I have an obscene number of hours on the absolutely delightful poker roguelike deck building game Balatro since it was released on February 20, 2024, and it looks like I’m not the only one. On Monday, the game announced that it hit the lofty milestone of 1 million copies sold. Balatro is a runaway smash hit and it deserves to be.

The basics of the game are simple: start with a 52-card deck and try to make the best five-card poker hands you can with the given starting cards (default is eight). Every card grants you points and every hand has an additional base point value and multiplier. If you accumulate enough points before you run out of turns, you advance to the next level.

Along the way, you can add cards to your deck, some of which will come with bonus points, extra multipliers, and other attributes. The keys to sky-high scores are the Jokers. Jokers grant you additional bonuses, points, power-ups, and the like and often synergize with each other to create incredible combos. In the beginning of a game, you’ll score maybe a few hundred points per hand, but as you gather more cards and Jokers and stack power-ups, you can rack up scores well into the millions.

The game is extremely addictive, the kind of game where when you lose, you are sure you can do better, so you embark on another run. Before you know it, you’ve been sitting there until 3:00am.

No gambling is involved – Balatro simply uses poker as its backbone and means of scoring. You don’t even need to know how to play poker, as the game’s interface provides a hand-ranking table that also shows the current base points and multiplier for each hand type.

Other deck builders are fun, but the problem I’ve always had with those is that they tend to be difficult to pick up. You often have to know about different deck types and strategies, which enemies are strong or weak to what types of cards, and generally need to study up on how to become better at the game. Balatro requires none of that. You just start the game and go and figure out your strategy as you collect cards.

What I find fascinating about Balatro, beyond the gameplay, is that the lone developer, LocalThunk, doesn’t play poker.

“I love the concept of Luck Be a Landlord, a roguelike that doesn’t have an enemy, and you’re just trying to get a really high score,” LocalThunk told PC Gamer. “….the game itself is really more based on Big Two, which uses poker hands, but you play them out of your hand of eight or 13 cards or something. And so it’s based on that game, not based on poker.”

For LocalThunk, poker was a way to make the game accessible to more people.

“I knew that poker would be a really good thematic tie-in that a lot of people could use as a launching point to understand some of the mechanics in this game,” he explained to PC Gamer. “I could use the terminology in poker, I could use some of the visuals like blinds and antes and chips, and stuff like that, as a way to kind of make the whole thing feel cohesive. But I don’t play poker. I don’t really care very much about poker.”

For someone who doesn’t care about poker, LocalThunk might have made the best poker game around.

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