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  • Writer's pictureGreg Ezell

Balatro Makes A Case For Indie Game of the Year


Balatro main screen
Balatro should be considered as an early Indie GOTY candidate

I've never given much thought to deck builder games because I always thought they weren't for me. For all the times I've heard how great a game like Inscryption or Loop Hero is, there was something about it that just turned me off.


And then Balatro comes along and makes me completely rethink my stance on deck building games.


For those who aren't in the know, Balatro is a deckbuilding roguelike that focuses on building poker hands to defeat your opponent. The overall premise sounds quite simple, but the execution in which Balatro does what it does is masterful.


Performance


I've played Balatro on both my PC and my Steam Deck. First let's talk about the PC performance before we move into the handheld portion of it. My PC (Ryzen 7 5800X, RTX 3070) runs this game little absolutely no issues. I can run it at the highest settings on my 4K monitor at 75 fps with no dips, no hitching, no issues to speak of. It is not a very demanding game which means 90% of machines should have no problems running this game.


For all my handheld homies, Balatro shines on the Steam Deck. If anyone cares about ratings, it is rated "Platinum" on ProtonDB which means it will work "right out of the box" and not need any settings adjustments to make it run properly. This game feels like it was built for handhelds and the performance mimics that.


I've been running Balatro on my Deck at 60 fps without touching the settings and yesterday I got a good 3 hours on it before I even thought about charging my deck. As I mentioned in the PC section, the game is not demanding which means your fan isn't going to be kicking on like it will for games like Helldivers 2. If you're a fan of giving your exhaust the ole sniff test (we've all done it Deckies) then Balatro isn't what you want to play.


Gameplay


Let's quickly touch on story. There is none. You're just some unnamed sap sitting down at a poker table looking to take on the world.


So how do you do that? Round Structure Well you're going to play through 8 antes with each ante consisting of a small blind, a big blind and a boss blind. Each blind has a certain number of chips that you have to score more than to move on. There is also an option to skip small and big blinds to receive some sort of buff. These buffs could be things like a holographic joker showing up in the store or $15 after defeating the boss blind. The tradeoff to this is not receiving any money for defeating blinds.


When you defeat any blind, you receive a certain amount of money. Small blinds are the smallest amount, then big and then boss blinds. You'll also receive $1 per hand you have left and $1 per discard left. If you're holding $5 or more, you receive $1 for every $5 in your pocket.


This really makes you weigh out your options when it comes to skipping blinds.


In Hand Options


Balatro in game screen
Get used to this screen

When you actually get in the game, this is the screen you're greeted with. Get used to this screen because this is where you'll spend 90% of your time. Starting in the top left:

Blind: As I stated earlier, this is your blind. It has the amount of chips you need to beat to move onto the next round. Underneath the large red number is "to earn $$$$". That if your money indicator of how many dollars you'll receive when beating the blind. If you're facing a boss blind, the boss blind's ability will be labeled here as well. Round Score: The number of chips your currently have. Chips x Mult: Every hand will play chips (blue) and mult (red). Your goal is to increase your chips and mult as much as possible. There are many ways for you to do this. The first is by collecting jokers (top of the screen, right of the blind). We'll talk about jokers a little later. The second way to do this is by upgrading your poker hands using planet cards found in the store.


Run Info: Run info tells you everything about your run. What poker hands you've played the most, where poker hands sit in relation to each other (which was a genius move if you're new to poker), what blinds are in this ante and which vouchers you've played.


Hands/Discards/Money/Ante/Round: To the right of run info and options just tells you how many hands you have left, how many discards you have left (up to five cards per discard), which ante you're on and which round overall you're in.


This screen is where you do all your damage to move onto the next round. Using your jokers, your goal is to put together hands that will create the most chips and the biggest mult. Ultimately, you want to pay attention to your mult and which jokers do what with it. There are +mult cards and xmult cards. Always go for an xmult card!


When you defeat the blind, you'll go into the shop.


Balatro's shop
Balatro's shop where you power up for your next ante

After each round, you'll head to the shop to spend your IN-GAME currency to beef up your hands. There's a variety of ways you can do that. First is the "joker table" as I've been calling it. The joker table will provide you with two jokers (and more cards depending on vouchers). Hovering over jokers will let you see what they do and if they have any special laminates on it. These cards are foils, which means they'll automatically add +50 chips every time a hand is played. There are also holographic and polychromatic seals which add +10 mult or x1.5 mult. Underneath that is the voucher section. Vouchers are upgrades that will permanently enhance something in your run. In this picture, the crystal ball increases your consumable slot from two cards to three. There are also upgrades like increased hand size, decreased store prices or adding a third card in the "joker table".


Next to that is the booster pack store. There are four types of packs you'll come across in this section: spectral, celestial, arcane, standard and buffoon.


Spectral packs contain cards that will increase your deck and add things like seals, but most will also disadvantage you because they're so powerful. For example, the Familiar card will randomly destroy one card in your hand but enhance three cards. You're also able to gain jokers this way, with The Soul card giving you a legendary joker!



Celestial packs contains hand upgrades. Playing planet cards will upgrade your hand one level which increase the base chip x mult of that hand. These are incredibly important, especially if you've focused your hand to focus around one specific build.


Arcane packs contain tarot cards which are minimal upgrades to your deck. They range from destroying cards, adding +4 mult to cards or creating random planet cards.


Standard packs have you choose another card (or two) to add to your deck, most of them are enhanced with an ability.


Lastly in the buffoon pack which are joker cards that you can choose from. All of these packs range from a standard "choose one of three" pack to mega packs where you can choose more than one card.


The shop is a big part of putting your build together.


So what makes all of this so special?


I've laid out the guts of Balatro, but what the heck makes it so special? Why are 30,397 people playing it on Steam on a Monday morning?! This is a difficult question to answer without having you experience first hand, but I've found there is something special around talking about this game. I've spoken to friends who have played Balatro, raided into streamers on Twitch and tweeted about this game and people are experiencing it in different ways. It is really great to see how people are putting their runs together and I get a real Hades-vibe from it.


There is a magical moment when you're watching someone play it and the game finally begins to click. They're sitting there, figuring out what they want to do with their build and suddenly a joker drops that increases mult on every two pair played and you've locked yourself into a two pair build, ready to ride or die on every two pair.


I was watching a friend play in Discord yesterday and he rode a heart flush build all the way to ante 12. He used tarot cards to change cards to hearts or duplicate some heart cards and rode flushes.


Builds are seemingly endless in Balatro and the use of jokers and math to make sure you're maximizing your hands are sensational. While Palworld may have indie game of the year locked down due to selling a kabillion units, Balatro has quietly found a space in a busy 2024 where they have created a diehard and engaged fanbase that is sharing their experiences and learning from one another.

That is what makes Balatro a special game and it is one of the reasons why I can't stop playing it.


A key was provided from Playstack Games but does not influence my review of the product.




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