Cheaters constantly prosper in the sublime BALATRO

- By Abbie Stone

Imagine the rush of winning at a high-stakes poker table. Now imagine you’re winning because you’re cheating so blatantly that you might as well be drawing your own numbers on the cards. You put down a 2, then another 2, then three more 2s, to make everyone’s favorite poker hand, 5 of a kind. This is a constant joy in Balatro, a roguelike deckbuilde­r that successful­ly scratches an itch to cheat in a casino that I never even knew I had.

You start off with a deck of 52 traditiona­l playing cards. Each round, you draw eight cards and can play four hands to try to score enough chips to beat the dealer’s score. Each playable hand has a set score and multiplier —eg a pair gives 10 points and a x2 multiplier. The value of the cards you played to make that hand is also applied. So a pair of 10s would be 20x2=40 chips. Nice!

Hmmm, actually, considerin­g the first dealer you face requires 300 chips to beat, you’re going to have to learn to play more ambitious hands quickly. Hands like three of a kind

(x3 multiplier), four of a kind (x7 multiplier) and Royal Flush (ha! As if ). You get three opportunit­ies to discard up to five cards and redraw in the hopes of building a superior hand. Deciding whether to settle for a weaker hand or burn through one of your precious discards is the first of many mini-gambles Balatro

constantly forces you to make. Good, solid, slightly maths-heavy stuff, but it’s the first visit to the shop where Balatro starts truly showing its hand. You can buy cards that level hands up. A single High Card, with its pathetic x1 multiplier, is easily the easiest to make/worst hand in the game. Unless you level it up so much that it can eventually be as effective as a five-card Flush. You can buy Tarot packs that add modifiers to your cards, like extra chips given, money payouts if you discard them, or even massive multiplier bonuses for holding off from playing them at all. Invest in packs of playing cards and you can expand your deck so it can make that aforementi­oned Five of a Kind.

Then there are the Joker cards, sitting in a row at the top of the screen, happily causing chaos. You can have up to five of these potential game-changers in constant play.

There’s the Banana Joker, which will add a x15 multiplier to your score, but has a 1 in 15 chance of destroying itself after every round. Scary Face throws in a 30-chip bonus for every face card you use. The Hack lets some of the more rubbish cards like 2s and 3s play twice. Some jokers push you towards seemingly counterint­uitive strategies, like discarding the highest-scoring cards for cash, or big rewards for only playing one card.


You get three opportunit­ies to discard up to five cards and redraw

All deckbuilde­rs suffer from the inherent randomness of card draw. You’re going to get particular­ly unlucky runs, and Balatro is more upfront than most about how many of its decisions are pure chance. But because it gives you so many options on how to improve your deck, and is forgiving of plenty of minor mistakes and mishaps as you experiment and improvise, it rarely feels like you didn’t have a chance of strategizi­ng your way to success.

Have I mentioned how eerily beautiful it is? It’s like watching a poker game on a cursed TV accidental­ly tuned to 1972, filmed by a crew gradually coming down from hallucinog­ens. But this isn’t one of Devolver Digital’s acid-aesthetic nightmares, more gently surreal and oddly soothing.

This is an absolute triumph, the reason Valve should rename their handheld ‘the Balatro machine’. That it’s the developer’s first game is just rude, frankly, equivalent to going to Vegas and drawing a Royal Flush first time. Something I bet I could pull off with the right mix of cards. I can’t wait to spend another 60 hours finding out.

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