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Two words: poker roguelike



In Casino Royale, James Bond gets a bit of poker advice: You never play your hand. You play the man sitting across from you.

Okay, but what if you just played your hand? What if no one was sitting at the other end of the table? Balatro, a new turn-based card game available on most platforms, takes the mechanics of poker and turns them into the basis of a compelling roguelike, the subgenre of games where each playthrough is a single perilous attempt.

Balatro is a poker game inasmuch as Scrabble is a word game. Knowing the language and probabilities of poker will help you, but ultimately, this is a logic game. There are no bluffs, no pots, just the pure composition of poker hands satisfyingly paired with a thrilling game loop.

This makes Balatro dead simple: each turn, you try to play a good hand and score points. You can discard to try your luck for more helpful cards in your deck. There are a few other possible actions, but this is more or less how the game plays. Balatro keeps your possibilities narrow, allowing your decisions to feel careful and plotted turn by turn. After you beat a round, you’re rewarded with upgrade options that make your deck more powerful. Collectible jokers offer passive bonuses; improved or added cards can tilt certain hands; tarot cards are actions that can be deployed if you’re in a bind; and so on. Part of the fun of roguelikes is learning each new dimension of the game through repeated playthroughs.

It’s a familiar but welcome rhythm. In one run, I tried going for flushes as often as possible, which meant acquiring buffs that increased my hand size (making it more likely to draw the cards I needed) and gave me score multipliers for specific suits (maximizing the points I would score when I did land a flush). Another more successful playthrough was built around going for hands of two pairs, which was easier to draw and more consistent, though they gave me lower point totals… until I upgraded the multiplier and matched them with complementary jokers.

The obvious comparison is Slay the Spire, considered by many to be the king of roguelike card games. Similarly, stacking certain powers and buffs can give you the feeling that you’re cleverly breaking the game. But unlike many other roguelikes, the familiar logic of poker makes Balatro more accessible — and more immediately compelling.

Some minor complaints: I’d describe Balatro’s vibe as “slightly eerie retro,” and part of me wished it had committed more strongly to a theme or idea. I don’t think every game needs a plot, but the UI of Balatro never stops feeling like exactly that. After a few hours of play, it was never lost on me that I was staring at the same handful of menus and buttons. There are some gentle nods to astrology, made confusing only because it doesn’t commit to them more.

We’re the jokers, baby.
Image: Playstack

Also, there is something a little inelegant about the layout. For one, it’s way too easy to accidentally hit discard instead of play — on the Switch, they’re mapped to the X and Y buttons, and screwing that up just one time is enough to spoil a run. Another small gripe was playing handheld — probably the most natural fit for a lo-fi roguelike — I found some of the text and visual elements a touch too small.

If those sound like nitpicks, Balatro’s precision and balance elsewhere invite close scrutiny where that polish doesn’t exist. Mechanically, this is as solid as they come and extremely impressive given this comes from a single developer. An early access darling, Balatro has clearly been heavily tested and finely tuned thanks to an adoring community.

A successful roguelike asks the player to balance strategy, risk and reward, and a bit of luck. It feels early to induct Balatro into the genre’s hall of fame, alongside the likes of Spire, Hades, Into the Breach, and Spelunky. (I would also add the very underrated Slice & Dice to that pantheon.) The gauge tends to be how long people play it and what depth that sustained repetition reveals over time. But if I had to make an early bet, I think Balatro goes the distance. Over the weekend, I finished my first run. Then I did it again — four more times.

Balatro launched on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, and PC on February 20th.

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