Balatro is pushing the roguelike deckbuilder to new territory

From Jokers to Mults, roguelike deckbuilder Balatro is exploring new territories.
Balatro screenshot

When I first encountered Balatro, my immediate question was, “Can you really make a proper roguelike deckbuilder revolving around poker?” In the classroom, some teachers will make it a rule that there’s no such thing as a silly question. But after playing Balatro, I can confirm that there are in fact exceptions to this rule.

Roguelike players know the genre has a tried-and-tested formula that will provide an engaging gameplay loop if executed well, no matter the theming, and deckbuilder roguelikes are no different.

Despite its relatively recent claim to fame, with the overwhelmingly successful early access launch of Slay the Spire in late 2017, the genre has become saturated. There is no shortage of new roguelike deckbuilders, with many of them featuring a gameplay loop that is almost indistinguishable from the genre’s forerunner. 

Yet we all feel the yearning for something new; something that’ll challenge our intuitions and open up a new world we didn’t realise was there moments ago. For the roguelike deckbuilder player, Balatro is that something.

Upon first starting a run and being greeted by Balatro’s funky retro-Vegas aesthetic, I began to feel almost as old as the CRT displays that the game emulates. It takes some time to familiarise yourself with the core gameplay loop of Balatro, as it’s comprised of systems that are markedly different from other games of its ilk. However, on paper, it’s relatively simple. 

Read: Poker roguelike Balatro is taking Steam by storm

Figure it out yourself

You’re given a hand of playing cards and can choose up to five to play or discard. You want to play the best poker hands you can put together, which are each assigned a number of Chips and Mult (short for multiplier). Your hand is scored by calculating Chips × Mult. Try to reach the target score in a limited number of hands, or it’s game over.

The game then very briefly introduces Joker and Tarot cards, Booster Packs and Vouchers – the various building blocks of your run that can affect your deck or how your cards are scored – and abruptly lets go of your hand. ‘The player can figure the rest out themselves,’ is the prevailing wisdom here.

The moment is very much like when you’re finally let go to roam free in an open-world game: it’s daunting and a little overwhelming at first, but each discovery you make from then onwards is packed with excitement and wonder. You’ll find yourself thinking, “what’s going on?” – but in a good way.

The mystique and lustre of unexplored territory is bound to attract hopeful new players, and recently released roguelike deckbuilders such as Astrea: Six-Sided Oracles and Heretic’s Fork have done just that. With the advent of dice deckbuilding and tower defence mechanics respectively, these titles brought much-needed breaths of fresh air to the genre that are akin to Balatro’s poker-inspired core gameplay loop.

But no matter how you look at it, Balatro stands out from the rest in a manner that is decidedly distinguishable. It’s being picked up by streamers and content creators beyond the immediate roguelike community, it’s being reviewed by players and critics extremely favourably, and it’s still within the top fifteen selling games on Steam almost a week after release.

The aforementioned wonder and excitement continues for quite a while in Balatro, as you begin to realise how deep this poker-roguelike rabbit hole really goes. The game’s design features a minimal number of systems that are each explored maximally.

Balatro screenshot
Screenshot: Nidula Geeganage

Every Joker does something different

Balatro focuses on the depth of its few pieces, each working together in utmost cohesion, rather than the breadth of many pieces that are potentially shallow and incongruous. Such a design choice is characteristic of the inherent constraints of indie development, and this goes doubly so for LocalThunk, as the sole developer of Balatro

When introducing the concept of Jokers, which work together with the player’s deck to create a unique build that amplifies their score, Balatro’s tutorial simply states “Every Joker does something different”. This is for good reason: the scope of the Joker system is too incredible to summarise.

Of the 150 different Jokers available to players, some Joker cards interact with the scoring system, some with the money and interest systems, some can provide cards or other items conditionally, and certain Jokers even bend the rules of poker – for example, by allowing straights and flushes to be made with four cards instead of the usual five.

Jokers that directly affect scoring can range from simple conditional score enhancements such as the Jolly Joker’s “+8 Mult if hand contains a Pair” to complex, multi-layered enhancements such as Obelisk’s “×0.25 Mult per consecutive hand played without playing your most played poker hand”. This latter Joker card creates a dynamic to the run that is ever-present and must constantly be considered by the player.

In order to benefit from Obelisk’s stacking bonus, the player should be aware of which hand is their “most played”, and plan how to juggle between playing different poker hands in order to avoid it, whilst also not overriding their “most played” hand with another type of hand, thereby resetting Obelisk’s bonus. 

If that sounded confusing, it’s because it is. And yet Balatro is filled with similarly complex Joker, Tarot, and Spectral cards; Boss Blinds; Tags; Decks, and so on.

No designer wants their mechanics to be confusing and alienating towards new players; but that wonder and excitement we discussed is right here in the experience of making this card work – if the player can manage the feat. It’s a balancing act as old as time itself, and there are several ways that Balatro ensures this depth is balanced adequately to ensure player retention. 

Seeking balance in Balatro

First and foremost, it is entirely at the player’s liberty which Jokers they want to play with and which they want to avoid. When the game lets go of your hand at the end of the tutorial, you’re free to buy any Joker you can afford from the shop, reroll to be provided with a different selection, or put your resources elsewhere.

If you don’t like or understand a Joker’s function initially, you can simply ignore it. Replayability is at the core of the roguelike experience, so the player can gradually choose to increase the variety of tools they work with at their leisure. As they play run after run – and their skill, understanding and confidence develops – their willingness to engage with complexity will increase alongside their desire for novel gameplay experiences.

Balatro screenshot
Screenshot: Nidula Geeganage

There are also plenty of visual design affordances made for the sake of player comprehension. For instance, any card or item that increases the amount of Chips earned will display the number in blue text.

Similarly, flat Mult increases will be displayed in red text, and multiplicative Mult increases will be displayed in red fill. All commonly referenced effects and concepts are colour-coded like this. Furthermore, for Joker cards like Obelisk that have a stacking or varying bonus effect, grey text is displayed at the bottom of their tooltip, showing the current status of the effect. 

Visuals and audio are also front and centre in Balatro’s phenomenal, adrenaline-pumping high-scoring moments. These work to sell the specific player fantasy at the heart of this poker roguelike: the payoff of thoughtfully arranging the pieces of a build and witnessing their synergy unfolding before your eyes.

Watching the Chips and Mult soar as the playing cards and the Jokers fire increasingly higher-pitched pings back and forth, and struggling to wipe the grin off your face as the score calculator starts blazing in fire – this is the moment that a Balatro run leads up to, and it’s undeniably landing exceptionally with players.

The innovations of Balatro are designed with an impressively cohesive intentionality; deftly balancing new ideas, depth, and player comprehension, while conveying its own distinctive player fantasy. With such artful design, the game’s success is not only well-deserved but also a boon to players – the genre has received yet another entry to its hall of fame. 

Nidula Geeganage is a game designer and writer from Melbourne. He is appreciative of the time you spent reading this article and wishes you a good day. Find him @nidula_