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Balatro Review: Poker-Based Deckbuilder Is a Revelation

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I jumped right in and might never leave

To give you an example of how addictive the new poker-based roguelike deckbuilding game Balatro is, I played the demo for about an hour on Tuesday, February 20. I bought the full game when it was released later that morning and before I realized it, I had played for three hours (not consecutively, at least). Wednesday night, I figured I’d play a little before bed and suddenly it was 2:15am. Now it’s early Friday afternoon and I have logged 11.5 hours on a game that I cannot recommend enough. Balatro combines simplicity and complexity, no-frills gameplay and deep strategic thinking, along with a unique visual style that will likely keep me playing for years to come.

unlike in some deckbuilders, the opponents do not fight back

The goal of Balatro is to score enough points, called “chips,” to beat the computer opponent by making poker hands. Each opponent is called a “blind,” each level is called an “ante.” There are three blinds per ante: the Small Blind, the Big Blind, and the Boss Blind. Each successive blind requires more points to defeat; unlike in some deckbuilders, the opponents do not fight back. There are eight antes (again, levels), so to win a run, you must clear 24 rounds.

Each round, you have a fixed number of hands in which to earn the required points, as well as a limited number of discards to use if you don’t like your current holdings. Each hand you play has a base point value and multiplier – the stronger the hand, the higher the starting value of each. You do not need to play a full five-card poker hand. Every card that contributes to the hand you play also scores points: 11 for Ace, 10 for face cards, and numeric value for all other cards. Add the points up and multiply by the multiplier and there’s your score for the hand.

Make poker hands, score points

In the example below, I’m in the very first round of the first ante and need 300 points across a maximum of four hands to defeat the Small Blind. I was dealt eight cards and, as you can see, was able to make two pair, Aces and Kings. I did not play a fifth card, as I wouldn’t have gotten points for it, though I could have played one if I just wanted to get rid of it to make room for a new card.

That two pair will give me 124 points, not a bad opening hand of the game. [Image: Balatro]

The base value was 20 and the multiplier was 2, I so started with 40 points. The Aces and Kings gave me an additional 42 points (11 + 11 + 10 + 10), which when added to the base and multiplied by 2 gave me 124 points for the hand.

The Boss Blind at the end of each level not only requires more points to defeat, but also inflicts you with a random negative status such as no discards or drawing the first hand face-down:

Not being able to see my cards was a difficult way to start a boss battle. [Image: Balatro]

You get money for winning a round and for each hand you have remaining. In addition, you get $1 in “interest” for every $5 you have saved up. That money can then be used in the shop after the round to buy additional cards for your deck and special cards that grant upgrades.

Upgrades, jokers make things hectic fast

It’s these upgrades that are the key to winning. Jokers (up to five of them) give you special point bonuses, multipliers, or other benefits. Planet cards increase the base points and multiplier for a specific type of hand. Tarot cards and Spectral cards can alter, remove, or add cards to your deck. Vouchers alter the rest of the game. It’s the luck of the draw as to which cards appear in the shop and what upgrades you may find in packs.

Balatro shop resized
The shop offers cards that can help build higher scores – those Arcana Packs contain Tarot cards. [Image: Balatro]

Eventually, you will accumulate more than 52 cards in your deck and have cards that give you all sorts of bonuses like extra points, extra multipliers, wild cards, and more.

As you build a deck loaded with powered-up cards and Jokers that provide juicy benefits, you can play hands that allow you to achieve massive scores. Jokers are especially important, as if you have a group that synergizes well, your score can absolutely snowball, even on a lowly pair of Deuces.

In the below run, I had six Jokers (I opened an extra Joker slot this game), three of which had an amazing synergy. The Egg gains $3 of sell value at the end of every round, the Gift Card adds $1 of sell value to every Joker and Consumable card, and the Swashbuckler adds the sell value of all Jokers to his left to his multiplier. My multiplier was approaching 100 by the final Boss Blind. Also note that I had three powered-up cards showing and a deck that had 75 total cards.

I thought I was going to destroy the final boss until he negated my best Joker. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Unfortunately, that Boss Blind beat me because its negative status effect was disabling a random joker every hand and it just so happened to disable my Swashbuckler on one hand, taking away my huge multiplier. New game, let’s give it another go.

Perfect for both beginners and hardcore gamers

The beauty of Balatro is that, unlike many other deckbuilding games, you don’t need to learn about different characters, deck builds, and strategies ahead of time. Aside from different starting game states – you might start with one fewer card per hand or more money, for example – decks and strategies are mostly a blank slate and develop as you find out what Jokers, cards, and power-ups you can get.

No study is needed in advance – as long as you know what poker hand strengths are, you can jump right in and figure it out as you go.

a wavy, dreamlike effect that makes you feel like you’re floating in the ether

Balatro is an elegant, streamlined game that is easy to pick up and put down in a few minutes or spend hours trying to find the ultimate game-breaking synergy. At release, there are a total of 15 starting decks that can be unlocked, each with up to eight difficulty levels, so this is not a game that can be “won” quickly. It uses a trippy, pixel art style with CRT monitor-like scan lines and a wavy, dreamlike effect that makes you feel like you’re floating in the ether. The graphical quirks can be adjusted if you want to tone down the effects.

Maybe it’s just that it’s new, but I constantly find myself thinking about the game, itching to get back to it as I try to finish my work. It’s been all I can do to keep myself from playing while I gather screenshots for this review.

At $14.99 for Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo Switch, and on Steam, Balatro is a steal. The number of hours you will put in and the additional hours during which your brain will be occupied when not playing make Balatro one of the best values in gaming in quite some time. You can try the feature-rich demo first, but deckbuilding games are at all up your alley, you won’t need much time to determined Balatro is a must-buy.

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