balatro is poker

this is why the game works as well as it does. at its core are mechanics that are familiar at a near-universal level for the game’s audience: a deck of 52 cards, deuce low and ace high, four suits; you draw cards and assemble a blend of those cards that ranges from high-card to royal flush. the game does not and does not need to explain any of this.

what this means is that you can fully ignore the game’s actual rules — the joker interactions, the tarot and planet cards, the assorted points and caveats of the blinds — and still stumble into a semblance of rhythm and consonance with the gameplay. it is still satisfying on some level to discard your way to a straight flush, even if your deck is not built to make that straight flush any more useful than a two pair.

I think this is how the game gets away with being so wild and weird with so many of its supporting mechanics; the baseline gameplay is instantly and consistently familiar no matter what nonsense is going on. those supporting mechanics all amount to either a) variations and multipliers in scoring, or b) variations in the makeup of cards in your deck, neither of which has anything to do with the feeling of discarding down to find the third or fourth of a kind that you need.

most deckbuilder roguelikes have to be very careful about explaining the cards themselves — what any numbers mean, which information is descriptive vs. aesthetic, what should cue a player to think about a card as good, average, bad, etc. even the best of them basically do this by carefully limiting the rules and wordiness of those rules—look at slay the spire, for which the vast majority of cards have one or two lines of text so that a player is comfortable with the basic set up before larger paragraphs and complex mechanics are thrown their way.

because balatro doesn’t need this with the base deck, it hits the flow state so much more easily, manages intuitiveness without much effort, and then can be somewhat obtuse with other mechanics (you can go a long time never knowing or understanding what a stone card does, or a gold card, or etc) without making the player feel any lack of control or capacity for decision-making.

this is not to discount the work that’s been done to make that feel seamless; the game’s UI, its visual presentation, the difficulty ramping across any individual run. all of that is aces (heh). but the core genius is that it’s built on a foundation that a person who’s never played a video game in their life would still recognize, both in structure (“this is a 52-card deck, this is a heart/spade/club/diamond, this is a face card”) and in mechanical play (chasing an inside straight, discarding a pair in search of the flush).

matt lees says something in his recent SUSD review of earthborne rangers that really struck me, enough so that even though it’s a bit of a stretch to apply here I’m going to type it up and quote it here:

all of the game’s mechanics are purposefully descriptive. and the best example is the way it handles positional information in the field. you’ve got “within reach” or “along the way,” and they’re terms that provide players with a framework of what they can or cannot currently do based on where they are. but if I say “a predator from along the way suddenly pounces within reach” — that’s a sentence that’s evocative and descriptive, but it’s also literally just the rules. I just read you the rules of what we have to do now to continue the game. and that’s a subtle thing, but to combine both of those things into one sentence — that’s huge. that’s huge!

balatro is not like this, but it is also in a way exactly like this, in a very “have your cake and eat it” sort of way. when a joker card reads “all cards are treated as face cards,” it does not have to explain what a face card is. the dynamic interactions of the game end up feeling emergent rather than imposed because the rules of play are nearly self-explanatory, the surprise all comes in the combinations thereof. you’re not struggling to make out the details of an Ace of Hearts; you’re watching it interact with a series of multipliers and tune-ups that turn it into a nuclear warhead.

balatro is poker. after that it is chaotic and weird and roguelike and tactical and whatever, but even when it is those things it is also poker. you know poker, right? of course you do. that’s what balatro’s counting on.