Poker for Video Gamers: What is Balatro?

We seem to be living in an age of the ultra-hit game. First, The New York Times daily Wordle puzzle turned a classic concept (guess the word by inputting letters) into a household name, then, big-budget titles like Baldur’s Gate III and PalWorld met an audience seemingly starved for entertainment and relaid the foundations of video gaming all over again.

Now, it’s the turn of Balatro.

“Overwhelmingly Positive”

Balatro falls somewhere between the previous few titles in offering a “big” experience in a small package. It’s not as casual as Worldle but not as vast as Larian Studio’s Baldur’s Gate III. Its Steam page is a sea of familiar buzzwords – roguelike, combos, deck-building, synergies, and builds – but its combination of poker and quick action makes for a novel experience. 

Balatro’s popularity is best explained in statistics. The Verge website notes that LocalThunk’s game has been played for a total of 1,742 years so far, grossing $1m in just eight hours. Its “Overwhelmingly Positive” rating on Steam gives it a rare quality shared only with Valve’s Portal franchise, Stardew Valley, Subnautica, and a few other monoliths in the store.

During each round, you’ll make hands, collect decks, and try new ways to make numbers grow ever bigger. It’s vaguely similar to Mega Crit Games’ Slay The Spire, as reviewers enjoy pointing out, albeit without the wanton borrowing usually associated with that game’s rivals. There’s also a Jokers feature. These act as modifiers to change your current hand.

Poker Hands

Balatro gets its inspiration from casino gaming and it’s not the first game to do so. Grand Cru’s now departed Battlejack combined blackjack with RPG mechanics, for instance. Balatro uses real poker hands instead, like the flush and full house, which brings it more into line with three-card poker, another solo version of the classic game.

Three-card poker is played between the dealer and the player. Each gets three cards apiece to play with (and no more). Players place an initial ante bet, followed by a play bet if they intend to continue. Of course, if they don’t think their hand is better than the dealer’s they can fold. The PlayStar NJ casino app now offers a live version of three-card poker on its app and website, with human dealers on camera.

Unlike poker, at least for novices, LocalThunk hasn’t overcomplicated things. Players must use their hands to create a score large enough to defeat a boss blind. This term describes the bets made by everybody at the table before they receive any cards in traditional poker but, here, it’s simply an objective to overcome. Chips earned in each Balatro round can be exchanged for new cards.


For achieving certain conditions, such as completing parts of the Collection, you’ll acquire decks that introduce quirks to the proceedings, like larger hand sizes (Painted Deck) or a randomizer (Erratic Deck). It’s easily one of the most talked-about indie games of recent months – although, expect that to change soon with Stardew Valley’s 1.6 update.

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