Balatro is 2024’s Best Deal in Gaming

I’m addicted to Balatro, and for just $15, you can be too. Created by indie game developer LocalThunk and published by Playstack, this deck-building rogue-like tasks you to earn as many chips (points) as possible by playing different poker hands (flush, straight, full house, etc). Each different type of hand scores you points based on how hard that type of hand is to get. The game then gives you all the tools you need to stack the deck in your favor: Joker cards add to, or even multiply, the score multipliers for each hand. Tarot cards allow you to change the suit or rank of playing cards, or allow you to add enhancements to them to improve your score. Planet cards allow you to level up the different types of hands, improving the baseline score of that hand. Every time you start a run on Balatro, the game puts the ball completely in your court, and gives you an endless number of hoops to shoot for.

You win a run by making it through eight antes in a row. Each ante has three rounds, or blinds: a small blind, a big blind, and a boss blind. Each blind gives you four hands and three discards to reach a target score, and that target score increases each round, forcing you to improve your deck. After playing each round you visit a shop where you can spend the money you earned on jokers, tarots, etc. However, the small and big blinds also have the option to be skipped for an automatic reward at the risk of not being able to visit the shop before facing an increased target score. Even with all of these moving parts, the strategies of Balatro are simple and intuitive, yet playing still makes you feel like a genius. It’s all about finding jokers that complement each other and molding your deck around them, and when you do, it’s immensely satisfying.

This is what my deck looked like at the end of one of my more successful runs. It started as a normal deck of cards and by the end, it was practically impossible not to find a diamond flush in my hand. While this deck was good enough to win pretty easily, it didn’t even touch the surface of what the game is capable of. After beating the eighth ante, you can try your hand at endless mode, where the scores needed to win each round skyrocket. This is a fun bonus at the end of each run where you see just how far your deck can go. I personally haven’t made it past ante twelve where the target score reaches a hundred million, but with the right build, you could play a hand that has a score ending with fifty zeroes. The fun with Balatro doesn’t stop after you’ve won a run, it only makes you want to make a better build so you can win again and go even farther.

From a visual and auditory standpoint, everything the game offers is simple, but effective. The game looks like it’s being played on a CRT TV, overlaying the screen with scan lines. This can be modified in the settings if it’s not to your taste, but I think it adds a lot of charm. The cards themselves are great, and each enhancement to them adds its own visual twist. For example, lucky cards are old and tattered looking, as if someone has kept them for a long time. The music is limited, but entrancing. It’s like a more intense, techno version of lofi beats to relax/study to. I’m typically so focused on the game that I don’t even notice when it loops. The sound effects are also immaculate. The sounds of the cards being dealt, the hands being scored, and your winnings being cashed out, all give the game a snappy flow.

While Balatro is a single-player game, I’ve also had a lot of fun playing it with friends. Discussing which cards to buy, which rounds to skip or play, or what to discard each round with someone else can be great because at the end of the day, two heads are better than one. Another great thing about Balatro is that it doesn’t test your skill with the controller (although I’d be lying if I said I haven’t accidentally discarded a hand I meant to play), it only tests your mind. This makes it a game that truly anyone can play. Balatro also has increased difficulties that you unlock by winning runs. These are great for an extra challenge and can make the strategy much more intense, which is its own kind of fun. 

My chief complaint with Balatro isn’t even a major issue, it’s just something that comes with the territory. Luck accounts for at least fifty percent of your success and failure in the game. Even with all the tools the game gives you to stack the deck and manipulate your chances, bad luck is inevitable, and it’s frustrating when it causes you to lose a run. However, the pendulum of luck will bail you out just as often as it digs your grave. This is an inherent part of the game’s design; it’s a poker rogue-like, it’d be impossible for luck not to play a factor, but it can still be irritating when it doesn’t go your way.

In terms of story content, Balatro doesn’t have any, but it doesn’t need it. It’s defined by its stellar game design, infinite replayability, appealing visuals, and hypnotic sound design. When you add the accessibility and affordability on top of that, Balatro is an absolute bargain and is my favorite game of the year with a bullet. It’ll be a long time before I find a game that I like better than Balatro, and it’s available on all platforms for just fifteen bucks.

Balatro is available on Windows, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.