Balatro: All-In on a Familiar Fold

Written by Lyn Kyoumei

April 1, 2024

“I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

Paul Newman, The Hustler

I am not a gambling man, I never was. However, if you count the countless gacha games I played over the years as gambling, then I might be an addict. However, I didn’t like to gamble real money, it was too scary and too risky. Numbers on the screen though? That’s fine as long as I don’t have to spend a single penny.

Yet Balatro instills in me the fear of losing money differently.

Balatro is a rogue-like “deck builder” in a loose sense. You don’t build the deck, you manipulate it more than you build it. Developed by LocalThunk and published by Playstack, Balatro is an experience that you would come back to again and again if you love the thrill and strategy of poker, blackjack, or lucky 9 if you’re Filipino. Available on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 & 5 and the Xbox series X & S, Balatro is at a respectable $14.99 price tag if you wish to pick it up.

 

Gameplay

Balatro presents players with a series of blinds in a set order: small blind, big blind, and boss blind. Each blind has a target chip score to beat. You’ll build a hand from a standard deck of cards, discarding up to five. Discarded cards are out for the round, with new cards drawn to replace them. Your hand is scored based on standard poker hand rankings, with chips awarded based on an “X chip x Y multiplier” system. Your goal is to surpass the blind’s chip requirement to progress. The real depth comes with Jokers, special cards essential to the game. These aren’t played alongside regular cards, but obtained through the shop or other means and stored in a designated slot up top. Jokers have unique effects that can be combined for powerful combos, crucial for conquering tougher blinds at higher difficulty levels.

The game is quite complex the longer you play, giving you more decks with special abilities, such as more plays or discards, keeping each play through fresh enough so that you wouldn’t get bored. You also unlock more types of Jokers, consumables, and perks called vouchers, giving you enough variety even whilst playing to try and find a winning combo that will just decimate any chip requirement the blinds give you. Though there isn’t exactly a learning curve in how you play this game, there are times when you might be stuck in the same loop of doing just one combo. There isn’t a META in a rogue-like; there are a lot of broken combinations, whether you find them intentionally or just by accident.

The game maintains balance by increasing the chips needed to pass as the ante increases. This can double, triple, or even quadruple depending on the stake or challenge being played. After beating the standard 8 ante, a much harder challenge is dealt; you choose to play further, with antes in the millions, billions, and even into the +e17 ranges. Success after the base game requires either a broken combo or just incredibly dumb luck. Each run typically lasts for at least half an hour, depending on the amount of thought you use for each move and the number of blinds skipped. This provides ample time for replaying without it becoming tedious to play and win.

One of my favorite strategies is to get a Midas Mask Joker and the Pareidolia Joker, which turns face cards into gold and considers all cards as face cards respectively, gold cards, if not played, pay out $3 if said gold card held at the end of the round, making it an easy way to make money in the early game, now pair it with the Vampire Joker, which gains an additional x0. 2 to the multiplier for each upgraded card played, before removing that upgraded card, it usually slowly evolves into the Vampire getting more than x20 to the multiplier, allowing me to win every blind with just one well-placed hand after a few rounds. You can also replace the Vampire Joker with the Bull Joker, which adds 2 chips for every dollar you currently have, giving you an average of +500 if you’re a very strict spender.

 

Presentation

Though the graphics are reminiscent of those old animated ads you may see on a CRT TV in the late 90s/early 00s, I quite am enamored by it as it gives the game its sense of charm. Each consumable and Joker card has its personality, and the developer has taken care to ensure that they look special with their unique characteristics. The UI, meanwhile, is quite simple yet still quite stylish in its own right, with enough bells and whistles to give it character, but not too much that the player becomes overwhelmed with how many buttons there are on the screen.

The audio is sadly not up to par with the game for my tastes, when I imagine playing a poker game, I would imagine more tense music but the game plays a more vaporwave-esque track, it distracted me quite a bit so I simply just muted the track and played my own, no shade given to the composer, the track sounds amazing when I listen to it on my off time, though I don’t believe it suits the game that well. Although the sound design as a whole is quite nice, the sounds of cards being picked, the bonuses I gain from the Jokers, and the cards being upgraded, drawn and discarded are all quite grounded in what one could believe a casino would play.

 

Target Audience

I believe that this game isn’t really for all ages as it is more aimed at those who love to gamble and people who love to do math on probabilities and chance, think university students and bored physicists, as it gives the player enough information on what the Chip and Multiplier are before you play, the Joker multiplier and combos that could happen, as well as the cards left in your deck, so it’s very much a game that’s close to real poker with the addition of having a slot machine which will always give you bonuses.

However, if you just want to play for fun and not think too much, that’s still fine as you can brute force the game in some ways like changing the suits of the cards to just one suit or having all cards only be aces or kings. You can force the game to play what you want or let the game give you the materials and you be the builder, creating the wackiest yet usable combinations. The game tries its best to cater both to the mathematical wizards and those who just want to try and beat it with only what’s given to them.

 

Conclusion

Overall, I would recommend this game to those who want to simulate what it feels like to gamble. The more I played, the more I realized that gambling wasn’t for me. However, it may also appeal to those who still wish to feel the frustration of messing up a hand due to a misclick when their brain is on autopilot. I would say I enjoyed my time with the game, although the longer I played, the more I started to hate myself for no reason. It felt like I was getting angrier at myself than the game when I lost, a toxic gambler’s mindset, if I were to believe.

Though it wasn’t for me and I slowly hated myself more as I played, I would still recommend this game to my friends wholeheartedly. I would like to come back to this game when I’m a little less bitter towards myself and play with a more calm and calculated mind, though that’s not stopping me from asking the virtual joker for just one more game. So why not, let’s go all in.

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