This fiendish mashup of solitaire and poker has taken over my life

I am one of those people who feels like crying when the rules of a board game are explained to me, so card games are generally not my thing. In real life poker, I inevitably get bored after a few rounds, go all in, and crash out spectacularly, just so something will happen. But real life poker is not Balatro. Balatro might be the best card game you will ever come across. I specifically left my Steam Deck at home this morning so that I would not sit at my desk playing Balatro instead of doing all the other, less fun things I am supposed to do at work, such as staring disconsolately at my perpetually overflowing email inbox. I think it will be one of the breakout games of the year. Join me, and it will suck you in, too.

Here is how you play. You’re dealt a hand of nine normal playing cards, and then you play the best four or five-card poker hand you can muster from them: flush, straight, three of a kind, all that. Then you’re scored on the hand, with satisfying, ratcheting “ding!”s, and you move on to the next one. You’re only ever playing against yourself: beat the points target, which at the beginning is maybe a few hundred easily scored points, and you move on to the next round.

But then: between games, you can add mysterious things to your deck, holographic or steel or gold versions of cards that give you multipliers or extra chips, or planet cards that increase the points that particular hands are worth, tarot cards that transform cards in interesting ways and a bunch of weird Jokers that can totally change your strategy. It’s poker, but mildly trippy. And you’re supposed to bend the rules.

This madness is ideally what your deck will look like a few rounds in. Photograph: LocalThunk/Playstack

By the fourth or fifth series of games, you’ve got an eccentric deck of lucky cards, where hearts earn you an extra multiplier, playing face cards earns you double points and the planets have endowed a humble two-pair with a gigantic multiplier that you now rely on to beat the points target. You are discarding aces with abandon in the hopes of drawing your special steel three of diamonds that’ll add precious points to your score. Every third round there’s a boss that adds some fiendish modifier to your play, such as limiting you to five cards, or drawing them face down, or randomly disabling entire suits. You have to adapt with every round, hoping that your luck holds and trying to tip things in your favour.

You can, apparently, win Balatro by making it to the end of the eighth round of matches. I found this out by Googling the question and coming a cross a Steam forum thread where some braggart claimed to have won it on their second round, and continues to win 80% of the time. I hate this person.

Twice I have gotten to the final stages, and then spectacularly bottled it. Once I went for a rare straight flush, forgetting that I hadn’t actually levelled that hand up, and ended up with fewer points than a measly pair would have earned me. A few times I’ve made bad miscalculations about my hand, discarding cards in the hope of drawing alternatives that were mathematically highly unlikely to appear. One time I got a boss right before the final stretch that only let me play one type of hand.

Mind your hands … Balatro. Photograph: LocalThunk/Playstack

When this kind of thing happens, Balatro can feel highly cursed, but the catch is that this isn’t a game of chance, not entirely. You need some good luck from the cards and to keep faith that decent Jokers will appear in the shop between rounds, but you do decide where to spend your money on new cards, which hands to go for and which risky chances to take. And thus – like all good roguelikes, games which reset your progress whenever you fail – you feel like you’ll totally have it next time.

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And then two hours disappear. I find the slightly woozy chillwave music and pixel-psychedelic illustration, with those leering Joker card illustrations and the retro TV scan-lines, troublingly tranquillising. If Balatro were trying to get money out of you it would be pure evil, but happily, once you pay your £12.79, all the gambling is virtual and the only thing you’re spending is your time.

I imagine its spell will break eventually, perhaps after I get that elusive win. In the meantime: Life is Balatro now, and Balatro is life. I am dreaming in clubs and spades.


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