Balatro is your next digital card game obsession waiting to happen

Posted on March 1, 2024

Hooking its tendrils into me and refusing to let go is Balatro, a Poker-themed digital card game that somehow does everything right. This solo-developed game has been getting quite the buzz recently, comfortably becoming one of 2024’s best-reviewed video games and creating an obsession that proves hard to put down. The concept is relatively simple, taking known ideas lifted directly from poker. Yet it’s that familiarity that’s a big part of Balatro’s brilliance as it builds on pre-existing foundations and expands in genius and exciting ways to hook and captivate players into deck-building and “just one more round” fiends.

The poker aesthetic and concepts may deter some players, as that brand has already been so well-established. As a non-poker player, I personally found that a small hurdle to overcome, as the world of poker is so engrained into the world of gambling. And it’s not that I have immovable judgement around gambling, it’s more that it’s just a world I’ve chosen not to enter. So a game like this is simply a harder sell than, say, a fantasy deckbuilder would be. With that said, the poker hurdle is unbelievably small when compared to the absolute triumphs in game design that Balatro is able to present. Even if you know nothing about poker, the game makes no assumptions on prior knowledge and will tutorialse the basics of poker hands and terms. Soon you’ll be deep into the belly of the beast, royal flushing alongside the best of them.

Obviously, Balatro differs from traditional poker and in some very drastic ways. This is not a competitive game between player to player. There’s also no monetary gamble or continued purchases beyond the game’s price tag. Importantly, it’s also a roguelike deckbuilder where you start with a regular deck of 52 cards but end with a wild assortment of different cards at different quantities with different modifiers alongside a suite of accumulated bonuses, passives, and levels. It’s like a poker fever dream where I thought the limit was my imagination, but really the limit extends way beyond my own creative capabilities. The best part? It’s wildly addictive and presented as cleanly and elegantly as possible, introducing many ideas and concepts but somehow never overwhelming.

“I thought the limit was my imagination, but really the limit extends way beyond my own creative capabilities.”

Balatro will pit you against a constantly increasing score target you must reach by playing poker hands. Harder-to-achieve poker hands will net you more points, as will cards of higher value with Ace being the highest. A set amount of discards can be used to help you formulate better hands, and a certain amount of hands can be played to reach the score target. Between rounds is where things get spicy, because you’ll also accumulate wealth as you play which can be spent on new cards, upgrades, passive effects, and way more that impact the way the rounds are scored. The variety and depth found here is staggering, and it’s what keeps each new attempt fresh and interesting, but also makes it a challenge to aptly describe succinctly. Just trust that between the game’s Joker cards, Tarot cards, Planet cards, Booster Packs, and more, there’s a lot to uncover and toy around with.

Balatro is designed perfectly to keep you coming back. Completing a run is an achievement in itself, but you can choose to continue playing endlessly, you can attempt to unlock new cards and decks, you can attempt to see everything the game has to offer as you fill out your card log, and you can even compete in specific challenges as well. You’re constantly learning as you play and the path to building the perfect deck is long yet rewarding. It’s also all brilliantly displayed where all the information you could ever need is in a handy menu.

From top to bottom, Balatro is a magnificently created video game. There’s an elegance here and an intelligence that just isn’t found in most experiences. To take a known concept and then stretch it in so many different directions is an art form—and Balatro is the masterclass. It all just works to keep you hooked and playing time and time again.

Balatro is available now across PC and console. Should it ever come to mobile one day? Well, that’s just a new obsession waiting to happen.