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Poker isn’t the most exciting game to play alone. Even against computer players in a video game, poker isn’t much fun. Balatro—out now on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC—understands this. Instead of playing other opponents and placing bets, this roguelike deck builder is all about making winning hands and collecting powerful cards to help you earn big combos. And also there’s some weird cosmic magic, too. Don’t worry about it.

Balatro isn’t really a poker game. It uses poker hands and mechanics—like small and large blinds, chips, and discarding—but you aren’t competing against another player, or even an NPC. Instead, your goal in Balatro is to put together winning poker hands as quickly as you can to rack up enough chips (which work like points in the game) to proceed to the next, harder stage.

While it’s not technically poker, if you’ve played a lot of poker—like I have—you’ll immediately understand a large chunk of the game. Knowing basic hands like a full house or a straight will go a long way to helping you jump right in. Though, eventually, even my knowledge of poker only got me so far. (If you fail to reach the points needed in a set number of hands, you’ll fail and have to restart from the beginning.)

Gametrailers / PlayStack

At first, you can get by just making solid poker hands. That will be enough to get you the needed chips to move up to harder stages. But eventually, a straight flush or a full house won’t be enough—that’s when the other part of Balatro comes into play. As you play hands and earn chips, you also make money which can be used to buy new cards and abilities that can increase your combo opportunities.

For example, you might get a joker that lets you make straights without every number needed. (So 3, 4, 6, 7, 9 would work.) Other cards can give you bonuses when played in certain hands, or have a chance to provide big rewards, or vanish forever. You can also use money to unlock cosmic cards that upgrade your hands, making a full house dole out more points than a straight flush. This is where your knowledge of poker might cause problems. You’ll want to play three of a kind, but then remember that you upgraded your pair hand to give more points. Sometimes the better move is to play a weaker hand, which adds a fun wrinkle to the experience.

After your first tutorial run, I recommend going into the settings and increasing the game speed a bit. Balatro plays a lot better when it’s moving fast. It feels snappier. Plus, for folks who know poker hands and are comfortable with deck builders, the slower pace might become annoying.

But regardless of how fast you play Balatro, you’ll likely find yourself getting hooked. A few times I had to force myself to stop playing because I got stuck in a loop of going “Just one more level. Just one more hand. Let’s see what cool new joker I unlock next…” And before long I had sunk another 20 minutes into the game when I was supposed to be doing something else.

So be careful. Balatro is fun but if you are a big poker fan and/or love a good deck builder it might be hard to escape.

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