Balatro review: Captivating & cruel cards

A roguelike game of Poker hands sounds outlandish, but do Balatro's rule-changing jokers make this more than your usual card game?

Image via Playstack

There must be something funny in the water of roguelike game design. I love a good roguelike, and I’m also a big fan of Poker games in their many forms, but I never would have expected that a roguelike model applied to Poker could work so wonderfully and be so perfectly addictive (in the “just one more run” kind of way, mind you). Maybe that’s why Balatro might be one of my little guilty indie pleasures this season. If you like a good card game, I daresay this one will sink its claws into you and keep you trying to figure out the right combinations of Poker hands, rule-altering jokers, and luck to win one of its deceptively difficult runs.

A new way to play cards

Balatro is a game that is ridiculously easy to understand, but also very tough to master with an influx of luck and misfortune driving the drama in its late stages. Your goal is to complete eight stages of card play, assembling hands and building chip counts and multipliers to beat Small Blind, Big Blind, and Boss Blind challenges of each stage. All you have to do is take normal hands of eight cards and assemble the best Poker hands you can in about four hands. You’ll amass a score based on the cards you played (10 chips for a face or 10 card, 9 for a 9 card, etc.) and the hand you played (A three-of-a-kind has a higher starting chip reward and multiplier than a pair).

You also have three discards available in which you can replace up to five cards from your typical 52 card deck. Get enough chips to beat a Blind’s minimum chip requirement and you win the challenge and move on. Fall short and you’ll have to start your run over. It’s easy to understand and Balatro even provides you with a few cheat sheet options to help you remember Poker hands, values, and your current run’s stats.

Playing a Big Blind challenge in Balatro
Source: Playstack

Here's where it gets tricky. Boss Blinds come in randomized varieties and have special restrictions or conditions associated with them that can really junk your run in a jiffy. For instance, The Hook Boss Blind lets you play a Poker hand like normal, and then it automatically discards two random cards left in your unplayed hand. Meanwhile, The Window makes all diamond-suited cards debuffed, making it impossible for those cards to add to your total score. These Boss Blinds get outright nasty and it’s compounded by the fact that every stage raises the amount of chips you have to score to beat the minimum on a Blind challenge. Simply put, Balatro puts a well-crafted, escalating gauntlet before you and its challenge is both enjoyable and sometimes ridiculously cruel depending a little bit on luck.

Jokers to the rescue?

The Fibonacci joker in Balatro.
Source: Playstack

Balatro doesn’t beat you down without an option to fight back against its daunting opposition. If you had to play fair, you’d probably lose every time, but the game provides you with a wealth of options to shift the rules and turn luck in your favor. It all starts with the joker cards.

Balatro has numerous types of joker cards that, when collected, will add unique properties to your play. There are tons of them, and some must be unlocked as you play. One joker might give you a score multiplier or bonus chips to your hand score if you play a suit (clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds), a face card, aces, or number cards. There are wilder jokers with even wilder properties. One of my favorites would shred the joker to the left of the one in question and add a permanent score multiplier to that original joker at the beginning of a round to be used in all following hands. You can hold up to five jokers normally and mixing and matching them to fit your playstyle is imperative to your success. It’s also just fun as heck to figure out how they synergize.

Using Tarot cards in Balatro.

Source: Playstack

That’s not the only way to shift the tides in Balatro either. Between Blinds, you can collect planetary cards that level up your hands (providing bigger starting chip rewards and multipliers). There are also Tarot cards with their own special traits like destroying cards, changing their suits and ranks, and augmenting cards with bonus attributes like extra chips and multipliers when played or held throughout a challenge. Spectral cards provide huge bonuses at the risk of some difficult costs (like duplicating a joker, but destroying your other jokers). Finally, vouchers are high-cost bonuses that can add to your amount of playable hands, discards, and more.

All of this is to say that Balatro has so many ways you can explore to increase your odds of surviving even the nastiest Blinds. Even then, it can still come down to luck. I had runs where I was crushing every challenge until a Boss Blind ruined key parts of my strategy and cut my run short. I also had runs where I just couldn’t get the hand I needed with the cards I was getting. However, each run teaches you more about what you can do and it was delightful to find each new wrinkle in the cards and challenges and how they would affect my often-changing strategies.

Blindingly good blinds

Playing The Hook Boss Blind challenge in Balatro.
Source: Playstack

I never would have expected that a roguelike could work so well in a card game before I played Balatro. It’s simple and guides you in so well, but escalates quickly and is happy to crush your run at any moment with the smallest strokes of misfortune. That’s what makes the variety of jokers and bonus cards so fun to explore. Every new option provides an opportunity to buck the house advantage. It leads to an appealing gameplay loop that kept me wanting to try all sorts of new angles and strategies. Balatro is something far out of the ordinary, and heaven forbid it ever makes its way to mobile because my casual time will powerless against it (please?).

This review is based on a digital PC copy purchased by the reviewer. Balatro is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

Senior News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player and writer with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. He found his way to the Shacknews roster in late 2019 and has worked his way to Senior News Editor since. Between news coverage, he also aides notably in livestream projects like the indie game-focused Indie-licious, the Shacknews Stimulus Games, and the Shacknews Dump. You can reach him at and also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
  • Surprisingly good synergy of poker & roguelike
  • Difficulty escalates well & provides varied challenges
  • Joker, Tarot, and Planetary cards add interesting gameplay advantages
  • Wide range of unlocks add variety to new runs
  • Simple bad luck can wreck your run a little too easily
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