'I don't play poker at all' says solo developer who made the poker roguelike I can't stop playing

A card game
(Image credit: LocalThunk)

As a poker fan I'm always on the lookout for a new poker game. I'm especially keen to find games that use poker in interesting new ways—like RPG We Slay Monsters or roguelike Poker Quest, both of which use poker hands as a combat system—and if it's a poker-type game I can play on the Steam Deck, all the better.

Poker-inspired roguelike deckbuilder Balatro ticked those boxes nicely and quickly became my favorite game of 2024—before the year even started. I played the free demo every single day over the holiday break, and now that the full game is out it's completely dominating my evenings. I'm not alone: 72 hours after it launched Balatro had already sold 250,000 copies, and each time I sit down to play a few rounds I see more and more people on my friends list playing it, too.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance to talk to Balatro's solo developer, LocalThunk—not just about the game and its origins, but also what I assumed would be our shared love of poker. I was a bit wrong on that last part, turns out.

"It's funny, I don't play poker at all," LocalThunk tells me. That is pretty funny because Balatro has, well, quite a lot of poker in it. Its Steam page even describes it as "the definitive poker roguelike." You begin with a standard deck of 52 playing cards, you make poker hands like straights, flushes, and full houses to score chips, you compete against bosses called blinds, and when you win a round you come away with some cash.

But it wasn't a love of poker that led LocalThunk to create Balatro. One deckbuilder in particular was a strong inspiration: "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 says. As for Balatro, "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," he says. "And so it's based on that game, not based on poker.

(Image credit: LocalThunk)

"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. 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," LocalThunk says. "But I don't play poker. I don't really care very much about poker."

As someone who has played over 70 hours of Balatro over the past couple months—30 of the full game, but 40 alone on the free demo—I can attest to the effectiveness of using common playing cards and well-known poker rules to lure players into the game. I already knew the cards, the suits, and the hands, so even on my first run I already understood the basics. The same way LocalThunk doesn't think about or play poker, I don't think about or play deckbuilders, so it usually takes me a while to come to grips with them, even friendly ones like Slay the Spire. But with Balatro, I immediately felt like I was on familiar ground.

There's no hit points, there's no damage, you're not attacking something. It's almost like solitaire.


"[That] was done very intentionally because that's something about other games… personally, it turns me off when I play a game and it uses a bunch of terminology like HP and poison damage and experience, those kinds of terms," LocalThunk says. "They're very gamer-y terms, and I don't play games a ton. So, those things to me, they feel like they're adding so many layers of complexity. When I made my game, I wanted to make it so there's no hit points, there's no damage, you're not attacking something. It's almost like solitaire."

Which isn't to say Balatro doesn't eventually get pretty complicated. What initially feels like poker quickly becomes something vastly different as you play. After each round you can spend your winnings in a card shop to enhance your standard deck into a bizarre, silly, and often massively overpowered collection of cards with extra perks. Booster packs add extra playing cards to your deck, tarot cards can morph your deck by letting you copy cards, destroy cards, or change a card's suit. Before long you may have a dozen aces in your deck, which make it easy to play four or five of a kind, or instead of a standard 13 hearts you may have double or even triple that amount, letting you become a flush machine.

(Image credit: LocalThunk)

And then there are jokers, the keystones of your Balatro strategy. Some add multipliers for every hand you play, some for specific hands, and some let you hold more cards at once or discard more often. Combining certain jokers can lead to massively high-scoring hands, and plenty of jokers completely break the rules of poker altogether, like letting you form flushes and straights with four cards instead of five, or letting you photocopy cards in your hand. 

I'm not very good at this game.

LocalThunk, about his own game

The longer the play, the stranger and more powerful your deck becomes, and you'll need every advantage to defeat Balatro's bosses, which each introduce special rules meant to knock you off balance: limiting you to only one type of hand, dealing your cards face down, debuffing your face cards or jokers, and worse.

If you watch clips of people playing Balatro you'll see just how gloriously broken decks can get, scoring millions and even billions of points not just in a round, but in a single hand. "I'm very shocked when that happens because I'm not very good at this game," LocalThunk said. "I do get surprised when people are able to do stuff like that, because I can't."

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.