Poker based deck builder is a revelation

I jumped right in and may never leave again

To give you an example of how addictive the new poker-based roguelike deck-building game Balatro is: I played the demo for about an hour on Tuesday, February 20th. I bought the full version when it was released later that morning and before I knew it I had played for three hours (at least not in one go). On Wednesday night I thought I would play a little before bed and suddenly it was 2:15am. Now it’s early Friday afternoon and I’ve spent 11.5 hours working on a game that I can’t recommend enough. Balatro combines simplicity and complexity, straightforward gameplay and deep strategic thinking, as well as a unique visual style that will probably keep me playing for years to come.

Unlike some deck builders, the opponents don’t defend themselves

The goal of Balatro is to score enough points, called “chips,” through poker hands to beat your computer opponent. Each opponent is called “Blind”, each level is called “Ante”. There are three blinds per ante: the small blind, the big blind and the boss blind. Each additional blind requires more points to be defeated. Unlike some deck builders, the opponents don’t defend themselves. There are eight antes (again, levels). So to win a race you have to complete 24 laps.

Each round you have a set number of hands in which to earn the required points, as well as a limited number of discards that you can use if you don’t like your current holdings. Each hand you play has a base point value and a multiplier – the stronger the hand, the higher the starting value of each hand. You don’t have to play a full five-card poker hand. Each card that contributes to your played hand also scores points: 11 for Ace, 10 for face cards, and a numerical value for all other cards. Add the points and multiply them by the multiplier. This is how you get your score for the hand.

Make poker hands and score points

In the example below, I am on the very first round of the first ante and need 300 points in a maximum of four hands to beat the small blind. I was dealt eight cards and, as you can see, I was able to make two pairs, aces and kings. I didn’t play a fifth card because it wouldn’t have given me any points, although I could have played one if I just wanted to get rid of it to make room for a new card.

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

The base value was 20 and the multiplier was 2, so I 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 gives you a random negative status, such as: E.g. no discards or hidden draws of the first hand:

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

You receive money for winning a round and for each remaining hand. Additionally, you earn $1 in “interest” for every $5 you save. This money can then be used in the shop after the round to purchase additional cards for your deck and special cards that grant upgrades.

Upgrades and jokers ensure quick hustle and bustle

It is these upgrades that hold the key to victory. Jokers (up to five of them) give you special point bonuses, multipliers or other advantages. Planet cards increase the base points and multiplier for a particular hand type. Tarot cards and spectral cards can change, remove or add cards to your deck. Vouchers change the rest of the game. It depends on the luck of the draw which cards appear in the shop and which upgrades you can find in the packages.

The size of the Balatro shop has been changed
The shop offers cards that can help achieve higher scores – these Arcana packs contain tarot cards. [Image: Balatro]

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

Assembling a deck full of power cards and jokers that offer juicy advantages will allow you to play hands that can deliver huge winnings. Jokers are especially important because if you have a well-synergized group, your score can skyrocket even with a weak pair of twos.

In the following run I had six jokers (I opened an additional joker slot in this game), three of which had amazing synergy. The Egg gains a sell value of $3 at the end of each round, the Gift Card increases the sell value of each Joker and Consumable card by $1, and the Swashbuckler adds the sell value of all Jokers to its left to his multiplier. My multiplier was approaching 100 on the final boss blind. Also note that I had three activated cards and a deck totaling 75 cards.

I thought I would destroy the final boss until it negated my best Joker. [Image:]

Unfortunately, this boss blindsided me because his negative status effect was to incapacitate a random joker on each hand, and he happened to incapacitate my Swashbuckler on one hand, thus stripping me of my huge multiplier. New game, let’s try again.

Perfect for both beginners and hardcore gamers

The beauty of Balatro is that, unlike many other deck building games, you don’t have to familiarize yourself with the different characters, deck constructions and strategies in advance. Aside from the different starting states of the game – you can start with one less card per hand or more money, for example – decks and strategies are mostly blank slates and evolve as you figure out what jokers, cards and power-ups you can get .

No prior knowledge is required – as long as you know the strengths of a poker hand, you can get started right away and figure it out as you go.

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

Balatro is a sleek, streamlined game that’s easy to pick up and play in minutes or spend hours trying to find the ultimate game-changing synergy. There are a total of 15 unlockable starting decks at release, each with up to eight levels of difficulty, so it’s not a game that you can “win” quickly. It uses a trippy pixel art style with scan lines like a CRT monitor and a wavy, dreamlike effect that makes you feel like you’re floating in the ether. The graphical features can be adjusted if you want to tone down the effects.

Maybe it’s just because it’s new, but I keep thinking about the game and am itching to get back to it while I’m trying to finish my work. I had a hard time stopping myself from playing while I collected screenshots for this review.

At $14.99 for Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, Balatro is a steal. The number of hours you put in and the extra hours your brain is occupied when you’re not playing make Balatro one of the best gaming offerings in a long time. You can try the feature-rich demo first, but deck building games are for you. You won’t need much time to realize that Balatro is a must-see.


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