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LocalThunk knew Balatro needed to draw players in with poker

The breakout card game may have adopted some of poker's words and visuals, but it wasn't molded by it.

Justin Carter, Contributing Editor

May 2, 2024

2 Min Read
Splash screen for 2024's Balatro.
Image via LocalThunk/PlayStack.

"When people first interact with [Balatro], it feels so much more like you're actaully playing with playing cards. It lets them interface with some mechanics without [calling it] some cheap, dumb card game.--Balatro creator LocalThunk

Despite what it seems, poker isn't really Balatro's primary influence. Instead, the hit deckbuilder was mainly inspired by the Cantonese game of Big Two.

Talking to NoClip's Danny O'Dwyer for the Dear Dwyery podcast, creator LocalThunk noted the overlap of the two card games' mechanics. But he admitted Big Two isn't as popular in the west as it is in Southeast Asia, and said it "thematically doesn't have a lot going on."

Poker was an effective substitute, further helped by its "interesting and satisfying" visuals and verbiage. Those would be easier for the average person to grok, even moreso than fantasy-related terms like HP and magic.

"I think there's a contingent of people more willing to interface with a game if it's talking about blinds, discards, and all these [poker] words," said LocalThunk. "It was like an onboarding tool, a coat of paint to make this seem approachable for a particular audience."

Balatro wasn't poker, but it was treated like it was

By embracing poker, he says Balatro gained more cohesion as a result. Not every term in the game matches its actual poker description, but he could still lean on those concepts so players familiar with poker could easily pick it up.

Shortly after release, Balatro was briefly delisted in the UK when the PEGI ratings board claimed it encouraged gambling. It didn't, and when asked, LocalThunk said he only became aware of those comparisons the previous summer.

Being candid, LocalThunk said his background in statistics has made him dislike gambling, both in real life and games with those types of mechanics. That said, he doesn't appear to hold anything against PEGI, mainly because he's secure in his intent with the game.

"It bothered me a bit, but again, the whole reason I made [Balatro] was, I made it for me," he said. "I know it's not a gambling game, I'm comfortable with that fact. If a ratings agency disagree, that's on them."

About the Author(s)

Justin Carter

Contributing Editor, GameDeveloper.com

A Kansas City, MO native, Justin Carter has written for numerous sites including IGN, Polygon, and SyFy Wire. In addition to Game Developer, his writing can be found at io9 over on Gizmodo. Don't ask him about how much gum he's had, because the answer will be more than he's willing to admit.

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