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Balatro Is A Poker Roguelike Where You Are The House

Despite PEGI concerns, Balatro doesn't encourage gambling; it exposes it.

Written by Renata Price
Playstack Games

I am thinking about Balatro all the time. In fact, I am thinking of it right now — as you are reading this. I am forming Balatro in my mind at this very moment. It is staggeringly good, inescapably good. I am all but haunted by it.

And I am not alone in this. Balatro has an effect on people. The game, developed by Canada-based solo dev LocalThunk (actual name unknown), has taken the world by storm in a way no other roguelike deck-building game I can think of has. (The closest comparison is Mega Crit's mega-popular, genre-defining Slay the Spire.) Balatro has sold 500,000 copies and is already being called a Game of the Year contender by some, and for good reason. It may be the most clever roguelike deck-builder I've ever played, in large part through its brilliant use of the design language of poker.

The game also recently made headlines after it was pulled from several online stores due to a surprise update to the game European rating due to “prominent gambling imagery” that “instructs about gambling.” However, I would argue that this doesn't just misunderstand the design and appeal of Balatro, but the entire genre it's built upon.

How to Play Balatro

In Balatro, you are the House.

Playstack Games

Like all roguelike deck-builders, Balatro is run-based, meaning that whenever the player fails to complete a blind (the game's term for rounds), they have to start the entire game over. New cards and card types are unlocked between each run and can be used to modify your base deck to be more effective.

Where other deck-builders will start you out with 15 or 20 cards, Balatro begins with a familiar 52-card deck (unless you're using the Ancient Deck, you freak). The game is extremely simple at first blush. Each run is broken up into eight antes in which you’re presented with three "Blinds," each requiring a certain score to pass. To score points you’ll draw eight cards at a time and choose from those to play various poker hands like a full house or a flush (each have their own point values) until you either beat the blind and move on or run out of hands, ending your game.

But this simplicity is a trick because Balatro has some of the densest deck-building I've ever encountered thanks to its understanding of combos, the feature that makes roguelike deck-builders so uniquely satisfying.

You can improve your build, including your combos, in three ways:

  1. acquiring Jokers, which give powerful, static effects as long as they remain in your deck
  2. adding to or improving the cards in your deck via Booster Packs and upgrade Seals, which provide cards with additional effects
  3. using Planet cards, which directly improve the power of your poker hands

Balatro let’s you break the rules of poker using special combo cards.

Playstack Games

Individual Planet cards are rarely run-defining, but Balatro gives the player so many ways of acquiring them: purchasing them from the store, activating a booster pack, the list goes on. This allows you to base a build around generating as many planet cards as possible, sending the power of your most played poker hands through the roof.

By formalizing these combos, Balatro makes the win conditions for its various builds all but explicit, resulting in the most intuitive deck-building I've ever seen. For example, if you have a Joker that boosts hands that include a Three of a Kind, then you should pick a few specific matching cards to empower and invest in so you can win. If you don't draw those cards initially, keep drawing. Then, you either meet this win condition or you don't. It's this simplicity that keeps me pressing the "New Run" button almost compulsively.

And you will be hitting "New Run" a lot because Balatro gets hard. Luckily, unlike in real poker where being caught counting cards will get you kicked out of a casino, Balatro takes care of all the card counting for you — allowing you to focus on making the best possible decisions given the situation.

Do you commit to the full house you're all but guaranteed in your next draw, but which won't be enough to win the blind, forcing a dangerous final hand? Or do you throw it all out the window and discard the makings of that full house in the hopes of drawing your win condition early? These are the kinds of decisions that make or break runs in Balatro, and they cannot be made without intimate knowledge of the draw pool — the kind of knowledge usually reserved for the house.

Balatro Gets Banned

According to the European ratings board (PEGI), Balatro is nothing if not transgressive.

Playstack Games

Until playing Balatro, it hadn't occurred to me that games like Slay The Spire had been doing me the service of counting my cards for me — it just felt natural. By using the design language of poker, Balatro makes normal elements of deck-builder design feel not only new, but transgressive.

And, according to the European ratings board (PEGI), Balatro is nothing if not transgressive. Per a statement by the game's publisher, Playstack, the game was pulled from storefronts on March 1 following a surprise update to the game's PEGI rating, which was raised from a 3+ rating to an 18+ over "material that instructs about gambling." As of writing, Balatro remains unavailable on the European, Australian, and Japanese versions of the Switch eshop thanks to a failsafe which removes any game that increases its age rating by two tiers or more.

Balatro doesn't limit itself to the design language of poker, it leans into the aesthetics, too. And for some, those aesthetics are inseparable from the real world gambling that Balatro is built upon.

But they're wrong.

Gambling addiction is a serious problem, one that is frequently life-ruining. There are entire industries designed to sustain it but they don't go about sustaining it by putting poker hands in deck-builders. They sustain it by attaching monetization structures to game loops which provide players with the illusion of control, while doing everything in their power (both legal and illegal) to stack the deck in their favor. Like banning card counting, for example. In the end, the house always wins, and the addict always loses.

While Balatro may not exploit the player, its brilliant design showcases the ways in which many other people build systems that do.

Playstack Games

PEGI's response to Balatro is deeply frustrating because it is built on a punitive and simplistic understanding of addiction that believes the aesthetics are what make it dangerous, as opposed to the real-world systems which facilitate, sustain, and then monetize human suffering — systems which (as many Balatro players pointed out in response to Playstack's announcement) are already diffuse throughout the modern video game ecosystem in the forms of live service booster packs and loot boxes. Those games are not pulled from store shelves.

Balatro, like many deck-builders, isn't about the joy of being a poker player, it’s about the joy of being the house. It is a game about stacking the deck in your favor until you build a system that manipulates probability so effectively you cannot conceivably lose.

While Balatro may not exploit the player, its brilliant design showcases the ways in which many other people build systems that do. This is what ends up elevating it from a great deck-builder, to one of the best games of the year. With any luck, it'll be back on virtual shelves as soon as possible.

Balatro is available on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, PC, and Mac.

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