basically one song in the game and it’s so good it somehow never gets old. The goofy little joker cards are all funny. The art is great. It’s well designed and intuitive. It is on consoles and PC, which makes it perfect if you have a Steam Deck. 

And like Vampire Survivors before it, if you let it into your life your free time will get sucked into it like a black hole. It is a demonic little game that will simply not remove its claws until you force yourself to stop playing it. Everyone I know who is playing it is trapped. God help us if this thing gets ported to iOS.

How fucking dare you, Balatro. I didn’t need this fantastic game in my life. They were just starting to release other games I really want to play. I have so much writing I need to finish. There’s a CRT in my office I was about to fix. But I guess you didn’t think of that when you were making your fantastic deconstruction of one of the oldest games known to man, huh? I guess that didn’t factor into your plans!

Anyway, go play Balatro, unless you have anything else you have to do in your life. You can buy it here on Steam or for the Switch.

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