Balatro cast a magic spell that made me like math

I’m not a poker guy, but I am definitely a Balatro guy now.

Created by an anonymous developer who goes by the pen name LocalThunk, Balatro is a deck-building roguelite that takes poker and makes it an infinitely replayable and utterly engaging game by adding cards that break the rules of poker in the most delightful ways — via a whole lotta math. I didn’t think anyone could make PEMDAS fun, but Balatro proved me wrong.

A screenshot of Balatro, depicting a top-down view of cards on a table, with several cards from a 52-card deck splayed out across the table Image: LocalThunk/Playstack via Polygon

Each run starts simply. You play a series of levels (called “antes”) composed of three encounters each (called “blinds”): small, big, and boss. In each, you must reach a high score in a limited number of hands. Your score is determined with a simple math formula: X times Y. Both numbers are affected by the hands you play. Stronger cards, and stronger hands, score more points, and like any good roguelike, you can add multipliers on top of multipliers to make those numbers go up and up. Poker rules apply to the strength of the hands; four of a kind earns more chips than a full house, which earns more chips than a flush, which earns more chips than a straight, etc. Winning rounds earns you money, which is then spent in Balatro’s shop — which is where the real game begins.

After every defeated blind, you enter the shop. There, you can spend your hard-earned cash on a panoply of options to further strengthen and distinguish your deck: rule-breaking Joker cards, deck-modifying Tarot cards, booster packs with holofoil cards, cards that might be ghosts, and more. Hand types, like three of a kind or flush, can be upgraded via Planet cards, increasing their multiplier.

A screenshot of Balatro, depicting a top-down view of cards on a table, with an “Uncommon” card highlighted to display a pop-up box with more information that reads: “Not Discovered. Prevents Death if chips scored are at least 25% of required ships. Self destructs.” Image: LocalThunk/Playstack via Polygon

The shop is the bread and butter of winning a Balatro run, because after the opening stage, you won’t be able to beat any of the antes without a little help from these cards. Boss blinds introduce difficult-to-beat mechanics like blocking a single suit from scoring or requiring you play only one type of hand for the entire blind, and each successive ante requires higher and higher scores for each blind. The game becomes about picking up score modifiers from these additive cards to make individual hands more powerful — adding chips and multipliers, then multipliers to those multipliers — such that, in the case of my first Balatro win, even a lowly pair of 9s can win the game.

A screenshot of Balatro, depicting a top-down view of cards on a table, with a series of special Joker cards splayed out at the top of the screen and the player’s hand, containing regular cards as well as two special Stone cards, at the bottom. Image: LocalThunk/Playstack via Polygon

Early on in that run, I picked up a Marble Joker. After each level, it added one Stone card to my deck; these are colorless and numberless cards that add 50 chips to whatever hand you play them with. Marble Joker by itself is not great. Too many Stone cards can screw up your possibility to play, say, literally any hand, since they don’t have a number or suit. But I also picked up two other crucial Jokers: Hologram, which adds a 0.25x multiplier per card added to your deck, and Driver’s License, which adds a flat 3x multiplier if you have at least 16 enhanced cards in your deck. I coupled this with some other Jokers that added multipliers to every hand I played, and by late game, what started as a 20-point hand was consistently earning more than 500,000 points, all thanks to the accumulation of a +10 here and a 2x there. Ordered correctly (card abilities read from left to right, so make sure you add before you multiply), I was looking at a score multiplier of more than 1,300x, transforming a pair of 9s — an objectively not good poker hand — into my first glorious taste of victory.

If this all sounds very mathy, that’s because it is. Not since Universal Paperclips have I played a game this focused on the joys of making numbers interact with one another. Other top-tier deck builders like Slay the Spire or Monster Train inject at least a modicum of narrative flavor on top of their gameplay. Hell, even Universal Paperclips, the most bare-bones number simulator I’ve ever played, is ultimately in service of a story about the consequences of the use of artificial intelligence in the pursuit of maximizing industry. With Balatro, there is no narrative except your own headcanon, which in my case was imagining the video poker machine at my hometown pizza place suddenly beginning to glitch, spitting out cursed cards while the smell of cheese and marinara fills the air. (When it’s proven one day that Balatro is secretly an Inscryption-style deck builder, I expect you all to give me my flowers, thank you.)

But I made all that up. Balatro is just numbers and probability. Balatro is just math.

All video games involve a lot of math, of course — more math than I, a guy who was not a mathlete by any stretch of the imagination, can claim to comprehend. That’s kind of the magic of games like Balatro, though. They make me like math. A lot. Where other games might choose to obscure the innumerable calculations needed to make the game function, Balatro shows its work. Every blind, every ante, Balatro shows you its hand: Its calculations are all visible to the player, step by escalating step.

So what, in Balatro’s case, makes all that math this fun? What was so compelling about what I was doing that I lost track of how much I was playing and somehow put 20 hours into a card game over the course of a few days? When not playing the game, I found myself thinking about the fantasy of these sorts of “numbers go up” games, where I’m able to manipulate numbers to my personal benefit in a world where fluctuating interest rates and the whims of the hyper-wealthy can cost someone their job, or where the circumstances of your birth can come with modifiers that you can’t easily discard. There’s something deeply appealing about this sense of control in games like Balatro in a world that sometimes feels more random than a roguelite.

But, I’ll be honest, that’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m actually playing Balatro. I’m thinking about its perfect learning curve, where early games transform even the most poker-uninitiated among us into card sharks. I’m thinking about its deceptive simplicity, which draws you in before revealing its near infinite complexity. I’m thinking about how Balatro is so self-assured in one of the basest pleasures of gaming — the unironic thrill of optimization — that the spell it casts from hand one remains just as potent on hand 1,000. I’m thinking about how damn good it feels to win.

A screenshot of a boss battle in Balatro, depicting a top-down view of cards on a table, with a series of special Joker cards splayed out at the top of the screen, the player’s played hand in the middle, and the rest of their hand at the bottom. Image: LocalThunk/Playstack via Polygon

Balatro will make you a card counter in a game where every card counts. Before you know it, you’ll be all in. Fans of deck-builders can’t afford to sleep on this one. Ante up.