Balatro Review – Deck Builder’s Poker Delight

Balatro Review

Balatro is the clever marriage of card deck building and poker from developer Localthunk. Obviously, poker has the allure of high stakes strategy, luck, and competition and deck building has a similar draw that lasts past a current hand.

For the uninitiated the term, balatro comes from a Latin term for a professional jester or buffoon. The wealthy paid balatrones for their jests, and the tables of the wealthy were generally open to them for the sake of the amusement they afforded.

The beauty of Balatro is that even if you have little or no prior poker experience, the game loop will teach you the basics. Everyone understands the concepts of pairs, which is the foundation of the game. From there, getting three or four of a kind, a straight, or a full house are smaller steps.

Now pair the rules of poker with a deck builder mechanic and the real hook of this game begins. In poker, hands live and die in each round. In Balatro, you can carry special or wild cards for the entirety of a run. A run in Balatro comprises an ongoing series of 3 challenges. The first two challenges are the Small and Big Blind. The third challenge is the The Head.

Balatro’s Poker Start

Each challenge sets a point amount the player must meet to continue the run. Initially, for the Small Blind, the point amount is 300. For the Big Blind it is 450 and for The Head it is 650. Survive a round and the point amounts for each challenge increase. These increases may seem daunting but as you build your special cards deck, your ability to score points increases almost geometrically.

You start an initial round with no special cards. You start with eight cards played face up. In each round, there are four hands to be played, along with an allowed number of discards of three. For each discard, you drop three cards at a time. It is at this point the game is at its most poker-like. You can play only the cards that make up a poker hand. This means that two up to eight cards could be laid down.

In the early rounds, drawing cards of the same rank is the best way to attain the points needed. Scoring is based on a combination of the value of the face plus the poker hand played. So a pair will give ten points for each card times the value of the card. The more difficult a poker hand is to attain, the higher the payout, with a straight flush being worth a hundred times the value of the eight cards.

Balatro gives you some tools to help with your strategy. There is a Run Info popup window that displays the values of all the poker runs. Additionally, if you select the remaining card deck, another popup window shows a summary of the four card suits and which cards have not yet been dealt. Both are useful references to help guide you to build a poker hand. You can also sort cards either by rank, the default, or by suit.

Poker Purists

For poker purists, you can also choose to play the blinds without special cards in a seeded manner.

At the conclusion of each round, results in a cash reward. This is based on the value of your played poker hands plus a bonus of one dollar for each unplayed hand left when you reach the score point of the blind. With money in hand now, the real fun begins as you can now start building your special deck.

Between rounds, the Shop screen pops up. Here you can use your winnings to buy special cards. The special cards comprise several categories. There are, of course, the jokers. These are wild cards that come in a variety of attributes. Some give out higher payouts for poker hands. Others give extra points for say, face cards. Others give a bonus for a variety of things like beating the blind before playing all your hands.

Then there are packs for purchase. They can be either packs of standard cards, jokers, arcana packs, or celestial packs. Standard packs allow you to choose a card to be added to your opening hand. Celestial packs add planet cards that give additional payouts for played poker hands. There are also vouchers for sale which let you buy cards or decks from the shop.

Deck Builder Wild Cards

You can have up to seven special cards. Five of them can be jokers and the remaining two slots for other special cards. With the right combination of card you can build quite a powerful cadre of cards that deliver large scoring bonuses. The trick is to amass such a collection while still being able to beat the ever-increasing scoring limit of the blinds.

Building a potent special is not so easy. Like the hands drawn with the regular card, the special cards offered are entirely random. It is up to you to determine which mix of special cards will work best. There are even more special cards and bonuses available. Some of the bonuses are rewards for playing so many runs or face cards. Other bonuses are different colored playing decks that award more points.

Fortunately, the game supports saves so that if you have built a powerful deck, you can come back to it later. However, once you lose a blind, you also lose all your special cards and have to start over. Balatro definitely has that one more try game hook to it. Much like real poker does. And you can do runs in a couple of minutes, which adds to the gameplay hook.

Graphics are done in a retro CRT video gambling machine style. You can even increase the CRT scan lines from the Options menu. The interface and letters have that blocky font that adds to the retro look. Additionally, the unobtrusive looping background music and lava lamp backgrounds exude a hypnotic zen-like vibe that further entices you to keep playing.

Balatro Is Addictive

The graphics are the only knock I have against the game. While I understand the vibe, the game is going for, an option to play the game with cleaner graphics would have been a welcome one.

Balatro is addictive. I’m not much of a poker or deck builder player, but I find the combination of the two irresistible. If you have an interest in either, then this game is sure to entice you. Especially since the game is out on every platform and is available now.

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Addictive gameplay loop
  • Deck builder’s delight
  • Has that “one more run” hook

The Bad

  • No option for modern graphics