Poker-themed deckbuilder Balatro gets delisted from some stores after its PEGI rating absurdly jumps from 3 to 18+ over 'gambling imagery'

A flush in Balatro
(Image credit: Playstrack)

Roguelike deckbuilder Balatro has run into a problem related to its poker-inspired gameplay and imagery. Its age rating in some parts of the world has changed since the game's launch in February, and as a result the console version of the game has been removed from some online stores, according to Balatro publisher Playstack, who posted a message on Twitter today:

"We are aware that Balatro has been temporarily removed from sale on a number of digital stores in some countries on console platforms, meaning that some new customers will be unable to buy it," Playstack said. "Presently we cannot estimate with complete confidence which stores it will be removed from, but our hope is that only a minority of stores will be affected."

The stores mentioned appear to be several Nintendo Switch stores in European countries and Australia. It sounds like PC users don't need to sweat it, however: "We are highly confident that the game will remain available on PC stores, including Steam," said Playstack.

According to Playstack, this is all due to "an overnight change to Balatro's age rating from 3+ to 18+ by a ratings board without any advance warning, due to a mistaken belief that the game contains prominent gambling imagery and material that instructs about gambling.

"Balatro does not allow or encourage gambling—and we fundamentally believe the ratings decision is unfounded," Playstack said. "Balatro was developed by someone who is staunchly anti-gambling, and painstaking care has been taken to ensure that the game does not feature gambling mechanics of any kind."

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Balatro's developer LocalThunk said as much to me when we spoke in January. "I'm kind of against gambling," LocalThunk said. "There's really no actual gambling themes in this game. It's based on poker, which is associated with gambling, but the game itself is really more based on Big Two, which uses poker hands." Another source of inspiration for Balatro were roguelikes such as Luck Be A Landlord, where you don't fight monsters or play against anyone, you just go for a high score. LocalThunk isn't even a poker fan, I discovered. "I don't play poker at all," he said.

On Twitter today, LocalThunk responded to the situation with this statement: "I do not condone gambling (staking something personally valuable on an uncertain event) nor do I believe that Balatro contains gambling," he said. "I did add risk/reward mechanics and RNG to Balatro, but these are core mechanics to the genre at large."

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Playstack doesn't name the specific rating board or store, but the UK Nintendo Switch store no longer shows Balatro for sale, and links to its previous store page 404. In the US, Nintendo's Switch store is still selling Balatro with a 10+ rating. 

A quick look at other stores shows recent changes in Balatro's age rating. The UK PlayStation and UK Xbox stores show Balatro is currently rated "PEGI 18" and cited for "prominent gambling imagery." That's a recent change, however: a web archive search shows Balatro rated "PEGI 3" on the UK Xbox store on February 27, just three days ago. In the US Xbox store, Balatro is currently rated "Everyone 10+" and noted to contain "gambling themes." On February 18 it was simply rated "Everyone" with no warning about gambling whatsoever.

The hope is that this is temporary situation: in a statement to Game Informer, a Playstack representative said "presently we believe that, due to the sudden ratings change from 3+ to 18+, this has triggered legitimate automatic safeguard systems on digital stores, and consequently most Nintendo Switch stores across Europe are temporarily affected, as well as in Australia and New Zealand."

On the one hand I can see someone at a ratings board—not to mention parents—being a bit leery about a game that is based on poker being rated as kid-friendly. But it only takes a few minutes of playing Balatro to see that it's not really poker. "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," LocalThunk told me in January.

Most importantly, there's no gambling in Balatro. You're not playing against anything but a point total—there are bosses to beat but that just involves scoring above their limit. No one else is making poker hands, it's just you. Balatro is like Solitaire with magic. The only "gamble" is when you buy a Wheel of Fortune card and you have a 1-in-4 chance to make one of your jokers special… and that's not even a gamble because we all know the card is just gonna say "Nope!" every dang time.

According to Playstack, the publisher already went through this age rating procedure once before. Balatro was originally given an 18+ rating, but following an appeal from the publisher, the rating was revised to a 3+. "During that specific appeal, the ratings board assured us 'we have reviewed your product and determined that the disclosure of gambling themes was unwarranted'. The game content has not changed since the age rating was amended to a 3+," said Playstack.

We'll keep an eye on the situation and let you know if there are further developments. For those who bought the game from stores it has since been removed from, you will still be able to play it, says Playstack. "Please rest assured the game will be back up on sale, possibly with a temporary 18+ rating while we resolve the issue."

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.