When I sat down at my desk after lunch today, I thought, I’m just going to give this demo for Balatro a tiny go, just to get my head round its poker-based roguelike deckbuilding. Cut to several hours later and I’ve had to forcibly shut the game down and wrench myself away from it just to write this post, because listen, you need to go and play Balatro’s demo right now, because hot damn this is the good stuff if you’re into roguelike deckbuilders. I also say this as someone who’s never played or understood a game of poker in her life, because let’s face it, regular poker is quite boring. Balatro, on the other hand, is poker that’s turbo-charged with magic Joker cards, tarot card multipliers, and blind conditions that make a successful hand increasingly tricky to pull off. And it’s coming out in full real soon, too.
The new Steam demo that’s available now is the same one that you’ll be able to play in the upcoming Steam Next Fest, which starts on February 5th. But the game itself will be releasing in full on February 20th, which, frankly, is excellent news. I need more Balatro in my life, stat.
In some ways, I’m quite surprised by my own fervour for a game based entirely around poker hands. The ins and outs of real-life poker have always eluded me over the years, and I am 100% that person who, whenever there’s a tense card game going on in a film or TV show, has to wait until someone round the table has reacted to whatever’s just happened before I know if the tense tease of a particular hand is actually good or not. Those scenes have always been completely lost on me, but thanks to Balatro’s excellent tutorial, I now feel much better equipped to ride these waves of knife-edge hand reveals in real-time.
But Balatro isn’t just about playing good hands of poker. Technically, you’re not playing anyone. Rather, the aim of each game is beat its ‘blind’, scoring a certain amount of chips in a limited number of hands/turns depending if it’s a ‘small’ blind (say, 300 chips) or a ‘big’ one (which could be 2000, or as the trailer above suggests, upwards of 100,000). Playing traditional poker hands such as a Straight, Pair, Full House and Flush are still what you’re ultimately aiming for here, and each one has its own base number chips you can score by playing it, as well as a base multiplier. For example, a standard Four Of A Kind will earn you 60 chips that gets multiplied by 5, whereas a Pair will earn you 10 chips that gets multiplied by 2.
Where Balatro gets interesting, though, is in the combination of Joker and Tarot cards you can play alongside these hands. Joker cards can add up to five extra, permanent multipliers into the mix, either across the board (such as +4 Mult to every hand, for example) or for a specific suite of cards you play, while Tarot cards are consumables that can change the appearance and chip properties of individual cards from your deck. In the demo, the first Tarot you receive is The Empress, for instance, which lets you add +3 Mult to two selected cards. And with some blinds reaching into the several thousands, you’re going to need all the multiplier synergies you can get if you’re going to win.
It’s extremely good fun and moreish, and it’s all wrapped up in glorious little details that add to its charm and character. I love how the multiplier box gradually starts to catch on fire as the numbers start escalating to obscene levels, for example, and the weird little nonsense voice of your Joker guide, Jimbo. Then again, I’m quite taken with Balatro’s presentation as a whole, really. The way the games shuffle onto the screen, wiggle and stand to attention when they’re played, and flutter smartly off into your discard pile is intensely satisfying. I also like the kind of primordial, almost psychedelic void that makes up the game’s background as you’re deciding what to play. There’s something strangely hypnotic about it, and together with the calming wails of its electronic guitars, it all makes for a weirdly relaxing and chill time. The kind of game you think you’re going to play for 30 minutes, and then you blink and it’s suddenly dark outside and you’ve missed cooking dinner.
I must play more of it, and discover all the mad things its 150 Joker cards can do, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be going back to that demo run now. And you should, too – and mark your calendars for its Steam release on February 20th while you’re at it.