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Q&A with Playing Card Designer Paul Carpenter (Encarded Playing Card Co)

Who is Paul Carpenter?

Graphic designer Paul Carpenter is the man behind Encarded Playing Card Company. He made a big splash in the custom playing card industry in 2012 with his original Tendril deck, which was produced with the help of crowdfunding, and broke the Kickstarter record for the highest funding for a playing card project at the time. These decks were originally priced at under $10 each, but since they are prized by collectors, they typically sell on the secondary market today for more than ten times that much!

Why was the Tendril deck so successful? It had some unique features that made it very attractive, particularly the fact that it was a black deck with fully customized artwork in neon colours, card backs with organic symmetry, and shadowed borders. These elements came together perfectly, resulting in a deck that was beautiful and practical, all at once, and had an instant appeal for card flourishers, magicians, and collectors. But the timing was especially fortuitous; it came out just as Kickstarter was really starting to take off, before the abundance of custom playing cards designs found on crowd-funding platforms today. Pioneers like Paul Carpenter were able to reap the rewards by publishing a good design, and capitalize on a market that was looking for something new and exciting, and where the marketplace wasn't yet flooded with competition, and this deck effectively launched his brand, Encarded. After that initial record-breaking success, Encarded has gone on to produce well over 30,000 decks of custom playing cards.

The Interview

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?

Encarded has been my fun creative side project since 2011, but I am also the creative director for an internet development company, and have been in that business since 1997. Visual design has been an interest of mine since childhood and I have always pursued creative endeavors that get to explore that area. I live in Florida, am married and have two super children, and we enjoy hiking, traveling, and spending time together.

When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?

I started designing cards in late 2011, after seeing an article in a design blog about the “Deck One” designed by Homer Liwag. At the time, I had no idea that custom cards existed and the idea of creating my own immediately brought back my childhood love of sleight of hand and card magic.

How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started?

The card market has changed significantly since those early days, and I find that my projects have become smaller, more “thoughtful” and fewer in number. Instead of trying to cram more product into a hugely crowded space, I prefer to take my time and consider more aspects and create decks that I personally want in my collection.

What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?

I primarily love the process of creating the back design. I find that exploring a rough concept, or stumbling across a motif and then expanding on it is the most fulfilling part. My second favorite part is definitely the box and if you look at any of my decks you’ll see a fair amount of attention paid there. Since many of my customers buy decks and never open them, I have also put a lot of thought into how to incorporate the deck inside with the outer appearance, which you can see manifested in cutouts or laser-cut details that expose the interior even if you don’t open the box.

How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?

My inspiration comes from many areas but travel to other parts of the world is probably the most prominent inspiration. My first deck, Tendril, was inspired by the rainforest of Costa Rica and many of my other decks have used motifs or ideas from other parts of the world.

How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs?

I’ve created about a dozen main designs, but many of those have variants or limited edition versions which expands the total significantly. I’ve been fortunate that almost all of my designs have sold out over the years and most have become collector items, some of which routinely top the value charts for modern designed decks. I surprised myself a few years back by checking eBay and seeing what some of my earlier releases go for!

Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?

If forced to pick, I think that Aurum is my personal favorite. I love the way the design and colors came together on that deck and it was my first foray into laser-cut boxes, which is still a very unique feature. The purple colors are not commonly seen and it has a “complex simplicity” that has become a part of many of my designs.

How would you describe the style of your playing card decks? Are there any particular features or characteristics of your decks that you hope people will notice and appreciate, or help make your decks different from the many others out there?

I do not have any particular style, on purpose. When I started Encarded I very specifically chose to explore a wide variety of designs and not do the same thing. Most of my decks are quite different from the previous releases. A common thread that I do like to explore is mixing huge amount of detail with an overall visual simplicity. Many of my decks will look somewhat simple from a distance but if you get closer you will start to see layers of complexity and high detail exposed through more careful study.

What is your process in designing a deck of playing cards, starting with the concept, all the way to completing the project and having finished decks?

I usually start by exploring a small aspect of a design, like a fragment of a pattern that I might stumble across. Sometimes I do quick and extremely rough pencil sketches, but most often I transfer right into the computer and start playing with ideas. I do not consider myself an “illustrator” and am more of a designer, so you won’t find huge notebooks full of concepts and drawing in my designs. I always start with the back design, then transfer to developing a related box, and then finish with pip designs and assembling faces.

Which printer do you use to make your playing cards, and why? What has your experience with them been like?

I’ve printed with both the US Playing Card Co and Expert Playing Card Co. Both have pros and cons, though in more recent times I’ve done smaller projects that lend themselves to Expert. I’ve found them to be a pleasure to work with, Bill Kalush has such a passion for cards and the people at the factory have a huge attention to detail.

What are some of the easiest, and what are some of the hardest parts of the process in making a deck of custom playing cards?

I find that the initial ideas are pretty easy to come up with, but getting all of the details just right takes a lot of time and effort. It can take dozens of test prints and changing details by just a few pixels to get the card looking perfect. The hardest part, by far, is fulfillment and customer service. I have never wanted to offload that to a third party as I want to ensure that everything is packaged perfectly and also so I can accommodate special requests like signatures. Doing that process myself is the way to go but is painful.

What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?

I mainly wish that people would be less swayed by fads and look more to the artistry that playing cards are capable of. So many of the decks these days are just lazy design and have no redeeming quality other than being “from that cool guy” and it’s mildly disappointing to see excitement for decks that are literally the 10th color version of the same lacklustre design. If you expand your horizons and look to finding true art you can come across some utterly amazing and gorgeous decks.

The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last decade. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today?

I’ve mentioned that a bit, but when I did my first deck there were 6 decks on Kickstarter. Last time I checked, there were over 3000. The volume is approaching an almost absurd level and I will not be surprised if it will break soon and you see a huge drop in successes. I see many long time customers that have slowed down or given up because the volume of garbage decks is just too high. Eventually I think this will self-correct and we’ll see more quality and less quantity.

What impact has crowdfunding like Kickstarter had on the custom playing card industry? And what has your own experience with this been like?

Crowdfunding was how I started, but at this point I do not rely on it. It is a valuable tool, but I think it also drives some less than desirable behaviors. To stand out now, you have to have far too many add-ons and extras that exist solely to drive dollars and less to actually augment the core design. As a result, you’ll find too many projects that have a poor core design but tack on every button, coin, pin, sticker and alternate color possible just to get the funding goal. Kickstarter is a great way to start but you can’t ignore your design and the customer service required to get your project done.

Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what innovations or changes might we see in the coming years?

I think it will slow down eventually and you’ll see less “fad” decks and more careful and artful designs. Cardistry has driven much of the excitement in cards in recent years but the art of playing cards has been around for a very long time and there will always be a subset of designers that want to explore that history and creativity and care less about what is currently in fashion.

What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards? How do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?

Everyone that I know and talk to is surprised to learn of Encarded and is universally excited about it. I’ve shown my collection, decks, uncut sheets and printing plates to nearly everyone that has visited my home and they all stand there with a wide-eyed, “wow that is so cool” look on their face. It’s quite fun to introduce people to the world of cards.

Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers, either online or in any other way?

I am a member of 52 Plus Joker, a long standing collector organization. I’ve given some talks at their conventions and had the honor of designing their club deck a few years ago. I chat with a variety of other modern designers online and we trade thoughts and ideas now and then.

What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today? What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what they should look for in a quality deck of playing cards?

As I eluded to, if you want to collect cards for the long term than don’t look to fads. The 8th color version of a deck will barely be remembered in 20 years. I’d encourage people to look for decks that grab their attention and create a moment of wonder or fascination. Don’t buy a brick of decks just because it seems popular with the kids, because the problem is that there are 1000 other people doing the exact same thing and you will all be stuck with a brick of lacklustre decks that no one wants. Look for gems that have thought and love put into them.

Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

I am working on a new deck that I call The Priory. It is a bright, colorful design that could be used for cardistry but will also appeal to collectors. While the design may look extremely bold and modern it actually dates back to an 11th century French church, which I was just fascinated by. I take my time and don’t have an exact release date but have been noodling with the details for a while now.

What is the best way to keep up with news about playing cards from Encarded?

Many new people seem surprised to learn that Encarded has been around so long and ask how they can find out more about my decks and releases. I’d encourage any collectors to visit and follow on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), as many of my limited decks sell out fast.

Final Thoughts

With his record-breaking Tendril deck, Paul Carpenter made an important contribution to the playing card industry more broadly. When his original Tendril deck was released on Kickstarter in early 2012, it went on to reach a total funding level of over $40,000, with the help of more than 1000 backers, and at the time it easily set a new record for the highest amount of funding ever for a deck of playing cards, crushing the previous high. Unsurprisingly, some consider this deck to have played a key role in beginning the playing card revolution on Kickstarter that would follow in the years afterwards. After this home-run, the word was out that Kickstarter was a truly viable platform for projects of quality playing cards, and so collectors and magicians began flocking to this crowd-funding platform in search of other hidden gems. It's a result of successes like the Tendril story, that other talented and independent designers began to tap into a market that previously was monopolized by big publishers like Ellusionist, Theory11 and Blue Crown.

But Paul wasn't just in the right place at the right time - he's also a skilled designer. The Tendril decks that kickstarted Paul Carpenter's Encarded brand are still as eye-catching and appealing as when they first were released. They have luminescent colours and an eye-catching design that feels simultaneously jarring and yet relaxing; a paradoxical combination of the boldly striking and the pleasantly calming, making them feel oddly hypnotic and at the same time ethereal. But Paul's creative talents are in no way limited to this initial effort. He likes experimenting and trying new things, and he has continued to develop his designs after this high powered entry into the world of custom playing cards. Whenever he releases a new design today, it immediately attracts a lot of interest, and his decks often sell out quickly. Since the launch of Encarded in 2011, he has created numerous projects, many of which are produced in limited numbers, and are highly sought after by collectors. Some of the decks he's produced under this label include Aurum, Deco, Zenith, Chancellor, Celestial and more. These are classy playing cards that are typically in high demand, so if his style appeals to you, you'll definitely want to keep an eye for his future projects so that you can snap up new arrivals while you can!

Where to get them? Paul's decks are often produced in limited quantities, and quickly sell out. The best place to look is at Encarded's website (, stay in touch on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), or sign up for their mailing list (link).

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Thu May 9, 2019 3:53 am
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The Iconic ARRCO Playing Cards

Some playing card brands are iconic and immediately recognizable, like Bicycle, Bee, Tally-Ho, and Hoyle. Today the United States Playing Card Company is easily the granddaddy publisher of them all, and many of its published brands represent other companies they have acquired. Ever since it formed in the 1800s, USPCC has slowly gained a position of dominance, taking over many other companies along the way. In many instance, it made sense for them to preserve the original brand names they inherited, given that these were often popular, recognizable, and established brands.

But here's one brand that many younger readers might not recognize: ARRCO Playing Cards.

Magicians who were actively using playing cards in the 1980s and earlier will almost certainly recognize that name, since it was the brand of choice for many, due to its elegant design and superb reputation for handling. The ARRCO brand continues to have many enthusiastic devotees, and is still a beloved deck for many magicians and card players today.

In recent decades these cards have become hard to get hold of, and the brand has faded somewhat into obscurity. A 2018 reprint (available here) has sought to change that by bringing back this classic in both its signature red-backed design and blue-backed design. To help us appreciate these reprinted decks, let's dive page into the pages of history, and learn something about the story of the ARRCO brand. Shown here are a couple of the original Arrco decks, which were a hot commodity when in their prime.

So where did it all begin? The Arrco Playing Card Company started operations in 1927, but initially under a different name: Arrow Playing Card Company. At that time the Arrow Playing Card Co was under the leadership of Theodore Regensteiner, who also has the distinction of being the inventor of the four-color lithograph press.

Based in Chicago, the company took Chicago's "Century of Progress" World's Fair in 1933-34 as a golden opportunity to announce its new identity, under the new name: Arrco. In conjunction with this, Arrco produced a promotional deck entitled "Century of Progress Playing Cards", which is pictured below. This new deck was a tribute to the fair, and at the same time was a good marketing move, by seeking to capitalize on the thousands of visitors to the Fair and so promote the look and feel of these new cards.

Already at that time, the Cincinnati-based USPCC was an industry giant. But Arrco soon gained a loyal following of its own. This was largely due to its high quality card stock and elegant graphics, which it made available in a familiar red and blue. Besides its signature red and blue decks, Arrco also produced many other playing card designs, including many that used original art prints. In the years that followed, Arrco continued to improve the quality of its playing cards, experimenting with better cardboard and better finish, and eventually earning a solid reputation as a lively competitor to USPCC.

But the real break-through that would contribute significantly to their later success came in 1941, when Arrco developed what they called their "Plastic Coated Duratone Cards". The innovation here was that these cards had a special special coating that made it possible to clean the cards with a damp cloth.

The ad copy promised that these were "Easy To Clean, Simply Wipe With Damp Cloth". The new finish was billed as follows:

"It's a quick trick to remove soil, candy or ink stains from Plastic-Coated Duratone cards ... a damp cloth, a wipe, and presto - they're like new! At this time, not even a magician could supply the tremendous demand for Duratone cards."

As evidence of their popularity and success is the fact that the US government made large orders of the cards with the new Duratone finish for the army. A special deck design was even produced by Arrco for military service members!

This is the era in which Arrco really made its name, and earned the reputation for which many today still hold it in high regard. The original stock and finish of the Arrco decks during this time period made it a beloved deck, and cemented its place in playing card history. Much appreciated by card handlers, it was highly regarded for both its looks and its performance.

For example, here's how magician Paul Lelekis describes his experience with them: "I used AARCO's exclusively since the late 1980s, for years while table-hopping, until they became unavailable. These decks fan easily, they last longer (performance-wise) than Bicycles, and I have stuck thousands of these cards on many ceilings. They are my all-time favorite cards to use and are very easy to manipulate. AARCO's are the best performance cards in the world."

The signature Arrco back design in red and blue was very popular, and is still considered beautiful today, with many people loving the quality and design of the classic Arrco design. The card backs have a generous white border, and feature the classic and intricate design for which the Arrco brand is famous. It is far more detailed and complex than most back designs, and this is exactly why many people love it. Yet it retains the mirrored symmetry that most people prefer to see on a card back.

The card faces have a traditional and standard look, although the court cards are not the same as what you'll see on a standard Bicycle rider-back deck. The colours are the same but the patterns are not, with a slightly more intricate design that seems more sophisticated and less garish. It also cleverly incorporates tiny suit pips on the clothing of the characters. Quite frankly, I even prefer these court cards over the standard Bicycle rider-back courts! The observant will also notice that the shape of the pips in the ARRCO deck is slightly different than those of a typical Bicycle rider-back deck.

Arrco continued to churn out its playing cards well into the 1980s, but in 1987 the Regensteiner family decided to sell their operations. The playing card division of their company was taken over by its long term rival USPCC, which by that time had gobbled up many other competitors already.

USPCC continued publishing decks of playing cards under the Arrco brand for another decade or so. But while the original Arrco decks were plastic coated, USPCC eventually printed the decks in their usual paper stock, although the Jokers continued to say "Plastic Coated" as part of their iconic design, despite this change, and the later Arrco decks handled the same as other USPCC produced paper playing cards.

But eventually the popular Arrco brand started to fade into obscurity, and USPCC discontinued the decks. Fortunately for us, they have been the subject of a reprint a number of times. While originally offered in red and blue, in 2011 a special custom run of ARRCO White Playing Cards was produced, with the same iconic design, but with white backs.

Then in 2018, Will Roya was able to secure an arrangement with USPCC to produce a limited edition reprint, with 2,500 copies of both the red and blue versions of the deck being produced. For the most part the tuck case of the 2018 limited edition reprint is the same as the original deck, although some small modifications have been made in order to comply with USPCC's current requirements. These minor differences aside, the reprint features the classic ARRCO look in red and blue.

The new decks also include two gaffs not present in the original Arrco decks, and if you get both the red and blue deck you'll get a full set of gaffs: a double faced card, blank faced card (blue back), plus two double backers (one in red, the other red/blue). Unlike the original Arrco decks, which had a plastic coating and smooth finish, these reprints have an embossed air cushion finish, with a traditional cut, and thus offer the usual high quality performance you'd expect from a modern USPCC produced deck.

Magicians have long loved these decks, and collectors will also appreciate the opportunity to seize a piece of history. While their performance won't be identical to the original Arrco decks, like other USPCC produced decks they handle well, but they feature the artwork and design that many magicians and collectors feel strongly connected with, giving them an immediate appeal.

Where to get them? You can find the ARRCO decks on PlayingCardDecks here:
- ARRCO Red & Blue Playing Cards
- ARRCO White Playing Cards

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Tue May 7, 2019 2:52 am
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The Impact of Playing Cards on the English Language

The Impact of Playing Cards on the English Language

Expressions and idioms derived from playing cards and card games

As the English language has developed over time, many expressions have entered common usage, which give meanings to words quite different from the literal meanings of the individual words themselves. When this happens it is referred to as an idiom, which is a phrase that doesn't always follow the normal rules of meaning and grammar.

Many idioms have their background in older phrases that have changed over time, or originate in specialized areas and have come to have a broader usage. So it's no surprise that a lot of idiomatic expressions in English originate in the world of playing cards and card games like Poker. Not every expression that might seem to be playing card related is necessarily so; for example the idiom "call a spade a spade" actually originates in a first century Greek writing, well before playing cards even existed!

But many expressions and catch-phrases do originate with playing cards and card games, and this just goes to show the tremendous impact that cards and games have had on our culture. In fact, language usage like this is often used by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, to measure how widely known card games were, because their use in language is clear evidence of their cultural importance and significance.

So let's learn how card games haven't just put cards into our hands, but have also put phrases and expressions into our English language!

Above board
What it means: Honest and straightforward, not secret or deceptive.
How it originated: When playing a game of cards, players would show that they were not cheating by keeping their hands above the table, which was originally called a "board".

Have an Ace (or card) up your sleeve or Ace in the hole
What it means: Something important held in reserve, which others aren't aware of, and can be used to your advantage at the right time.
How it originated: Magicians or cheaters at cards would sometimes literally have a card up their sleeve, that they would sneakily pull out at the appropriate moment. Similar is an "Ace in the hole", which originates in Poker. Since an Ace is the strongest card, and your "hole" cards are hidden and known only by you, having an Ace in the hole means you have a hidden advantage that becomes known when revealed later in the game.

All bets are off
What it means: The outcome of a situation or event is unpredictable.
How it originated: When a game situation is uncertain, for example after an unexpected change, then no players would take any bets due to the uncertainties.

Ante up
What it means: Pay the money for something.
How it originated: An ante is the amount of money you put on the table as your bet at the start of a card game.

Come up trumps
What it means: To successfully achieve a better-than-expected outcome.
How it originated: In card games, trump cards beat all other suits.

Deal in
What it means: Include someone.
How it originated: In a card game, the playing cards are "dealt" to all the players, so to be dealt in means to be part of the game.

Dealt a bad hand
What it means: Have bad luck, or receive a disadvantage.
How it originated: No matter how skilful you are, if you are dealt a hand of bad cards, this is hard to overcome!

Few cards short of a deck or Not playing with a full deck
What it means: Unintelligent, mentally deficient, somewhat crazy or simple.
How it originated: A deck that has several cards short is obviously incomplete, and can't function properly for a card game.

Follow suit
What it means: Follow someone else's actions or example, and do what they have done.
How it originated: Especially in trick taking games, players are often required to play a card of the same suit as the person who plays first in a hand.

Hold all the cards or Hold all the Aces
What it means: Be in a strong position, with all the advantages.
How it originated: If a player held all the Aces - usually the strongest card - or a winning hand, they had a very strong advantage, and the best chance of winning.

House of cards
What it means: Something unstable, badly put together, and easily destroyed.
How it originated: Building a literal house of cards can be a fun activity, but the result is usually very fragile, and an accidental bump in the wrong place will cause the entire structure to fall.

In spades
What it means: To have something in a large amount, or an extreme degree, as much or even more than you'd want or need.
How it originated: The highest ranking cards in Bridge are the Spades, so if you had cards in Spades you'd be in a good position.

In the cards
What it means: Possible, likely.
How it originated: This originates in the practice of using playing cards (especially Tarot cards) are sometimes used for fortune-telling, to predict the future.

Joker in the pack
What it means: An unexpected and unpredictable variable that could have a large impact.
How it originated: In many card games the Joker is a "wild card" that can be used as any card, and therefore can be a real game-changer.

Lay your cards on the table or Show your hand
What it means: Be open, and honestly reveal your intentions or resources for all to see.
How it originated: Games like Poker involve a showdown where players need to reveal their hand and show what they have; prior to laying your cards on the table, or showing your hand, your strength is secret and unknown, and even subject to bluffing.

Lost in the shuffle
What it means: Overlooked or bypassed, often in a busy setting or crowded circumstances.
How it originated: The aim of shuffling, naturally, is to lose cards in a deck, so that their position isn't known or immediately identifiable.

Overplay your hand
What it means: Overestimate the strength of your position.
How it originated: This is a result of thinking that the cards in your hand are of greater strength and value than is actually the case.

Play your cards close to your chest
What it means: Be very secretive or cautious.
How it originated: By literally keeping your cards close to your chest, there is less chance that other players will see them, and discover the strength of your hand.

Play your cards right
What it means: Make the best use of your opportunities to achieve the greatest success possible.
How it originated: Winning a card game requires more than having a good hand - you also need to play your cards right, by deciding when and how to play them.

Play your last card
What it means: Make a final or last-ditch effort.
How it originated: Playing your last card means that after this play, you have no more resources to use.

Poker face
What it means: A expressionless face that gives no indication of feelings or emotions.
How it originated: This is an essential skill in poker, since good players will look for subconscious "tells" in their opponents that might give away what cards they have or whether they are bluffing.

What it means: A decisive confrontation or contest.
How it originated: A showdown is the moment in a game of poker when players reveal their cards to determine the winner.

Stack the deck or Have the cards stacked against you
What it means: Arrange things to create an unfair situation; or to have things unfairly arranged against you so that you are disadvantaged.
How it originated: "Stacking" a deck of cards means that it has been prearranged in a particular order, which could be done deliberately to disadvantage a player when they are dealt out.

Strong suit
What it means: Your strong suit is something you are good at or know a lot about.
How it originated: In a game of cards, a strong suit is the one that you have the most cards of in your hand.

Trump card
What it means: A decisive factor or final resource, often held back, and used to attempt to win if nothing else works.
How it originated: Trump cards beat all other suits in a typical card game, and are often deployed strategically and held in reserve.

Up the ante or Raise the stakes
What it means: Increase what is at stake in a discussion or dispute; this can be by increasing your commitment or involvement, or by increasing the importance or danger.
How it originated: The ante is the money you put on the table as your stakes at the start of a card game.

Wild card
What it means: Someone or something with unpredictable or uncertain qualities, which could yet have a big impact.
How it originated: Similar to a Joker, in a card game a Wild Card is a playing card that can have any value or suit chosen by the player.

So now you're ready to return to real life, armed with some new vocabulary. Some decks of cards will even include clever one-liners that make reference to idiomatic expressions like these, or have clever quotes on the tuck box, like: "Trust everybody, but always cut the cards."

But even if you don't have some playing cards in your pocket, you can certainly bring them into your language! Just remember that if life deals you a bad hand, or you find the cards stacked against you, it's good to keep your cards close to your chest. Don't immediately lay all your cards on the table, don't get lost in the shuffle, and don't make people think you're not playing with a full deck - otherwise the situation might become a house of cards. Instead, keep an Ace up your sleeve, rely on your strong suit, and play your cards right. You never know what might happen - especially if you have a wild card, or when you play your trump card!

As the 17th century philosopher Voltaire is often quoted as saying: "Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game."

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Wed May 1, 2019 1:10 am
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Playing Card Myth #1: Court cards are based on real people

Debunking Common Myths About Playing Cards

Claim: Court cards are based on real people

The artwork of the court cards in a regular deck of playing cards is very firmly established in tradition, and deviation from this familiar look is considered to be a novelty, even today.

But where does this traditional look originate? It is sometimes claimed that the figures of our modern playing court card characters are in fact based on historical personages. For example, you may sometimes hear the suggestion that the four kings in a deck of playing cards represent historical leaders Charlemagne, David, Caesar, and Alexander. Is there any truth to this?

Fact: False

It is certainly the case that there was a period in history where court cards were closely connected with specific personages. There's a long tradition with French playing cards, dating back to the 16th century, that every court card be associated with a particular figure in history and literature. In this time period, there was a popular trend to associate each court card with a different figure from the past, so that particular heroes and heroines from antiquity and literature became connected with playing cards. The source material for these popular characters includes mythology, theology, and history.

But this practice of assigning identities to the court cards was a later development in the history of playing cards, which only began in the mid-15th century, long after playing cards had already been used throughout Europe, using court cards that had no such connection to any individuals in particular. So this was only a temporary practice that was eventually abandoned, and was never adopted to the point where the entire set of court cards was associated with a commonly accepted or standard set of characters. Scholars are not even in complete agreement about which characters exactly are represented by which court cards, and this is in part because there was not always unanimity or consistency on this point in 16th century French decks!

Common characters

But while it is not true that the characters of the court cards originated in representations of important figures from literature and history, at least for some time in France this identification was a common practice, and is still sometimes evident in modern French decks today. Here is a list of common characters that were typically used in 16th century French decks, including four kings that represent the four great empires of Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans:

● David, Biblical king (Spades)
● Alexander the Great, Greek leader (Clubs)
● Charlemagne, king of the Franks (Hearts)
● Julius Caesar, Roman leader (Diamonds)

● Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess (Spades)
● Argine, an anagram of the Latin word Regina meaning Queen (Clubs)
● Judith, from the apocryphal book of the same name (Hearts)
● Rachel, the wife of the Biblical Jacob (Diamonds)

● Ogier the Dane, legendary knight of Charlemagne (Spades)
● Lancelot, legendary knight of King Arthur (Clubs)
● La Hire, French military commander Étienne de Vignolles (Hearts)
● Hector, the mythological hero of Troy (Diamonds)

Not all these identifications can be certain, nor were they universally accepted. Some argue that Judith was in fact an obscure reference to the wife of Charles VI. Others suggest that Rachel is actually Ragnel, the wife of Sir Gawain of the Round Table, and that Argine should actually be Argeia, legendary princess from Argos, and that both have suffered an unfortunate fate at the hand of poor copyists and artists. The Jack of Hearts (La Hire) could also be Caesar's comrade Aulus Hirtius, while the Jack of Clubs is also sometimes associated with Judas Maccabeus, an important Jewish leader.

In some cases these names were even printed on the cards themselves. But this tradition is a later development that is unique to France, and was not practiced prior to the 16th century. Playing cards were in common use in Europe for well over a hundred years before historical and literary figures were identified with the court cards for the first time. And even in the time when this practice became more common, many different identities were used prior to any kind of standardization, with early choices for the Kings also including historical personages like Solomon, Augustus, Clovis, and Constantine.

Modern tribute decks

Several beautiful modern decks have been produced that commemorate this period of rich designs in France, by deliberately taking court card designs inspired by the personages commonly seen in 16th century French decks. Here are three relatively recent examples:

Memento Playing Cards (Legends Playing Cards)

The Memento deck takes its name from the word "memento", which refers to a keepsake or object kept as a reminder of an event or person or place. Illustrated by Valerio Aversa, it is intended to help us remember and reminisce about the roots of card design. This deck offers a unique interpretation by arranging the characters featured in the deck according to the symbolic meaning sometimes ascribed to the four suits. The historical characters selected to feature on the court cards are in line with what theme each suit traditionally is associated with: Spades (Death), Hearts (Love), Clubs (Knowledge), and Diamonds (Ambition).

In this deck, the character names are also mentioned on the cards. As an example, the King of Spades depicts the Biblical king David with a harp and a sword, reflecting his different roles as a warrior, musician, and poet. The Queen of Diamonds depicts Rachel, as she is called on the French deck, likely a reference to the Biblical figure who was the wife of Jacob, and seen below holding a flower. Since she was a shepherdess, a lamb is often found in works of art depicting her.

Voltige Playing Cards (Art of Play)

Another example is the Voltige deck from Art of Play. This deck derives its name from the French word for "aerial", and is in part a tribute to the art of card flourishing. It was designed as a collaborative project with French designers Henri de Saint Julien and Jacques Denain, and is a homage to a vintage French deck. Even the colours that this deck is available in give a nod to its French origins, with Deep Parisian Blue and Moulin Rouge Red being the two colours of choice.

Henri and Jacques drew upon a classic French court card design as their inspiration, giving it their own hand-drawn reinterpretation. The commonly accepted names of characters are actually printed on the cards, just as was sometimes done with French designs centuries ago. The French origin of these playing cards has been made into a central theme of the entire deck, and the deck also draws inspiration from Baron Haussmann's 19th century urban renewal program which saw new boulevards, parks and public works emerge as part of the reconstruction of the streets of Paris.

Nouveau Playing Cards (Bona Fide Playing Cards)

A final example is the series of exquisite Nouveau decks produced by Karin Yan from Bona Fide Playing Cards. Karin has opted to employ an artistic style that has its origin in the philosophical and artistic Art Nouveau movement, which was popular in France in the late 19th century. But more importantly, the court cards depict the characters that have been traditionally featured in French-style playing cards since the 16th century, and goes back to original images of these heroes and heroines as the inspiration of its artwork.

To enhance the sense of authenticity, Karin has drawn on actual sculptures and famous art works depicting these characters as the basis for the designs of her court cards. This adds an extra sense of historical realism, and connection with the past. There are several different theories about the meaning of the four suits, one being that the original French suits represented nobility (Spades), clergy (Hearts), merchants (Diamonds), and commoners and the peasantry (Clubs). This is the theory Karin has adopted, and used as background for her artwork choices for the four suits in her Nouveau decks.

Where does today's court card artwork come from?

While there was a temporary 16th century trend to identify the court cards with historical and literary figures, the artwork of French playing cards was actually quite diverse and rich in variety. But this practice of printing names on court cards also came to end, and the French Revolution was a significant factor in this development away from named court cards. Having figures from the royal court on playing cards wasn't exactly popular in a time where revolutionaries were beheading the monarchy. Royal figures did eventually return to playing cards, but the practice of identifying specific individuals with the court cards was discontinued, and this happened well before the artwork itself became standardized to any degree.

The standard artwork for our modern deck actually owes more of a debt to England than it does to France. Playing cards first arrived in England via mainland Europe, and especially via Belgium, which had many manufacturing houses of playing cards, and produced a large amount of exports. One design from Rouen, Belgium, was especially popular and influential. But even in England there was a real diversity of designs, due to the large number of different printers that eventually sprang up there. But this all changed with the success of printer Thomas de la Rue, who developed new printing techniques that enabled him to increase productivity and reduce the cost of playing cards, and which eventually enabled him to gain somewhat of a monopoly on the playing card industry. Independent designers and producers were absorbed under his leadership, and his work also led to the standardizing of playing card design in England. The designs of De la Rue's court cards did receive some modernization at the hands of Reynolds in 1840 and again by Charles Goodall in 1860. But it is the de la Rue design, inherited and updated by Goodall, that is effectively the design still used today.

It is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty the significance of the precise details of the characters, clothing, and accessories seen in court cards today. Why does the Jack of Clubs carry a leaf? Why do Queens carry a flower? Why is the King of Hearts (commonly described as the Suicide King due to the position of his sword) the only one not to have a moustache? Why is the King of Diamonds the only king that bears an axe instead of a sword? Some of these details may be corruptions from royal accessories like sceptres and arrows, but we can't be sure. But rather than see them as deliberate choices with a singular and clear origin, it is more likely that our playing cards today simply bear the marks of the different cultures that they passed through in order to arrive at the present day. What we see in our Kings, Queens, and Jacks today owes just as much a debt to 15th century rural Germany as it does to 16th century France, and to 19th century England. What remains in our modern deck today are faint remnants of dust from the past, which have a permanent place in standard playing card artwork even while their original significance has long been lost. So next time you're admiring a court card, think about the hundreds of years of evolution through multiple countries that played a role in shaping it to be what it looks like today!

Where to get them? If you like the idea of a deck of cards that pays tribute to the characters commonly used in 16th century French playing cards, consider picking up one of the Nouveau decks by Bona Fide Playing Cards, such as: Nouveau, Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, and Nouveau Perle.

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Sat Apr 20, 2019 10:35 am
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Q & A with Playing Card Designer Lee McKenzie (Kings & Crooks)

Who is Lee McKenzie?

British designer Lee McKenzie is a name that many people in the playing card industry might not immediately recognize, but that's only because most of the decks he has designed are more widely known for the brand they were published under: Ellusionist. Lee designed decks for Ellusionist for around five years, from 2008 to 2013, at a time when it was one of the biggest players in the industry, and just when custom decks were really starting to boom.

You might recognize some of the decks he created, which include popular titles like Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, and Fathom. These designs were among the first non-Bicycle branded custom decks that entered into the mainstream, at a time when the playing card industry was really starting to take off, and it's Lee McKenzie's creativity that lies behind the success that these Ellusionist decks had. Though his name might not be well known, he is in fact a leading figure from an important time.

In 2013 Lee decided to stop freelancing under the Ellusionist banner, and set out on his own by successfully using crowdfunding to launch his Empire Playing Cards deck, and subsequently its follow-up, the Empire Bloodlines series. He has since launched a brand new website, which serves as the online portal for his lifestyle brand Kings & Crooks. It features cutting edge graphic design and stunning visuals, and includes branded items like playing cards, clothing, and more.

Lee's own life journey illustrates his qualities as a risk-taker, artist, and explorer, who is willing to take bold steps into new territory as an independent designer and creator. He's also a perfectionist, and invests an enormous amount of himself when creating a deck of playing cards, and indeed into everything he does. His love for playing cards began with an interest in magic at a young age, and he was able to combine this with his skills in art and design, and his interest in the visual story-telling worlds created by movies, music, and photography. Equipped with this passion and these skills, Lee's design career has produced many popular playing cards.

With his proven track record, credentials as a successful designer, and his fascinating life story, Lee McKenzie is well placed to share some fascinating observations not just about how he makes custom playing cards, but about the playing card industry as a whole, and perhaps more importantly, about an attitude to life. I'm very pleased that he was willing to share some of his thoughts for our readers. As always, Lee has a lot to say, and it's worth reading carefully and reflecting on.

The Interview

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?

Today, after many years of building and sacrifice, I'm fortunate enough to be able to work on my passion full time. I devote every second I can to designing the kind of playing cards I wished existed and sharing them with magicians, collectors and card lovers like myself, all under my company, Kings & Crooks.

I was originally born in Manchester, UK and growing up I was always fascinated by the cinematic worlds of movies, art and just getting lost in my imagination. Alongside martial arts, ninjas and spy movies, my curiosity for the mysterious and doing the impossible naturally led me to a huge interest in magic and playing cards at around 10 years old. An addiction to practicing and learning magic for endless hours each day became a big part of my early teens back in the 90's. That's when books, a mirror or face-to-face were the only ways you could learn anything.

I first went to the Blackpool magic convention in '96 with my best friend and fellow magician, and that's when I realized just how many other people love this stuff like we did. Whenever I saw a Bicycle or Tally-Ho deck (instead of the crappy paper playing cards that creased and tore easily), I knew I was in good company. Every week we'd go to Affleck's Palace in Manchester on the third floor to a little magic shop where we could watch and learn from some much older and more experienced magicians (Ian and Mark) who had a huge impact on us. There was also Mushy Pea Juggling shop that had an awesome magic shop at the back (run by a guy called Simon). It was such an exciting time, constantly learning the secrets of this art I'd come to love. It was clear though that my focus was on playing cards almost exclusively. Something about them just felt simple and right but also powerful. A small normal object but that offered endless techniques, effects, skills to practice and amazing secrets to learn. A world of impossibility made real, right in your hands. I couldn't resist.

From a young age, I had always been into drawing too, and that continued with me throughout school and college where I developed my "professional" career as a graphic designer. I worked in the post production industry mostly, designing motion graphics and highly visual design for DVD movie menus and TV graphics amongst other projects. That was where I could combine my love for design and visual storytelling with movies to create high impact and striking imagery to bring the viewer into another world and make them feel something. That's mainly what floats my boat.

When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?

I was always drawn to expressing myself outside of the confines of a traditional job, and so was often coming up with side projects to keep me stimulated ( one of which was a t-shirt brand ). Magic and playing cards were still a heavy part of my life and I'd continued practicing and learning from 11 yrs old to this day. Around 2007, I was hit with a spark of inspiration when I saw Ellusionist's Vintage 1800 decks and some kind of gut alarm bell started ringing inside. Given my love for graphic design, playing cards and magic, I felt compelled to start designing my own. Like a green light came on and the gates swung wide open just for me. During travel to Rome, inspired by some of the old-world gothic architecture I'd seen, I began work on my first deck.

A year later, I had met my Australian girlfriend in Edinburgh and we eventually both decided to set off to travel the world. I spent a good chunk of change to get some decks printed in the US of my first concept, then I sent it to the CEO of Ellusionist, Brad Christian. I had dreamed my deck would be put alongside their own and help me bring the deck to other magicians via awesome brand I really admired. Brad simply responded with "All I can say is wow, I'll be in touch soon" and my heart skipped a beat, I was thrilled! With excitement coursing through my veins, our travels began and so did an opportunity to become the signature deck designer for Ellusionist. I initially wanted to launch that first deck of mine with them, and be part of their offerings, but they offered me to run with another idea they had and so I thought that would still be a great way to go. It was an amazing experience with great people and I truly felt like I was a part of something that was so right for me.

After your success with Ellusionist, how did you come to start your own playing card company?

4 years, 5 decks and 15 countries travelled later, after the loss of my Grandfather, it became extremely clear that life was too short to put off doing the things you want. I decided I needed to realize my original dream to create my very own decks. To "build my own dreams instead of being hired to build someone else's" as the quote goes. It was a big risk as I didn't feel I could do both, so I left Ellusionist, determined but hugely under-prepared financially. I designed and launched my first deck on Kickstarter called Empire Playing Cards.

The dream came true. It became a humbling success supported by almost 1000 card lovers from around the world. That was the next green light I needed and I couldn't believe it was actually happening.

From then I decided to officially launch my own brand to continue sharing my vision and art for designing playing cards with all the magicians, card collectors and card lovers like me. Kings & Crooks was born and since then it's been what I've been working on every single day. The journey here has had so many challenges and fraught with sacrifice (as anything worth doing is), but I still think the risk was worth it and hope to keep pushing for my mission to inspire others with my art.

What is the significance of your brand name, Kings & Crooks?

The name Kings & Crooks itself is a reflection of the mindset it takes to create your own path in life, take risks and do what matters to you most. Even if that means breaking some rules in order to make your own, to live your own life and tell your own stories.

It also relates to both the magician performing in the spotlight and the sleight of hand artist honing his deception skills under the cover of shade at the table. Magicians and mechanics, card men and con men, believer and deceivers.

The imaginative and cinematic-like images these words conjure up in your mind is one of the big inspirations behind my work. I love to take those movie scene style visions and try to capture that feeling and put it on the back of a card. I always believe art should say something to you, to your eyes, your heart or your soul. It's a vehicle for expression. You can either contribute to the rest of the noise in the world, or say something that's worth hearing.

What other interests have shaped and helped you as a designer?

While my focus is primarily on Kings & Crooks, travel is a huge passion too. After selling everything I owned and leaving the UK in 2007, we went through poverty to paradise and back over the next few years. From traveling across south-east Asia, living on an almost deserted Thai island for months while freelancing and worrying about where my next dollar would come from, to sailing the Pacific to remote paradises, coast-to-coast USA and living in a downtown Vancouver penthouse. Amazing experiences of both ups and downs. The swings, both emotional and mental have been huge, but I believe travel is one of the absolute best things you can do for yourself in this life.

I also used to mix and scratch (DJ-ing), break dance (a little) and big into martial arts. I love a lot of music, awesome beats and sound that transports you somewhere. Photography goes without saying, anything visual (art, design etc) always captures my interest.

I love learning about psychology, how the brain works, everything to do with human behavior and the 'whys and hows' of life's mysteries (which makes sense why magic is such an allure for me). I guess advertising and copywriting also falls into that category, art with words and pictures that have a purpose in the art of influencing our behavior. Entrepreneurship is also a huge element, learning how to give your art to people, doing what you love and be able to support yourself in return. Learning, in general, is addictive. I love movies too. Martial arts.

And one of my favorite things is just going outside looking, walking, being IN the world makes me feel good. I'm pretty deep about a lot of things, which has it's positives and negatives too. But I'm mostly very easy going, but very passionate about things that really matter to me, as you'll probably hear in this interview. But sometimes you just gotta breathe, smile and move on. Life's just one big ride, it's up to you if it's a good one or not.

How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started?

Every new deck design has its challenges. It's one huge puzzle that can be solved in 1000 different ways. Using your experience and eye for balance, composition, detail, and style you just have to experiment and try to make something "feel right". That's the best way I can put it. The more design you do, the more you flex your "feel" muscle and get better at making choices that serve you instead of detracting from your overall vision for a deck. I often like to tell such striking visual stories with my design and so it often calls for a lot of detail, which can very quickly become a monster if not tamed. However, executing simple designs is also its own skill. It's hard to do well, and its very easy to do it in a lack-lustre fashion. But as this is all art, it's subjective, so anything can appeal to anyone.

However for myself, I'm still battling against my need to give people as much value as possible, which indulges my perfection and can end up taking over a year to finish a design, versus, trying not to get so lost down the rabbit hole that the deck is never finished, never gets released and I never get to eat. I love the process so much I hang in there for way longer than I should. I'd say the difference between me then and me now is becoming wiser to recognize that making an amazing design that I'm happy with is important, but it's also equally important to not indulge my perfectionism too much in order to get the deck out there. As Seth Godin would say, "Ship it. If it's perfect, you've waited too long". It's a constant battle between the inner artist and entrepreneur, but if I don't get better at that, I won't be able to continue to support myself doing this and will have to change course.

What motivates you as a designer?

My primary motivation is always because I love playing cards, magic and design, and want to share my ideas with our community to make what we love even more enjoyable. For me money is not a primary driving factor at all, but it absolutely has to be taken into the equation and balanced well with time if I want to build a life doing this. And I do. It's not just a job to me or something someone else has hired me to do. It's a very personal part of me, which is also why I get irritated when I see decks that in my view are more about people trying to grab money than doing what it takes to contribute something great. It's injustice, a lack of respect and I despise it. But again, it's art and subjective. What do I know and what makes me think I know the reasons behind someone else's decisions? I don't, but I know what it takes to design, so when I see someone taking shortcuts or disrespecting the art or community with just a plain lack of effort, it gets to me a little. To me it's like a bully getting away with stamping all over the little guy, and I hate that. Ultimately it drives me to do better for our community, create more beautiful things to drown out the noise. You can only control your own thoughts and actions, so I'll just try to focus my attention there instead of trying to change the world.

Truth be told, variety is the spice of life and if all decks that existed were only ones that I liked, it would get pretty boring after a while. That's the flipside. Just like if all there was in the world was light, never darkness, we'd never really value it because it's all we know. There's nothing to compare it to. It's only because darkness exists that we can actually appreciate the light. You need both to give value to either.

So all in all, after my initial emotional responses, my logical side keeps me sane and I'm fine with it in the grand scheme of things. No matter the result of a piece of art or a deck, especially created by the individual not a big business, it's not easy to stand out there and be judged. To go through the process and actually get your art made, I have nothing but admiration and respect for people doing that, regardless of what I think of the art itself. The act of creating takes courage, and above all the fact it's being made at all makes me so happy! I wish more people would.

What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?

What I enjoy most is engulfing myself in lots of materials, research and inspiration around a chosen design. Music, the feeling, the movie that plays in my head, they all spark off a style and visual direction I want to inject into a design. I love being in THAT world and trying to do it justice throughout an entire deck. When you hold the final deck, I want people to feel exactly how I felt when living and breathing this idea while creating it. That's what I feel could be something that may set my work apart. It's not just a deck to me, it's an experience you can become a part of when you hold it in your hand and when done well, it's one that's executed with the utmost care and attention. That all flows through every choice that goes into making the final deck.

The actual design stage is a battle. A long hard fight to chisel out your vision. It's a tough process and takes a lot to get through. That's the journey, the zone. And I hang in there because I love the challenge. Having a vision for what you want is one way to keep pushing and refining to try and uncover the design at the end. That's when you look at it and say "THAT'S IT!!". At that point, I see it's all worth it, and I hope everyone else can feel just how much goes into it too. Until then, it's a battle of creativity and discovery to unearth a vision that fits and bring it into focus.

How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?

It's hard to nail down one particular method. It's not a process. No guide, not for me anyways. But there are definite things that spark off glimmers of ideas in the mind and over time things form and something begins to manifest. Inspiration can come from absolutely anywhere. I always hate those answers when I read them in interviews like this, but it's 100% true. A piece of music in a movie, an emotion, a photograph, pure imagination, a word, a person. The way something smells feels - it's endless.

But by far for me, it's visual inspiration that speaks to me most, then audio. I'm a very sensual person, but mostly visual, to the point of making movies or trailers in my head of my deck (or anything for that matter) and just watch them and wonder how I can re-create that visual experience and feeling. I'd love to be able to produce the kind of movies I see in my mind ... maybe someday I'll find a way to make that a part of Kings & Crooks. Being just one person, managing time is tough and you have to do it wisely.

How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs?

Over the last 11 years up until 2018, I've designed approximately 14 decks. Some have yet to see the light. Some I created for Ellusionist (Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, Fathom) and the rest I created for my brand Kings & Crooks, which are the Empire Limited Editions, Empire Bloodlines in royal blue, emerald green and Limited Edition black/gold. Then my most recent deck, Outlaw, a badass design in original black and white and the Outlaw Hell Riders edition which is a heavily distressed, lo-down and dirty Limited deck (that's also fully marked).

The Arcane deck I created for Ellusionist was one of the very first completely full custom decks that had been created at the time (approx 2009). Until then, almost all decks were just simple re-colors or treatments using standard Bicycle faces and backs. Soon after Arcane launched we saw the surge of more and more custom decks hitting the market, which actually led the way for the United States Playing Card Co to open a dedicated custom cards part of their business which has continued to explode to this day. I am so proud to have had the opportunity to work alongside Ellusionist and take on their first signature decks. Being a part of the pioneering custom card movement was such an exciting and fulfilling part of my life. I only hope to continue pushing the playing card world forward and keep giving my all to create cards people love.

The first deck of my own was Empire, an obsessively detailed and ornate design which, at the time, was something very different and unique to what existed out there. Since then its style and original features seem to have inspired other decks that followed, which I'm flattered by. I think Empire has been my first and most successful deck to date. Now sold out and a rare find, they've been seen to command a price tag of $150 or more in aftermarket sales (!) which is mind-blowing to me. I still receive emails from people 5 years since it launched, asking how they can get a hold of them. It's such an honor and wish I had more to give. But I guess the limited nature is what contributes to the value.

The follow up to Empire, the Empire Bloodlines edition was also extremely well received. However it wasn't just a simple re-color, I redesigned the entire deck including backs, courts, everything. I wanted it to visually feel part of the Empire family but also have its very own bold style, which people seemed to really like. I think it would be a long time before I ever released another Empire deck, if at all. I have so many ideas I want to get out, and so many ways to I want to try and push and innovate. I just need to hurry up!

Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?

I'd have to say, at the time of making each one, they were my favorite. Once you get absorbed in a project you're passionate about and managed to see your vision through to the end, it can't help but be your new favorite. And that happens each time. So far I've designed a bunch for Ellusionist and bunch for Kings & Crooks.

Among the Ellusionist decks, Infinity and Artifice were my favorites by far. Both because of this secret other-world story. Artifice specifically because of the association with that shadowy side of sleight of hand, the hustler at the table, the deceiver sharpening their skills. Also running in line with Daniel Madison's narration [for the first Artifice deck trailer] in relation to his own life events in deception, I think that deck definitely holds a special place for me. It's the Crooks side of Kings & Crooks. Among my own, I'd say they're all my favorites, but for unique reasons.

How would you describe the style of your playing card decks? Are there any particular features or characteristics of your decks that you hope people will notice and appreciate, or help make your decks different from the many others out there?

I would say the style of my decks is very much about telling a story. I like to think each back design and its detail emits its own energy. One of the key visual aspects of my style so far is the sheer amount of attention I like to pay to details. It's the emotion and the way art makes you feel that I find so appealing to myself. The ability to transport someone to another place in their mind just by witnessing the art. That's what I find I'm always drawn to achieving. In summary, I'd say my style is cinematic, striking visual storytelling with a soul.

Like many creators, my art is extremely personal to me, I take an insane amount of care over the details and ideas behind creating my decks. So much so the process has often taken me up to a year or more to complete. If I keep going at that rate, I won't be able to build my life around doing what I love. So while trying to improve my decision making to become more effective at hitting my vision to eventually be able to bring out at least 4 decks a year, I will still wholeheartedly be committing to the same high-quality standards I set for myself with regards to both technical execution and vision.

Every time I see a deck that looks like it took 5 mins or so to design but everyone raves about, it's usually because the person behind them has worked hard to achieve a following based on their other valuable traits (card skill, cardistry etc), that people want to own a deck that the person they admire has made. And that's great, we need more people stepping up to express themselves and opening up this card world to inspire as many people as possible. It's like fashion in that sense. Stick a Gucci logo on a t-shirt and suddenly it's a luxury item worth $300 for a t-shirt. Or when a music artist starts a clothing brand or perfume, it's the same thing. Fans want what their heroes have, no matter how much or little thought has gone into making the item.

I'm thrilled the card world is growing so fast, and I just hope I can continue to give my all for those who love the kind of art I create. All I'd ask is: don't contribute to the noise, do what matters to you first and not for the money, and then no matter if is an incredibly detailed masterpiece or an elegantly simple design, it deserves to be out in the world..

Which printer do you use to make your playing cards, and why? What has your experience with them been like?

I have worked with both The United States Playing Card Co and a Taiwanese company represented in the US by Expert and Legends Playing Card Co.

I wanted to work with USPC from the very beginning because all of my magic and card learning life I have been using their decks. Not only do they hold that special part of my youth and are a world standard in quality cards, they actually deserve to be in that position because their product is very, very good. However, they're a big machine, and like a big business everything is systematised, so it's very difficult to implement innovative or quick tests to try an idea out. It's not as nimble as a smaller operation, but I think they are making steps towards this flexibility, but very slowly.

One of the things that KK in Taiwan or Cartamundi in Belgium has over USPCC, is their militant adhesion to strict registration in printing. There's very minimal to zero movements when the inks hit the decks, so you don't have a back design jumping all over the place when you riffle through them. Also, smaller white borders can be executed to precision, allowing a design to get more creative without worry about getting the design cut off etc. USPCC do a fantastic job, it's just not as consistently tight as it could be, that's all.

Also, the blades used to cut USPCC decks have not always produced the cleanest cuts. My Limited Edition Empire Bloodlines black and gold deck has almost glass-like edges, smooth as anything, and it's consistent from deck to deck. I've also had the same types of decks from USPCC, but the variation from rough to smooth is more frequent. However, I don't have any knowledge of their operations and how they are set up, as to why doing this may be more complicated than it seems. They've been around for a long time and all I can think of is that change happens slowly in a place that big. And rocking the boat for small things like that, although making the product consistently better, might be quite a feat to achieve for them given their current set up and machinery. I just don't know.

When it comes to stock, USPCC again has long reigned supreme, and with good reason. However with Legends, Expert and Cartamundi now constantly evolving and tweaking their stocks, things are getting very interesting. I known of Cartamundi since I first started practicing card magic in the early '90's, so I'm glad to see they're taking more notice of the cardistry/magic world and trying to up the game to bring a more quality product to our community. I've been extremely happy with both USPCC and Legends stocks, and will always keep a lookout for evolutions out there to help bring more value to my supporters.

What are some of the easiest, and what are some of the hardest parts of the process in making a deck of custom playing cards?

To be completely honest, I find the hardest part of designing a deck of cards is that once you've decided on a style for your court cards, you have to roll that out over 12 other detailed illustrations, customizing each one to not just fit each court, but also to fit the established style you've set out in the first place. I like the new, fresh, exciting nature of a black canvas or new task, style or idea. So, rolling out the almost identical style out over 12 other cards is brain numbing. For me, this is the most tedious and gruelling part of the process. I find everything else about creating a deck extremely satisfying and enjoyable, apart from rolling out a chosen style across 12 other similar but very different (in the way they're built) court cards.

I actually love the standard faces we've come to expect in a regular deck. The European descended highly stylised but simple and iconic courts. Coming from a magic background, the standard deck and similar cohesive styles give off a "real" deck vibe, not a suspicious or cheap childish angle unless you're actually going for that. Personally, I always like to try and design court cards that actually look like they belong and stay away from getting too colorful and cartoonish as they remind me of cheap licensed cards with famous cartoon characters on them. Unless of course, that is exactly what you're going for with the deck, but this style hasn't been something I'm drawn to. But, I am so happy once I've actually put in the time to finish the courts and they look exactly how I'd like, it's a great moment.

However, I do understand that for those people who create decks and don't exactly have the skills to go fully custom, opting to stick with the standard courts but change a few colors is always an easy way to get by, but it also shows. There's somewhat of an expectation these days I believe, that everything needs to be custom for it to be of the highest value. Like I said, though, I don't have much of an issue with standard courts, as long as it was an intentional and fitting decision with the rest of the deck, and not a lazy/cheaper option by the producer or creator. But hey, it's all about enjoying life at the end of the day. Take things too seriously and the only person you're punishing is yourself. Just do what's right for your deck and I'll do what I think is right for mine.

What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?

I don't think there's anything I wished consumers realized more. Having to convince someone of something, or trying to make someone realize something they don't already know only seems to serve a purpose of a creator wanting to convince someone to buy your creation. Or at least value it more, which may as well be the same thing.

Personally, I think there are a lot of "artistically challenged" decks out there. And that's ok. It's a free world, people are free to do what they chose, and I support anyone's right to do exactly that. But for me, one of the main driving forces is to create work that actually enhances and raises the level of quality and expression in the world of playing cards. It's something that matters to me a great deal and it actually causes me pain to see what seem to be half-assed decks out there, or money grabbing ploys to take advantage without having the guts to do something that contributes less to the noise and more to raise the art for us all.

BUT - and it's a big but - at the end of the day, all art is subjective. What one person likes, another could hate. That's why there is no real right or wrong way, no matter what my gut or my eyes tell me. I save that judgment and guidance for my own work. Outside of myself, it's just a collection of people expressing themselves in different ways, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. However, in the art world, there are pieces that sell for millions vs those that sell for hundreds, or nothing. Someone somewhere has to draw a line to enable curators and galleries to justify their existence, but how that line is drawn is the question. Is it all pretense and illusions of value, or is there a very real way to evaluate work and a decisive way to know one piece is of more value than another? While its true beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that eye can also be the subject of brand or celebrity influence, trend, and marketing that makes your decision of what beauty is for you, without you realizing. But does that matter? If the choice makes us smile, I'd argue it doesn't, whether that's actually the truth or not. But in that case, only the best marketers and promoters are relied on to draw the line for you. For me it takes months and months, often hundreds of hours to execute my vision according to my personal tastes, but does that make it better than someone who took 2 minutes? Technically maybe yes, but artistically not necessarily.

I'd say any artistic project backed by real passion, an unwavering commitment to a vision and a skilled, thoughtful, high-quality execution is a project worthy of anyone's attention. I just get the feeling that sometimes the opposite is what happens. And what you bring in brand-focused celebrities putting their logos on decks, they're almost an exception in my eyes. They've built their brand and put a tonne of work in doing it, and then decide to release a deck with their logo. I don't mind it at all, and I don't really categorize those decks in the same way. As long as you're busting your ass doing what matters to you on your journey that's what matters. A logo deck is just an extension of that person's offerings from all the work they've done to be able to get here, and it makes sense from a "merchandise" point of view for fans.

In the bigger picture, life is nothing but change, and having it any other way would probably disrupt the fabric of what it means to live in such a diverse world, no matter if you feel it would be a better place with or without certain things or not. Or things done the way you think they should be. It's good to know what works for you, but what you resist, persists, so don't worry about things that don't marry with your point of view. Let it go and just focus on your thing, your art, your people, and enjoy life.

The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last decade. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today?

Above all, it's great that it's become much more popular and people can connect and share their passion with others around the world. However, I feel the level for quality and creativity has become a little diluted as a result, or better said, I'm not as excited about what I see around these days. As I've rambled on about before, art is subjective, but it's clear to see not everyone has a focus of contributing a high-quality execution of their vision, or said another way, aren't experienced in how to do that. Art and creating is fun, it's expression, so it all belongs. But for me and what I like to see, it's becoming rarer to see exciting decks. I feel there's a responsibility to produce quality, to push the art and give people something to be excited about, especially if you're asking for their hard earned money in return.

Maybe that's a limiting belief of mine and maybe I'm fearful of doing any less than that for some reason. It's a lot of pressure to keep up with such standards, and maybe that stops me from being a little more free and fun with my ideas. I've seen some very minimal and lack-luster decks that at first I didn't like at all, but then they grew on me and my perspective changed to embrace the fun expression side too. Decks that you'd enjoy and change like you would your hair style or a new shirt or sneakers. Does it have to be so heavy and focused on excellence and pushing the limits all of the time? What about the light and fun ideas, made just because. Something to think about anyway.

What impact has crowdfunding like Kickstarter had on the custom playing card industry? And what has your own experience with this been like?

Crowdfunding is an incredible way for people without much or any money to actually get their design made, which is amazing. Without crowdfunding, I would have had to take a bank loan or something to get me started. Eventually, if Kickstarter didn't come around, that's exactly what I would have done.

Before Kickstarter, that higher barrier to entry helped to make sure if you were going to make something it had better be great. Now it's a free for all, which invites just as much noise as it does quality. So it's hit and miss, but it's here and things are only going to get crazier as time goes on.

There's also a conversation here about marketing and gathering your tribe to support your visions, and that makes a big difference once you launch. It's modern marketing at work and things like Instagram follows or YouTube subscribers get you a lot of attention, so when or if you decide to launch a deck, you have many folks who you can share you new product with and who may jump on to support you, which is truly amazing.

Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what innovations or changes might we see in the coming years?

As the younger guys and girls are coming up, getting into magic and cardistry, and with technology only getting more and more "social", I see it getting more and more popular. With that, I imagine there'll always be a bunch new decks and cardist popping up and things will get even wilder. But hopefully there'll still emerge a solid bunch of creators from that, continuing to do great work that keeps us excited.

What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards? How do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?

My friends and family are hugely supportive in what I do. New non-magic or card people are often surprised to hear about what I do. But ultimately by bringing my own excitement to the forefront, regardless of what they think of what I do, they at least recognize I love doing it. To make a living doing what you love and from anywhere in the world is still quite an insane thing to be possible, but it's more and more common these days.

Everyone is where they are in life because of every single decision they ever made to get there. Their perspective, outlook, mindset and vision for themselves and life. If you don't like where you are in life, you have to start making different decisions. Do the work to find your path, believe in yourself, keep taking steps no matter how small to see where it goes, and it may just surprise you.

Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers, either online or in any other way?

I don't belong to any organizations or connect with other designers much. Since coming to Australia after traveling, I've been trying to start my business and working for years to get it rolling. Working for yourself has its benefits, but when you don't have to go out to work or have teammates etc to work with, it's pretty lonely. Since leaving the UK in 2008, traveling and ultimately trying to develop Kings & Crooks, it doesn't bring too many opportunities to meet people when your always a stranger in a new land and work so much. I love spending real time with like-minded people, and digital tech/social media doesn't really do it for me.

However I do occasionally speak/skype with other creators (not exclusively designers though) who've become friends in the magic and playing card world. Whether it's entrepreneurial stuff, advice or just catching up, it's always good to have another trusted ear to bounce things off. That's what I miss most of the traditional job setting, as I like being around good energy and people, but while also being able to focus on my work. Maybe a co-work space might be a good idea.

What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today? What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what they should look for in a quality deck of playing cards?

I wouldn't class myself as a collector, as to me that implies grabbing every deck out there through fear of missing out. Although I definitely like to get my hands on any new decks that please my eyes, so you could say I'm an extremely picky collector. To be honest, it's difficult to say what a person should look out for, it's just so personal. And everyone's tastes are different.

What I look out for is a very good execution of design, style, composition and color, throughout the deck and tuck box. It's difficult to put it into words as my eyes just know what to look for and I know if I like something in 2 seconds. But my tastes are exactly that, mine, and what I see as "good" is based on an almost intuitive sense that's been honed and refined with my own preferences in mind over years.

In terms of actual deck quality when using it, I like the classic (Bicycle) or premium (Bee) stocks print on by the U.S. Playing Card Co. Also, Expert Playing Cards and Legends Playing Cards use a Taiwan factory and have some great cut and feeling decks. Cartamundi in Belgium, a brand that I've known since childhood has now started producing a very nice Linen B9 and Touch stock aimed at magicians and cardists, which is also nice.

Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

I do have an upcoming deck I'm releasing that's a completely new style, and I'm absolutely thrilled with it. It's also using an amazing traditional printing technique on the tuck box which will make it such an appealing and luxurious piece of work. I don't want to ruin the surprise so if any readers are interested in hearing when it's released, you can sign up to my email list to get notified first at

Also, I'll soon be releasing the Warrior Card Armour at long last. It's project that started in 2014 but I've faced significant challenges in bringing to life. The years of sacrifice will be worth it as it looks amazing. Half card clip, half battle armour, all beast. Again, feel free to sign up to be the first to know when it launches.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about designing playing cards, or about playing cards?

I'll just leave it at this, and it's nothing to do with design or cards. I believe you should earn your existence. Dive deep into yourself and ask the hard questions. Who are you, what's the truth? What fears control you and how can you overcome them? Do you know what makes you come alive?! Then try to do more of that. Decide what or who you want to be in life, take action and be a good one. Be a kind one. Give your all to yourself, your passion and anyone you encounter along the way. We're all here on this little blue rock together, and we can either make things better or make them worse for each other.

Above all, don't forget that there are no rules or set paths in life, only what's common and uncommon. Test your comfort zones, invite a little risk, play a little dangerously and do it with a smile with people you care about. At the end of the day you're not going to be laying on your death bed wishing you earned more money or worked longer. You're going to wish you had spent more time doing things you love, the amazing things and the everyday things too, making memories with the people you care about.

Don't get too focused on where you want to go and end up missing where you are. It's ok to know where you want to go, but getting there is made of here and nows. Enjoy the ride, learn to ride the storm of life. The only constant thing is change, the ups and downs are the journey, don't wait for them to pass to be happy. Embrace change quickly and kindly. Let go quickly of the negative so it doesn't blind you from the next horizon, because ultimately, life is either a great adventure or nothing at all. Stay bold and enjoy the journey, it's all we have.

Final Thoughts

It's not hard to see that Lee McKenzie has very high ideals. But he's also not afraid to hold himself to these high standards, and as a result he has produced some very high quality decks of playing cards that are highly regarded by collectors. For Lee, designing a deck of cards is intensely personal, mainly because of how much he gives himself to the process, and invests in terms of the physical and mental resources required to accomplish it. Not only does he have the skills needed to create art that is unique and lasting, but he also has the passion and personal drive needed to make this all happen. It's evident from the quality of his designs and also from the quality of his website design that he's absolutely committed to excellence and perfectionism in every respect. His own success speaks volumes, not just with the impressive decks of playing cards he created for Ellusionist, but also with his later designs under his own label.

This positive attitude also embodies what Lee's lifestyle brand is all about, and his vision about this is carefully articulated along these lines with all the philosophical mottos and quotes you'll find scattered throughout his website. The theme behind much of Lee's mission is about carving your own mark on the world, telling your own stories, and forging your own path. The Kings & Crooks brand is about having the courage to take risks, refusing to follow the herd, and creating your own pathway in life. Kings & Crooks will especially be a welcome home to those who feel the magnetic pull of Lee's invitation for curious adventurers seeking a road less travelled, and willing to play by their own rules and to live to tell their own stories.

But it's not just Lee's work that gives a positive message, because his own personal journey is a perfect case study that confirms his outlook on life. Despite experiencing loss and hardship, he has chosen to respond by embarking on a journey forwards, forging a new path that uses adversity as a stepping stone to growth rather than becoming stagnant. This is the sentiment that also runs deep in the veins of the fine playing cards that he has produced. If you're a connoisseur or an explorer at heart, you're likely to see the appeal of Lee McKenzie's work, and appreciate how his contribution to the playing card industry ahead of the crowdfunding era not only contributed to its momentum during a critical phase of its development, but how his products also are an inspiration for people to live freely and to excel with confidence.

Clearly Lee has invested an enormous amount of passion and time in creating his playing card designs, many of which have been forged in the furnace of personal trial and tragedy, and what has emerged is something truly special. The results speak for themselves, and the fact that his decks have been received so enthusiastically and are highly regarded by the discerning collector confirms that the investment in time and effort has produced the quality he advocates and strives for. Many of his decks have an epic feel, capturing something of a grand story, which is communicated via intricate details, and they embody important attributes such as beauty and style.

But undoubtedly Lee McKenzie isn't the only one with high standards. If you are a discerning consumer that appreciates class, and can also appreciate something of Lee's important contribution to the playing card industry and the quality of his work, then definitely check out some of his decks to see if these will add some welcome sophistication to your collection!

Where to get them? You'll find some of Lee McKenzie's newer designs here on playingcarddecks, including Empire Bloodlines (Emerald Green & Royal Blue). Many of the designs he produced for Ellusionist are also available, including Infinity, Arcane White, and Artifice, and Fathom.

Also check out Lee McKenzie's official website (, or stay in touch with his projects on Kickstarter (link) and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube).

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Wed Apr 17, 2019 3:22 am
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Q&A with Playing Card Designer Jody Eklund (Black Ink Playing Cards)

Who is Jody Eklund?

Jody Eklund is the man behind Black Ink Playing Cards, a creator of more than half a dozen successful playing card projects on Kickstarter, and a popular designer with a strong following of fans. The market for custom playing cards often feels saturated, so to be successful you have to have something that sets you apart. But Jody Eklund has that special "something", because what makes his decks of playing cards unique are two things, and the combination of these two elements has created a real demand for Jody's decks and contributed to the ongoing success of his projects:

Firstly, historical interest. Jody shares some kind of historical story or historical personages via the illustrations and information in each deck of playing cards. In fact, for many of his projects, he even creates a companion booklet that tells a small story about each of the people featured as characters in the deck!

Secondly, stylish design. Jody combines his historical emphasis with a unique style that reflects a real eye for clean artistic design, and an attractive look. Even though he primarily does everything digitally, his work looks like it was done with pen and ink - hence the name "Black Ink Playing Cards" which he uses as his deck publishing brand.

Jody's venture into custom playing cards began shortly after he returned to his wife's home town of Aurora, Colorado, in 2013. His Kickstarter project for a Golden Spike deck in mid 2014 proved to be a big success, and was followed by further projects in the years that followed: Innovation, Devastation, Inception, Titans, Iron Horse, and Top Aces of WWI. This might sound like a catalogue of movie titles, but in fact it reflects a real historical interest, because in these different projects Jody has captured some of the most important men and women in history, especially inventors and creators. His latest project (his tenth!) is entitled "Top Aces of WWII", and is a sequel to his popular "Top Aces of WWI" project.

Jody was kind enough to answer some questions about playing cards from his perspective as a designer. So let's head straight to our interview with Jody Eklund, in which he shares his insights and observations about creating playing cards and more!

The Interview

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?

I guess you can say it all started when my grandfather taught me how to draw cartoons and his crop-duster airplane as a kid. The desire to put down onto paper what I saw in reality or in my mind lasted throughout my childhood. I studied animation briefly at Columbia College in Chicago, then after a stint in the military, I finished my bachelors of fine arts degree from Southern Illinois University.

After college, I worked for a product development company designing retail gift products, marketing pieces, retail products and webpages, but didn’t really get the chance to dive into what I love - illustration - until I ran point on a series of children’s books. After working for other people for 14 years I decided to start my own design business in October of 2013. I moved my wife and kids to Colorado and becoming a freelance illustrator and designer became my opportunity to be more selective in the type of work I would choose.

When I was going through my military training 20 years prior, I told myself I would live in Colorado some day. The funny thing is, I married the woman that only lived a couple miles from where I was stationed back in 1993 and now only live a few miles from where I said those words 20 some years ago. I currently work as a Freelance Graphic Designer and design playing cards as a segment of my overall business. I enjoy the 360 days of Colorado sunshine, hiking in the amazing Rocky Mountains and spending as much time with my family on great excursions.

When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?

I started designing playing cards in 2014 when a friend of mine suggested I check out creating a project on Kickstarter. My first project "The Hipsters" failed on Kickstarter, but created a passion for making historical, intricate and custom playing cards.

How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started?

I see myself as I always have, blessed! Blessed to have been given a chance to do what I love, which is to bring life to stories through playing cards. I have learned a lot about the process of creating playing cards, from concepting, to designing and illustrating 16 illustrations for a deck, to delivering on a promise that I made to a bunch of playing card collectors.

What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?

I love that every project brings new experiences and just builds from my previous projects. I like to look back and see how much my skills have changed. I also like hearing from those who have been my most loyal supporters.

How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?

Every once in a while I’ll do a brainstorming session and just write down as many ideas I can think of. I keep a running list of future projects and add to it whenever I think or see something I would like to do in the future. Ideas can come from anywhere, from surfing the internet, to something my daughter says to me at dinner or a simple discussion with a good friend.

How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs?

I have done 9 successful Kickstarter campaigns. I am hoping to add to that number here in the next few weeks with my 10 project called, "Top Aces of WWII". Top Aces of WWII is the sequel to Top Aces of WWI. My most funded project was The Iron Horse, which was the first time I created a fictional story as my theme. I would say that my most successful project was my last project "Devastation Silver". Devastation Silver was a Kickstarter Exclusive based on the original Devastation deck. The overall project, to me, was the smoothest and simplest project I have done.

Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?

This is a hard one. I like all my decks, but if I were to pick, I would say the "Titans Signature Deck." It is such a beautiful design and I love the theme of "Titans of Industry".

How would you describe the style of your playing card decks? Are there any particular features or characteristics of your decks that you hope people will notice and appreciate, or help make your decks different from the many others out there?

I would describe my playing cards as historically themed, intricately designed pieces of art. I like to use a lot of detail. I think the more detail a deck has, the more value it is to the collector. I don't want someone to pick up one of my decks and say, "I think I can do that".

What is your process in designing a deck of playing cards, starting with the concept, all the way to completing the project and having finished decks?

Idea, researching theme, sketch out some possible directions for the cards, tuck case and back. Once I have decided on the look of a card and the back, I design the rest of the deck. I make small tweaks throughout. Once a deck is designed and all of the art is complete, I start to create promotional pieces for feedback on forums and social media. Create a Kickstarter page, launch the project, go through 35 days of non-stop promoting. I usually send all of the artwork to the playing card printers before the project goes live on Kickstarter. Once the Kickstarter is complete, I send my playing card printers the final counts for production. The printers will send my hard proofs that require my approval before going to production. Production is completed about 30 days from that point and shipped to my fulfillment center to be fulfilled to all of my supporters.

Which printer do you use to make your playing cards, and why? What has your experience with them been like?

I have been working with Legends Playing Card Co. for the past 5 years. Lawrence is great to work with.

What are some of the easiest, and what are some of the hardest parts of the process in making a deck of custom playing cards?

The hardest part of the process is just before I launch a Kickstarter. I get so nervous every time. I also hate waiting for my decks to be produced. It's been taking the factory lately too long to get to production. Waiting for my project to be cued for production is my most frustrating part.

What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?

The part I wished everyone realized is how much work it is to produce a deck, from beginning to end. And success is not really based on how much a Kickstarter raises. It's how well a creator can grow through past experiences and get better at the process from beginning to end.

The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last decade. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today, and the impact of crowdfunding like Kickstarter?

Yes, Kickstarter. Kickstarter is the biggest part that explosion. Without Kickstarter, creators and artists, like myself, would never be able to create a deck without having to get someone to produce it for us, dilute our ideas and then end up canceling the whole thing due to budget considerations.

Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what innovations or changes might we see in the coming years?

I think the industry will always expand, but it will become more refined and sophisticated. When there are more choices, people become pickier about what they are choosing. I think creators, like myself will have to continue to figure out how to create new ways to surprise their supporters.

What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards? How do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?

My family and friends have always supported my crazy ideas. How I explain my work, is that it is an art form. People collect my art through the medium of playing cards.

Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers, either online or in any other way?

I am a member of the 52 Plus Joker organization and regularly chat with other creators, like Alex Chin, Randy Butterfield, Giovanni Meroni as well as many others.

What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today? What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what they should look for in a quality deck of playing cards?

My advice is not to be afraid to act on your passions. If you fail, well at least you did more than the 90% who never tried. Also, do your research and get to know the playing card community though forums and chats. Ask them questions, post your art and take the feedback graciously.

Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

Top Aces of WWII was funded on Kickstarter in September, and is the sequel to Top Aces of WWI. At the beginning of this year, I was reminded that the 150th Anniversary of the completion of the 1st Transcontinental Railroad is coming up. May 19th 2019 to be exact. I thought it would be fun to make a limited special edition deck to celebrate the occasion. This is a completely redrawn and redesigned deck of the original Golden Spike Kickstarter project done in the summer of 2014. The Kickstarter Launch was November 12th. You can follow me on Kickstarter, or go to my website to subscribe to my newsletter to get updates, or friend and follow me on social media.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to like about the playing cards created by Jody Eklund, and the historical flavour of these decks is especially outstanding. Clearly he enjoys history, and immerses himself in the pages of the past as part of the research that goes into the creation of each project. Since a wealth of historical background is poured into his playing cards, each deck gives us the opportunity to join him in taking a look at some of the movers and shakers that have helped make today's world what it is. Many of his projects also include an option for an accompanying booklet which gives further information about the history depicted on his playing cards.

Besides his attention to historical detail, Jody also has a style of his own, particularly with his black ink type images. This combination draws many to his work, and has proven to be a winning formula that has attracted a solid support base. He has acquired a loyal following as a result of his dedication and contributions to the world of custom playing cards, and his decks should appeal to anyone who enjoys playing cards, but also to anyone with an interest in history or in science. He also has a lot of experience with crowdfunding, with multiple successful campaigns under his belt already, but rather than rest on the laurels of success, he he clearly wants to keep challenging himself to explore new territory and to keep refining his style, which continues to evolve over time. I look forward to seeing what quality custom decks he puts out in the future!

Where to get them? You'll find some of the Black Ink Playing Cards range here at, including Golden Spike, Innovation (Standard and Black), Devastation, Inception (Inceptus, Illustratum, and Intellectus), Titans Robber Barons (Standard and Signature), and Iron Horse.

Also check out Jody Eklund's official website (, or stay in touch with his projects on Kickstarter (link) and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Tue Apr 16, 2019 2:59 am
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40+ Great Card Games For All Occasions

40+ Great Card Games For All Occasions

So maybe you have a beautiful deck of custom playing cards. Now what? You can certainly put it quietly and safely on your display shelf, occasionally looking at it out of the corner of your eye to remind you that it is really yours, give an admiring glance at the exquisite tuck case, and get a fuzzy feeling inside knowing that it contains some wonderful cards within. You can even take out the cards from time to time, to feel their embossed and papery touch in your hand, and remind them that they are loved. And maybe you can even take them for an occasional spin with some high flying card flourishing, or use them for some card tricks.

But one of the best ways to enjoy a wonderful custom deck is by using it for a card game. That way you actually get to use the deck, and others get to enjoy it too. And during moments of down time, when you are staring at a hand of cards, you can savour the stunning artwork and just enjoy the creativity. But what card games should you play? Most people have learned a handful of card games at best, but the truth is that there is just a whole world of wonderful card games out there, just waiting to be discovered and explored. I have a large collection of other modern games, but over the years I have learned a lot of card games with a traditional deck, and I find myself often coming back to them - especially when I have a custom deck in my hands!

So here is a list of some of my favourite traditional games with standard playing cards, arranged alphabetically within three main categories: social and family games, trick-taking games, and non trick-taking games. Included at the end of the list is a section with books about games with playing cards that I own and can recommend, along with links to some other resources. Each game has a direct link to where you can find the rules on, which is the most authoritative and comprehensive website with rules for games with traditional playing cards. I've also noted the number of players each game is suitable for. It is worth noting that several of these games are particularly excellent for just two players.

Although some more recently invented games are included, for the most part the emphasis of this list is on traditional card games that have stood the test of time in some way, and we are not concerned here with using a standard deck to play modern games. Obviously there are many other games that can be played with a standard deck of cards besides the ones included here. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but just represents the ones are most well-known, and for the most part are games that I have personally tried and enjoyed, or ones that I know are good classics that are worthwhile learning. I hope this will encourage you to stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone, and that you will take the time to learn and explore some new territory. Believe me, it is really worth it, because there are some truly fantastic games here!

Social and Family Games

This category is somewhat arbitrary in that some of the card games in the other categories can also be enjoyed socially or with children, and the games in this category are certainly not just for children. But if I was looking for a fun and lighter game that is easy to learn and play, these are all excellent choices.

Blitz (2-12 players) - A popular and casual/social card game, also known as "Scat", "Thirty-One", "Ride the Bus", and "Blitz". By drawing and discarding a card each turn, the aim is to try to improve your three card hand to have the closest to 31 points in one suit.

Cheat (3-13 players) - Also called "I Doubt It" or "Bullsh**", this is a game many children have played. The aim is to be the first to get rid of all your cards, and you can bluff about what cards you are playing on a turn, but if you get challenged and caught out you have to pick up the entire pile.

Egyptian Ratscrew (2-6 players) - This is a quick-slapping game that is like Slap Jack on steroids, and has been published commercially under the name Slamwich.

Fan Tan (3-6 players) - Also known as "Sevens", "Domino", "Parliament", and "Pay or Play". In turns players play a card to a common layout, which will begin with sevens as the foundation for each suit. Once a seven is played, you can build up or down on that suit, with the aim to be the first to play all your cards.

GOPS (2 players) - A simple and quick bidding/bluffing game for two players. The Diamonds are point cards corresponding to their value, and revealed one at a time in random order. Players each get an entire suit as their hand (Clubs or Spades), and play a card of their choice, with the revealed point card going to the higher played card. GOPS is an acronym for "Game Of Pure Strategy", since there is zero luck.

Knock Out Whist (2-7 players) - Also called "Trumps", this is a simplified version of Whist, where the aim is to avoid elimination after each hand by winning at least one trick. The first hand has seven tricks, and it becomes harder to stay in the game because each successive hand has one less trick. A perfect game to introduce people to trick-taking.

Mao (2-7 players) - This game has especially been popular in college and university crowds since the 1960s, and the aim is not just to win but to have fun. Essentially it is a Crazy Eights variant with special additions, but the rules may not be discussed; new players are expected to try to figure out the rules by observing a game and by trial and error. Theoretically there are overtones of Mornington Crescent, Fizzbin, and Calvinball, but Mao is actually a playable game.

Palace (2-6 players) - Also called "Sh**head" or "Karma". A very light casual game, where the aim is to avoid being last to get rid of your cards. Players each have a row of three face down cards, a row of three face up cards covering these, and a hand of three cards. On your turn you play cards equal or higher than the card on the discard pile, otherwise you pick up the entire pile.

President (3-16 players) - Classically known as "Chairman," "Scum," or "A**hole", and fun for groups, this is an easy introduction to the family of climbing games. The aim is to get rid of cards as soon as possible, and you must play at least as many cards as the previous player, but with higher values. Depending on the order in which players go out, a new hierarchy of players is established. A variation of this was published commercially as The Great Dalmuti. For more advanced climbing games, see Big Two later on this list.

Ranter-Go-Round (3-12 players) - This is also known as "Chase The Ace" or "Cuckoo", with slight variations. A simple game of passing cards around, with a high luck element, the player with the lowest card at the end loses a chip, and the aim is to avoid being eliminated by losing your chips.

Rummy (2-6 players) - A classic card game, in which players draw and discard cards, trying to get "melds" that typically consist of sets of the same values or runs of consecutive values. Many variants exist, including Gin Rummy, which is an excellent game and appears later on this list, as well as some commercially published games like the Mystery Rummy series. Contract Rummy (3-5 players) also developed from Rummy, and adds the complication that in each round players have to fulfil a different contract, which is a fixed combination of sets or runs, that they must have before they can meld. A version of Contract Rummy was published commercially under the name Phase Ten.

Scopa (2-6 players) - A fascinating classic Italian card game that is especially good for two players, and for four players as a partnership game called Scopone. Players are using cards in their hand to "capture" point-scoring cards from a common pool, with captured cards matching or adding up to the value of the card played from hand. Also recommended is Escoba (3-4 players), which is the Spanish name for the Scopa di Quindici variant common in Brazil, in which you capture cards that add to a total of 15 by including a card from your hand. Closely related to Scopa is Cassino, which has gives some added options for play, and appears later on this list.

Speed (2-4 players) - Also called "Spit", this a high speed game similar in style to Nertz (see later on this list), but slightly easier and more suitable for children. The aim is to be the first to get rid of all your cards by simultaneously and quickly playing cards of higher or lower value to a common stock.

Spoons (2-8 players) - A hilarious game for kids or large groups, also known as "Pig" or "Donkey". Players have four cards and simultaneously pass a card to the left, trying to get a set of four matching cards, at which point they take a spoon from the center, which is the signal for everyone to grab a spoon - but there is one less spoon available than the number of players! "My Ship Sails" is a variation that has the aim to collect seven cards of the same suit.

Trick-Taking Games

Trick taking games are one of the most common types of card games, and classics like Hearts and Spades are good examples. It is a game where players all have a hand of cards, and game-play revolves around a series of "tricks", in which each trick involves everyone playing one card from their hand, with the trick typically going to the person who played the highest card. If you have never played a trick-taking game before, I suggest you start with Knock Out Whist, which was listed in the previous category, and is an excellent and fun way to get introduced to this style of game.

500 (4 players) - The national card game of Australia. A skilful trick-taking game where players bid for the number of tricks they think their partnership can win. The winning bidder is allowed to exchange several cards, and select the trump. There is much to love: the trick-taking; the bidding and selecting trump; the exchanging with the kitty to manipulate your hand; the playing in partnerships. A variant for three players also exists.

Bezique (2 players) - A classic trick-taker for two players that originated in France, was very popular in the early 20th century, and has some similarities to the two player version of the American game Pinochle.

Bridge (4 players) - The ultimate classic among trick-taking card games. It is played in partnerships, and gives much room for much skilful play. Contract Bridge is often played in organized club settings, and the bidding and game-play has an extensive series of conventions that can take some time to learn in order to play well.

Briscola (2-6 players) - An Italian trick-taking game that is quite easy to learn and play especially as a two player game. Using just 40 cards, the aim is play tricks from your hand of three in order to win point scoring cards. Apparently this is especially good with the five player Briscola Chiamata variant.

Euchre (4 players) - Extremely popular as a social game in parts of Canada and the USA, Euchre can especially be fun when played in a casual tournament setting. Just 24 cards are used, with the Jacks being powerful "bowers". One partnership is trying to win the most tricks from a five card hand, with trump determined by a turned up card. Ecarte (2 players) is an excellent trick-taking game that is very similar to Euchre, but better suited for a two player game.

German Whist (2 players) - An excellent Whist style game for two players. Each player has a hand of 13 cards, and the first phase involves each person playing a card in order to compete for the face up card from the top of the stock (the very first card shown is the trump suit); the winner gets that card, the loser gets the next face-down card. When the stock is gone, you play out your remaining 13 cards, and the player winning the most tricks is the winner.

Hearts (3-7 players) - One of the all time classic trick-taking games, where the aim is to avoid taking tricks with Hearts, since these are minus points, while the Queen of Spades is a whopping 13 minus points. There is no trump suit.

Jass (2-4 players) - The national Swiss game, playable with two players or in partnerships. This is part of the Jass family which originated in the Netherlands. The wider family includes Belote (French), Klabberjass/Clob (German), and Klaverjassen (Dutch). The Swiss Jass is somewhat similar to Bezique and Pinochle.

Le Truc (2 players) - This out-of-the-ordinary betting/bluffing/trick-taking game is a 19th century French game using a 32 card deck, and was especially popularized after inclusion in Sid Sackson's Gamut of Games. A brilliant bluffing game where you use a hand of three cards to play only three tricks, but can increase the value of a hand throughout the game, to bluff and cause your opponent to fold. Be aware of some rule variations. Both the French Le Truc and the Spanish Truc (which has 2 player partnerships) are derived from the older English game Put (2 players), which is a simpler two player bluffing game that I can also recommend.

Ninety-Nine (3 players) - This original game by David Parlett is regarded as one of the very best trick-taking games for exactly 3 players. Only 36 cards are used, and from a hand of 12 players lay aside three cards that represent the number of their bid, and play out the remaining 9 cards in tricks, trying to win exactly the number of tricks corresponding to their bid.

Oh Hell (3-7 players) - This goes under many names, including Up and Down the River, Bust, and some less savoury titles that are variations on Oh ***. A great trick taking game where you bid how many tricks you can win, while the hand size increases or decreases each round. The game enables considerable skill, because even with bad cards you score if you bid correctly. Numerous scoring variants exist, one being published commercially under the name Wizard.

Pinochle (4 players) - A popular and classic American trick-taking game for partnerships that uses an 48 card deck. Gameplay starts with an auction in which players bid how many points their team will win, with highest bidder picking trump. Each player gets a hand of 12 cards, and individual cards are worth points, as well as combinations of cards in hand (melds). A two-player variant of Pinochle using a single-deck also exists.

Piquet (2 players) - This classic game has a very long history going back several centuries. It is demanding since it has some old-fashioned complications, but is still popular, and regarded as one of the all-time best and most skilful card games for just two players.

Pitch (4 players) - Derived from the old English game All Fours, this game has especially been popular in parts of the USA, and there are many variations. Typically played in partnerships, it begins with a bidding round after players each are dealt six cards, and bid for many of the following four items they think they will have at the end of a hand: High trump, trick with low trump, trick with Jack of trumps, and highest total point value.

Rook (4 players) - Rook is a terrific partnership trick taking game with bidding that was even published commercially under that name with a special deck. The aim is to win tricks with point cards (e.g. the Rook=Joker card is worth 20 points), rather than the maximum number of tricks. The highest bidder has choice of trump, and can exchange with the "nest/kitty" in order to improve their hand. Several good variations exist, and in parts of Canada one of them is played under the name 200 (in French: Deux Cents).

Schnapsen (2 players) - Popular in many parts of Europe, Schnapsen is the national card game of Austria, and is a classic trick-taking card game for two players with a long history, and allows for genuinely skilful and clever play. Played with a small deck, one of its peculiarities is how points are scored for "marriages" (King-Queen couples). For a comprehensive look at the difference between the closely related Sixty Six, and common Schnapsen rule variations, see here and here.

Skat (3 players) - This classic trick-taking game is the national card game of Germany. It features complex scoring and bidding, but is one of the best card games for three players. A similar game with simpler bidding and scoring rules is Schafkopf, which was been Americanized and popularized by immigrants to the USA as Sheepshead. Also related is the demanding Doppelkopf (i.e. Double Sheepshead).

Spades (4 players) - One of the better trick taking games for partnerships, and another classic after being invented and popularized in the USA in the 1930s. Spades are always the trumps, and players bid how many tricks they think they will win in advance. Although the bidding and scoring is not the easiest if you are new to trick-taking games, it is a game that allows for more skill than casual games like euchre.

Whist (4 players) - A simple but classic trick-taking card game from which many others are derived. Played in partnerships, there is no trump, and teams try to win the most tricks as they play out a full hand of 13 cards. Good variations include titles elsewhere on this list, like German Whist (2 players) and Knock Out Whist (3-7 players).

Non Trick-Taking Games

Trick taking games are arguably one of the most popular and common types of card games, which is why they were listed as a separate category. But there are certainly a large number of other fantastic card games as well. Most of the games listed in the "Social and Family Games" category were also non tricking-taking games, but the games listed below tend to be a little more thoughtful and involved.

Big Two (4 players) - Best with four players (although variants for 2-3 players exist), this along with President (which appears earlier on this list) represents one of the more accessible and well-known climbing games. With the climbing genre, the idea is to be the first player to get rid of all your cards, playing cards individually or in special combinations. For a slightly easier climbing game than Big Two, consider Tien Len, which is the national card game of Vietnam. One of the most popular climbing games of all times is Tichu, which was published commercially with a special deck.

Canasta (4 players) - A game that became extremely popular in the 1950s, Canasta uses two standard decks, and is best in two-player partnerships. It is a rummy style of game in which the aim is to make melds of seven cards of the same value, and "go out" by playing your entire hand. There are also several variants, such as the popular Hand and Foot.

Cassino (2-4 players) - This classic card game is a "fishing" game that has some parallels to the simpler Scopa (see earlier on this list), and the Anglo-American version is especially popular. Players capture face-up cards in a common pool by playing matching cards from their hand, either individually or a number of cards that adds to a total equalling the card played from hand. Unlike Scopa, players have more options, and can also build cards together for later, which adds a more tactical element.

Cribbage (2-4 players) - A classic card name based on card combinations worth points, with the aim of being first to 121 points, scored by pegging on a board. Players each get a hand of six cards, and must set aside two to a "crib" which will later score for one of the two players. Cards are played in turns, adding their values together until you reach or near 31, and then this is repeated. Players score for combinations like cards that add to 15, pairs/triples, or runs, and also score for their hand at the end. Despite the casual feel, there is considerable skill, and experienced players will consistently outperform novices. Requires decision making for selecting cards for the crib, and which order to play the cards in hand. Even children will enjoy finding the point scoring combinations, while the imbalance/asymmetry of each game turn makes it especially interesting. Best with 2 players.

Eleusis (4-8 players) - A modern card game simulating scientific research, as players ("scientists") conduct experiments to determine the rule governing play. Players try to get rid of cards by discarding them, but the "rule" that allows legal play is invented by the dealer and is unknown to the players, and they must try to figure out the rule by deducing it from legal plays.

Gin Rummy (2 players) - Derived from Rummy (see earlier on this list), Gin Rummy is a "knocking game" that differs from Rummy in that melds are kept in hand until the end of a deal. It is an excellent and time-tested two player game.

Nertz (2-6 players) - Also known as "Racing Demon" or "Pounce", Nertz is a competitive multi-player solitaire that is played in real time. The aim is to be the first to get rid of cards from your Nertz piles by building upwards on common foundations. It is basically the same game as the commercially available Ligretto/Dutch Blitz, but played with a standard deck.

Poker (2-10 players) - This is considered the ultimate bluffing game, and No Limit Texas Hold 'Em has been popularized with the help of television and local tournaments. Players "bet" chips on whether or not they have the best five card poker hand. Many say it is only fun when played for money, suggesting that the thrill is in the gambling rather than the game-play. Even if you do not play for money, you do have to approach the game semi-seriously for it to be fun, otherwise it is too easy for someone to play foolishly and hand another player the game. A must for those who enjoy bluffing.

Spite & Malice (2-5 players) - Also known as "Cat & Mouse", this is a competitive patience/solitaire game for two or more players that uses two decks, and is better known to most people under its commercially produced variation, Skip-Bo. Unlike Speed and Nertz, it is not played simultaneously in real time, because players take turns, but the overall concept is somewhat similar.

Zetema (2 players) - This is an obscure Victorian card game that revived in popularity as a result of Sid Sackson's A Gamut of Games. David Parlett recommends it as an out-of-the-ordinary card game that is "long and savory". It is played with a 65-card deck (52 cards plus an additional two through Ace in one suit), and each player's objective is to reach a certain number of points scored by discarding assemblies, completing tricks, setting up marriages, or revealing flushes and sequences. Also playable with four or six players in partnerships.


So where should you start? Hopefully some of the descriptions I have provided will intrigue you enough to give a particular game a shot, or look into it further. But often games will depend on who you are playing with, the number of players you have, and the kind of game you are looking for. So to help you branch out beyond the repertoire that you might already be familiar with, here are some recommendations for games that I especially suggest for different situations.

Are you looking for...

- a game for just two players? GOPS and Scopa are two simpler games that are quite rewarding. If you want a trick-taking game for just two, then Briscola and German Whist are both straight forward and good choices, while Le Truc is fantastic for those who like bluffing, and Schnapsen is worth the effort to learn if you enjoy skilful play. Cribbage and Gin Rummy are two non trick-taking classics that are every bit as good today as they have always been.

- a game for four-players in partnerships? There are several good trick-taking games to choose from in this category, and while the ever-popular Bridge is good, the learning curve can be steep. I recommend starting with a simpler game like Euchre or Whist, or else something that involves more skill, like 500, Rook, or Spades, which incorporate the fun of bidding and give opportunity for a winning bidder to strengthen their hand.

- a trick-taking game for an odd number of players? Ninety-Nine is the best trick-taker that plays with exactly three players. Hearts and Oh Hell can both handle various player counts, and are very good; if you enjoy bidding for how many tricks you think you will win then Oh Hell is an absolute must.

- a light social game for a larger group? Try the classic climbing game President, the almost brainless Ranter-Go-Round, or the frenzy of Spoons, all of which are easy to learn and don not require too much brain power. Blitz and Cheat are also good choices for fun social games that can work with more than four players.

- a game that is fast-paced? Try the craziness of two player Speed/Spit, or else ramp up the difficulty slightly with the frantic game-play of the popular Nertz, both of which have simultaneous real-time game-play. Egyptian Ratscrew also requires quick reactions and speed.

- a game that is unusual and out-of-the-ordinary? Try the logical deduction required by the clever and inventive Eleusis, or the long and savoury gameplay of Zetema.

- a game for older children? Most of the games in the "Social and Family Games" category will work, but fun games that I have had good success with in playing with children include Cheat, Fan Tan, Knock Out Whist (which also serves as a good introduction to trick-taking), Palace, Speed, and Spoons. If they can handle the scoring system, Scopa is definitely a rewarding game that older children can enjoy. GOPS produces an excellent head-to-head battle-of-wits for just two.

- a game for younger children? There's a number of classic and very simple games not included on this list, such as Beggar My Neighbour (2-3 players), Crazy Eights (2-7 players), Go Fish (2-6 players), Old Maid (2-12 players), Slap Jack (2-8 players), Snap (2-4 players), and War (2 players). Be aware that some games like Beggar My Neighbour and also War involve no decisions and are a matter of pure luck!

Solitaire Games

But what about if you have nobody to play with? The good news is that there is a wide range of excellent solitaire card games, a category sometimes referred to with the catch-all "Patience". Patience or Solitaire games are especially popular due to the fact that many of them come pre-installed on personal computer operating systems. Some solitaire games come down to pure luck, but there are many excellent ones that require genuine skill, and can be a very rewarding challenge to play.

Rules: Fortunately you can learn many solitaire games with the help of free apps, or the many websites that offer these games to play for free. You will find lots of resources online that will teach you rules for different games, and a good place to begin is the Wikipedia page which lists solitaire games. Also check Polymorphic Solitaire, Pretty Good Solitaire, and Solitaire Network, which all have extensive lists of solitaire games, rules for each, and free online play.

Recommendations: There are different types of solitaire games, and here are some of the better and more popular ones I can recommend, grouped according to different categories:
Adding and pairing types: Golf, Monte Carlo, Pyramid
Non-builder types: Clock Patience, Grandfather's Clock, Accordion
Fan types: La Belle Lucie, The Fan, Super Flower Garden, Shamrocks, Bristol
Builder types: Baker’s Dozen, Beleaguered Castle, Canfield, Forty Thieves, Freecell, Klondike, Miss Milligan, Russian Solitaire, Scorpion, Spider, Yukon
Other types: Aces Up, Calculation
Thematic: I also highly recommend Bowling Solitaire by genius game designer Sid Sackson. It is entirely unlike all the other solitaire games mentioned, but is an incredibly thematic and clever game.

Apps: There are some fantastic apps available for free which have a wide range of solitaire games. Of the ones I have tried, I can especially recommend Full Deck Solitaire (by GRL Games), Solebon Solitaire (by Solebon LLC), and Solitaire City (by Digital Smoke LLC). Of course you do not want to only play using apps, but these will help you learn the rules, and then you can pull out your actual deck of cards and have fun playing with them!

Other Ideas

This article should get you well on your way to playing some fun card games. But if you are interested in exploring the world of card games further, there is certainly a lot more you can do. So here are some ideas for further expanding your horizons, learning more about the great card games that are out there, and even options for playing them when you have nobody else around to play with.

Get a book: There are some fantastic books with rules to all the classic card games. You will need some way to learn how to play a new game, and resolve those inevitable rules arguments that might arise. Having a reliable book is something you can take with you when you are on the go. Here are two of the best:
The Penguin Book of Card Games - Also published under the title The Penguin Encyclopedia of Card Games, this book by David Parlett is easily the most comprehensive book in the English language with standard card games. If you are looking to discover new games, or find rules to lots of different games, this is the best book to get.
Hoyle's Rules of Games - An authoritative and standard text on classic card games. I personally own the Third Revised edition (Philip D. Morehead), and have used it often, although it is not as exhaustive as David Parlett's book, so it can happen that the card game of your choice is not included. But the section on card games is very useful, especially the contents pages which categorizes the games by suitability for adults/children and by number of players; plus it has rules to other classic games as well. This book and a deck of playing cards is all you need to take along on a vacation!

Check online resources: There are some terrific resources online about traditional card games. is easily the most authoritative and best when it comes to rules, but there are certainly other places that are helpful as well. Suggestions to get you started: - John McLeod's award-winning site is considered to be the most exhaustive website with rules for different card games played with a standard deck. An outstanding and useful resource. - Bicycle's official website has their official rules for many different card games. It also has a helpful search function that allows you to find a suitable card game based on the number of players, who is playing, and type of game. - BoardGameGeek is of course the world's largest community of boardgamers, so you'll also find some resources about traditional card games here. This page lists a number of games that can be played with a standard deck, along with some other helpful links on the site related to traditional card games. Also check the family page for traditional card games for more.
Poker Suite - Cheapass Games offers a free download of the rules PDF for their Poker Suite, which is a collection of 14 original games that is well worth looking at.
Femtitvå - Scott Huntington's free collection of 10 clever card games is inspired by modern games like Ticket to Ride and 7 Wonders.

Play using an app: If you are not quite sure on the rules of how to play a specific card game mentioned above, there are plenty of apps available that will help you with that. The ideal way to learn a game is to have someone teach you, but an app is a fantastic second best, because it will enforce the rules. Many of them also include tutorials. There are quite a few software programs for card games that are readily available as well - most versions of Windows will come with Hearts and Spades, and some solitaire games too. Here are some good free apps for iOS for some of the games listed above; I've personally used, enjoyed, and can recommend all of these: Cribbage Craze (Cribbage) by Tim Eakins, Thirty One Rummy (Blitz) by North Sky Games, Briscola Pro (Briscola) by Appsmob, Scopa Dal Negro (Scopa) by Digitalmoka Sri, Master Schnapsen/66 Lite (Schnapsen) by Psellos, Truco Argentina (Le Truc) by Jaime Garcia Ghirelli. There is also a great free app called Bicycle How To Play by United States Playing Card Company. You cannot play any games with this app, but it comes with rules for many of the most popular card games, so it functions as a digital document you can use on the fly to find the rules you need.

Play online: Playing with an app that incorporates multiplayer games is one way to play online, but there are also websites dedicated to this purpose as well. This is not something I have tried much myself, but here are a few that you can start with:,,, and

Ask family and friends: Many families have their household favourites. Perhaps some of your friends know some great card games that they would just love to teach you! A night playing card games with family or friends makes for a relaxing social evening, and is a great way to spend time together.

So dust off that deck of playing cards that is looking down expectantly at you from the shelf, invite over some family or friends, and get those playing cards to the table. Enjoy your deck and discover the fun that traditional card games have been bringing people around the world for centuries!

Join the discussion: Do you ever play traditional card games, i.e. using a standard deck? Which traditional card games do you play the most, and what is it that keeps you coming back to them? And what are your thoughts and experiences with some of the listed games?

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Fri Mar 22, 2019 2:14 am
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Market Saturation: Are There Too Many Decks of Custom Playing Cards?

Market Saturation: Are There Too Many Decks of Custom Playing Cards?

A Flooded Market?

It's no secret that there are a lot of decks of custom playing cards on the market right now. We are living in an unprecedented time, with an embarrassment of riches as far as playing cards is concerned. The choice is massive, and when you're buying a quality deck of playing cards, there are far more options to choose from than traditional staples like Bicycle, Bee, or Tally Ho. Today you can purchase from a wide range of hundreds, if not thousands, of different decks of high quality playing cards.

As proof of this, you only need to head to Kickstarter, where you're almost certain to discover yet another deck of custom playing cards that is up for funding. As further evidence, just look at the tremendous variety available here on PlayingCardDecks to get an indication of the many diverse decks you can choose from!

Improved technology and the arrival of crowdfunding are two big factors that have contributed to a thriving industry of custom playing cards. Until recently, producing a deck of playing cards with any kind of quality was reserved for the elite who had access to good artists and designers, quality printing processes, and had the finances needed to make all this become a reality. Today, that has all changed. Kickstarter launched in 2009, and after a couple of years of growth and maturing, it soon became the platform of choice for the little guy to achieve his dreams. Suddenly it became possible for the unheralded designer to create an original design, get the financial backing from playing card enthusiasts around the world, and then share his work digitally with printing companies in the US or Taiwan, who would turn the project into an actual deck of quality custom playing cards.

This process has been accelerated by the simultaneous rise of cardistry as an exciting and growing art-form, thus creating an even greater demand and audience for custom playing cards. A further catalyst is the ever-present collector, who just loves the novelty, artwork, or design of these unique decks of playing cards, and is happy to spend money on yet another beautiful and stylish deck to add to his growing collection.

Greater Competition?

This wonderful state of affairs means that we have an amazing range of high quality playing cards to choose from. But is that really a good thing? Can this growing custom playing card industry really support itself, or is this development unsustainable, and will it produce a flooded market that chokes on its own success?

Certainly there is no doubt that the present state of affairs is different even than what it was just half a dozen years ago. We all know that the internet has changed the way that traditional business works, but crowdfunding in particular has had a massive impact on the playing card market. Publishers had to reinvent the way they that do business, and the way that they do marketing. But more importantly, new designers have entered the playing field, because now technology and crowdfunding have given them the means to produce decks that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. And there's an ever growing audience of consumers, cardists, and collectors, waiting to throw money at anything that looks good.

But this also makes everything far more competitive. The first decks of custom playing cards that appeared on Kickstarter in its first years attracted enormous attention, popularity, and success - and often this equated to enormous amounts of money. It was not uncommon for good decks of playing cards to be funded with the support of amounts in excess of $100,000. Quite frankly, when one looks at those decks now, it is hard to imagine those projects having the same level of success in today's more competitive environment. The market is far more crowded, and the quality of playing card designs has continued to improve, so that even some of the successful projects of those early Kickstarter years pale beside what is being produced today. The challenge for designers today is to figure out how they can stand out in this crowded field. Sometimes it even happens that a deserving project struggles or fails to get funded, because it doesn't attract the attention it deserves, and so it sadly disappears in the cracks of obscurity amidst all the noise and among all the other products competing for attention.

Good or Bad?

Could this new landscape for custom playing cards, with what almost appears to be a glut, perhaps be a bad thing? The outside observer that is unfamiliar with the custom playing card industry might wonder what all the fuss is about, and be quick to conclude that the massive amount of custom playing cards is reaching the heights of absurdity, and that this apparent embarrassment of riches cannot last.

However, I would suggest that the vast number of different decks is not a harbinger of the collapse of the custom playing card industry, but rather an indication that it is thriving, and that the future looks very healthy and positive! Here are half a dozen reasons why the growing number of custom decks is a very positive development and one that both producers and consumers in the industry should welcome!

1. These decks are actually being used

Sure, there are some collectors who might never open the shrink-wrap or actually touch the cards inside - perish the thought! But for the most part, these new decks of custom playing cards are being snapped up by magicians who are using them for card magic, and by cardists who are using them for card flourishing. Not only do magicians and cardists get excited by something new, but they also wear out the old. Playing cards are a consumable product, and they do wear out. That's especially true of a deck in the hands of an enthusiastic cardist, who will give a deck of playing cards an incredibly intense workout, to the point that sometimes in a matter of a few days they are already reaching for another deck. Even the collector will want to keep adding newness to his collection, as new designs appear on the market. So even as people keep buying new decks, the demand doesn't go away, since they are actually using the decks they acquire, and need to replace them or add to them.

2. These decks give opportunity to personalize

Especially since both card magic and cardistry are performing arts, there is a very personal element about a performance. It's natural for performers to want to make their acts stand out as unique, and also to use props that fit with their persona and style. It's only a natural step for this to apply to playing cards as well. We all like something that has a pattern, style, and colours, that suits our own personality. In that regard the growing range of playing cards is welcome, because it means we have a larger range of accessories to choose from, to suit our personal style and needs. What's more, as our needs and moods change, we can choose a different deck. Much like a woman might choose a different set of ear-rings and handbag to suit the occasion, so playing cards are the perfect customizable accessory for the magician and cardist. Even for someone who enjoys playing card games, a unique deck adds that extra bit of personality to the table.

3. Competition promotes higher quality

There's no doubt that there is a significantly higher level of competition nowadays, and that it is harder to fund a deck of custom playing cards successfully today than in the past. But while this can involve disappointments at times for creators, it is very good for the consumer. Because it means that for a project to make the grade, it has to be good. Very good. Merely "average" won't cut it anymore, and the formula of "same old, same old" won't lead to success. As a result, this forces designers to really stretch themselves; it means that they cannot sit on their laurels or be satisfied with the mediocre, because then they won't succeed. They absolutely need to produce their best, and that's exactly what we're seeing. By and large, the decks we are seeing today are better than those created 10 years ago, and some of the mistakes and weaknesses of older designs simply won't be accepted today. Even the playing cards themselves are printed with very high standards, with an embossed air-cushion finish that handles and performs smoothly being a required and expected minimum. For the consumer, all this makes crowdfunding a gatekeeper of sorts, and while it isn't an infallible guarantee of quality, there is generally a positive correlation between success and quality.

4. Competition promotes greater creativity

In order to stand out from the crowd, creators also need to resort to new methods and techniques. It's not enough to create a slight variation on a previous success. This forces creators, designers, and publishers, to be willing to experiment with new processes and styles. I believe that as a result, we are seeing playing cards today that are unparalleled in quality. Obvious examples of this would be the levels of innovation in tuck box design, which typically display the very highest levels of sophistication and class, with the help of rich embossing, touches of foil in gold, silver, and other colours, and make a supreme statement of luxury. This innovation also extends to the playing cards themselves. We are increasingly seeing things like the use of metallic inks, foil backs, and the use of specialized processes like UV spot printing to produce cards unlike anything ever seen before. An extreme example of this would be some of the custom decks produced by Greek designer Lotrek, who has produced some remarkable and highly collectable cards that are printed entirely with foil!

5. Crowdfunding enables creators to obtain consumers

One of the remarkable things about crowdfunding is that it opens up the market. Before the age of the internet, the only way to buy a custom deck of playing cards was to visit a local store, and typically that meant your options were very limited. There was certainly no way for me to know about some designer in Italy who was producing an amazing deck of cards that I would surely buy if only I knew about it. The crowdfunding era means that not only I can find out that this fantastic deck from Italy exists, but I can support its designer in producing it by buying it, simply with the click of a mouse from the other side of the world. The creators and consumers were always there, but given that the custom playing card market is a very niche genre, it was very difficult for creators and consumers to connect. That has all changed, and so a demand that was always there now can finally be met, and this is good both for the creators and the consumers. The creators now can connect with a worldwide market of buyers, while the consumers can now connect with creators and have access to a range of products they didn't know existed. The result is good for both parties, and ensures a thriving industry.

6. Crowdfunding enables consumers to influence creators

Another unique thing about crowdfunding is the way that supporters of a product can be involved in the creation process. As a project travels from launch to fulfilment, there is ample opportunity for their input and comment. While this does give opportunity for the internet troll to sometimes enter the conversation, for the most part this is a wonderful opportunity for backers to have a say in what the final product looks like, and even make a positive contribution as it shapes up. Designers and producers can only benefit from hearing what consumers think, and allowing them to engage in the design process, and this gives creators the rare and welcome opportunity to actually improve a product before it is produced and brought to market. That is a wonderful state of affairs that is only going to benefit everyone involved, will inevitably lead to better products, and again promotes a healthy and thriving custom playing card industry.


Certainly there are always going to be examples of disappointed designers who haven't been able to be successful in today's increasingly crowded market, and of disappointed consumers who are frustrated with a project that didn't turn out how they had hoped. But overall the state of affairs we find ourselves in today with the apparent "glut" of custom playing cards is a very happy one. We are seeing unparalleled innovation, creativity, and quality, and unparalleled opportunities for designers and consumers to connect in a way that benefits both.

More custom playing cards a bad thing? I don't think so. Playing cards are only getting better and better, so designers and publishers, keep them coming! We love what you are doing, and we're not going to stop buying any time soon!

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Fri Mar 15, 2019 1:35 am
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Restorations of Famous American Decks

Restorations of Famous American Decks

Most of the history that shaped playing cards as we know them today occurred in Europe between the end of the 14th century and the 15th century. The 52 card deck as we know it in four suits of 13 cards each was largely established by the end of the 16th century, with the French suits becoming the standard throughout Europe and England. England did exert its influence on playing cards by contributing the English terms used to refer to the four suits, and the specialized attention given to the Ace of Spades due to its choice as the card that denoted when the required tax on playing cards had been paid. Perhaps most importantly, it was the mass production of playing cards in England under de la Rue that saw a relatively standardized design developing for the court cards, and after some modernization at the hands of printers like Hunt and Charles Goodall in the 1800s, playing cards were starting to look very much like the ones we have today.

The subsequent history of playing cards witnessed only relatively minor changes, but further developments in the United States did have some impact on determining what a modern deck of playing cards looks like. The American playing card industry started to develop especially towards the end of the 19th century, and it was this era that saw the rise of printers like Russell and Morgan, which later became the famous United States Playing Card Company, today considered an industry giant. But the playing cards manufactured in the United States in the late 1800s are of special historical interest, because these show what playing cards from that era looked like, and also were among the first to incorporate new developments such as the addition of indices on the corners of the cards, as well as the Joker.

Given their unique place and importance in the history of playing cards, these decks are of special interest to collectors, and they have a real appeal even to untrained eyes given their vintage and historic look. It is here that a small publisher has stepped forward to make a modern contribution that is very welcome. Home Run Games is a small company founded by Michael Scott and Coby Pile, and has successfully used crowdfunding to help produce a number of small games. But more importantly, Home Run Games has a real love for the classic decks from the late 19th century, and with the help of Kickstarter, has produced some fine reproductions of these decks, in quality editions printed by USPCC. Let's introduce you to some of these "restoration decks" that have been created by Home Run Games, and tell you something about the particular significance and appeal of each.

Hart's Saladee's Patent (1864)

The Saladee's Patent deck bears the unique distinction of being the first deck to be printed in the United States with indices. Prior to this, it was common practice to print playing cards without any indices. In fact, right from the time when playing cards first arrived in Europe in the late 1300s, that's how playing cards looked, for an incredible 500 years: no indices! Some early nineteenth-century Spanish cards did have an index in the top right corner, but for the most part, the only way you could know what cards you had in your hand was by seeing the full card.

History records that the Saladee Patent was issued to Cyrus W. Saladee of Kentucky on 9 February 1864, under patent #41,587, for printing numbers, suit symbols, and letters on the corner of a playing card. Printer Samuel Hart purchased the patent, but Saladee's name appeared on the deck, while the Ace of Spades had the following text: "Saladee's Patent, February 7, 1864, New York, 546 Broadway, Samuel Hart & Co., 416 South Thirteenth St., Philadelphia."

Referred to as the Saladee's Patent Deck, this rare piece of history is believed to be the first American deck that was printed with corner indices, and it went on to revolutionize the playing card industry in America. Now players could see all their cards at a glance by fanning them slightly, and so the name "squeezers" also came to be associated with this new development.

At this time full-length court cards were still relatively common, and this is still evident with this deck. The new trend with corner indices didn't take off immediately, and they only became common in printed playing cards after they were included by the New York Consolidated Card Company, which patented the design in 1875. When these Squeezers and their competing Triplicates were printed in 1876, they became the new standard in the playing card industry.

Another notable inclusion in this deck is the Best Bower card, which functioned as a Joker. Prior to 1860, standard decks of playing cards had no Jokers. The Joker was only added when the card game of Euchre became popular, and the Joker was developed as the "best bower" that functioned as the highest trump card in Euchre, beating the "right bower" and "left bower". Some decks from this era do not yet have Jokers, and the more playful artwork that we typically associate with Jokers today was not yet common practice. The Saladee's Patent Deck reflects a time where this transition was taking place.

Triplicate No. 18 (1876)

The new innovation of indices on the corners of playing cards didn't happen without a fight, and to compete with this new development, a rival publisher, Andrew Dougherty and Company, began producing playing cards known as "triplicates". The Triplicate deck was produced by Andrew Dougherty, an Irish immigrant that established his own printing house and built a manufacturing plant in New York in 1872. He secured a patent for a Triplicate feature in 1876.

The triplicate concept involved a miniature card face printed on the opposite corners of each card. Similar to the indices of the earlier Saladee's Patent deck, the idea here was to revolutionize how cards could be held, enabling them to be viewed and identified merely by looking at the corners, even when they were fanned together in a tight spread. It is this concept that makes this deck historic and memorable. To celebrate this new idea, the very first No 18 Triplicate deck from Dougherty had a decorative Ace of Spades and wrapper that depicted a fanned hand of cards with the triplicates viewable on these cards.

The triplicates were printed by Dougherty up until 1883, after which he began producing his Indicator cards, which featured number and letter indices printed outside the border. By this time it had become evident that the competition had won the day, which was primarily in the form of the Squeezers that began to be printed by the New York Consolidated Card Company also in 1876. These continued the design begun by the Saladee's Patent deck, which was the forerunner of the indices seen on virtually all modern decks today.

Also of note is the fact that prior to this time, court cards were typically a one-way or full-length design that took up the space of the entire card, as seen with the Saladee's Patent deck. There were some double-ended court cards in the 1600s, but they only started to become more standard around 1865-70 in Europe. The obvious advantage of double-ended court cards was that they made it unnecessary for players to turn around these cards in their hand, which otherwise might give their opponents potential clues about what was in their hand. American playing card manufacturers were quick to follow this new trend, as evidenced by decks like this one, which features double-ended court cards.

During this time, court cards in England were becoming standardized under the mass production of de la Rue and later printers like Hunt and Goodall. The influence of those designs was evident in the USA as well, but many of the designs from this period don't bear the burden of needing to be restrained by a "standard" court card set, and so there is still a variety of styles and influences evident.

Mauger Centennial (1876)

The Mauger Centennial deck was created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and was also made to mark the World's Fair held in Philadelphia that year. Victor E. Mauger was born in England, and thus had connections with the English playing card industry, notably the big name of Charles Goodall & Son. After arriving in New York in 1855, he first began importing Goodall deck, but by 1876 had begun producing his own decks. He also invented a machine for trimming playing cards.

The Centennial Exposition Deck is another classic deck from this era, with several unique and interesting details. First of all, the Ace of Spades bears the marks of the events that this deck was commemorating, by including the dates 1776 and 1876, as well as the Latin words NUNQUAM RETRORSUM, which literally means "never backwards", and hence the meaning "never retreat".

Created at a time where indices were just beginning to be used, Mauger decided to include them in all four corners of the cards, a feature which is considered to make them quadruplicates. Prior to the French simplifying the four suits into red and black, it had been common to have suits in different colours, and Mauger followed this model for the Centennial deck as well, using the colours black and red for Spades and Hearts, and blue and yellow for the Clubs and Diamonds.

By this time the Joker was also starting to become a more established fixture in decks of playing cards, and was also developing its own more playful character and artwork to match. With this deck, the Joker pictures a popular actor and dancer from the time, George L. Fox, who was famous for his pantomime clown act in the play Humpty Dumpty.

An interesting historical note is that the original deck was first published with an error - the 5 of Clubs was missing - although this was corrected in later editions produced the same year. But as a nod to this historical idiosyncrasy, one of several different version of the replica of this deck from Home Run Games was also produced without the 5 of Clubs; the missing card is still provided along with the deck, but is packaged separately.

One final unusual characteristic of this deck is that its cards measured measuring 90mm x 62mm, which is slightly larger in size than the typical poker-size cards used then and now. Of the different versions of this deck produced by Home Run Games, a special "Original Release" edition features cards with this larger-than-normal size.

Murphy Varnish (1883)

America is well-known for its innovation in advertising and promotion, and so it's no surprise that playing cards were also conscripted for the cause of business. The Murphy's Varnish deck is a prime example of a promotional deck that was created for this purpose.

This beautiful and iconic deck was originally printed in 1883 by Andrew Dougherty, and was created as an advertising deck for the Murphy Varnish company from Newark, New Jersey. As an advertising deck it also depicts comical pictures of varnish salesmen, people worshiping cans of varnish, and all of the good uses for the Murphy Varnish.

Famous for its humour and clever artwork, it also showcases another feature common to that time: transformation art. A transformation deck incorporates pips into a larger artwork that is often amusing or clever, and the Murphy Varnish deck is one of the best examples from this era. The pips have been cleverly incorporated as part of larger images that depict scenes filled with warm humour, making every card in this deck a truly unique work of art.

Even though it was very obviously a promotional product, this deck remains a stunning example of a beautiful and creative transformation deck from the time, and is a memorable relic that is both practical and entertaining.

Tally-Ho No. 9 (1885)

Alongside established brands like Bicycle and Bee, the Tally-Ho brand is arguably the most iconic American brand of playing card today. Like several others in this list, it owes its origin to Andrew Dougherty. First printed in 1885, different versions of this deck are still produced today, and it remains a popular choice for many card players and magicians.

The card backs of this deck are not the ones we typically associate with the ones usually identified with the Tally Ho brand today, namely the familiar circle backs and fan backs. The face cards on the other hand will look very familiar to the modern player, especially the artwork of the courts, which was more and more becoming established as a standard. The Ace of Spaces featured an ornately decorated pip with a crest that included the Centre Street address of the manufacturer, Andrew Dougherty.

The original Tally Ho deck came with a Jolly Joker card, which confirms how Jokers were more and more being assigned a jovial role within the deck. Later versions of the deck included a Joker dressed for a fox hunt, as a tribute to the fact that the phrase "tally-ho" is associated with fox hunting.

Home Run Games has continued to produce other versions of the Tally Ho deck, and one of their more recent projects is the Tally Ho No 9 Horseback deck from 1905. The horse has been an important part of the Tally-Ho brand due to the link with fox hunts, which were typically done on horseback. This particular deck is a prime example of this, because it featured card back artwork with intertwined horse and wagon wheels, and was also the first deck that included the Fox Hunting Joker.

The Process of Restoring a Deck

You can imagine that any decks actually from the 1800s are very rare, and are worth large sums of money. The good news is that Home Run Games has lovingly restored these decks in beautiful new editions, thus making this classic deck readily available for collectors today. That means that you can purchase high quality reproductions of these charming decks, and thereby own a beautiful slice of history without spending big bucks.

To ensure that these restored versions are produced in an edition worthy of their important pace in history, they have been printed by United States Playing Card Company with their usual air cushion finish. Ironically, USPCC traces its roots back to the same era that birthed these lovely cards, because their genesis lies in the Russell & Morgan Company from this time, which later became the United States Playing Card Company, and today is easily the most dominant force in the American playing card industry. The result is that the cards themselves are durable and high quality, that feel great and handle well, since they have been produced with USPCC's usual high standards of quality.

So how were these restorations done? A good restoration means that the artwork is completely redone so that the decks are printed in the best quality possible. To achieve these beautiful reproductions of these historic decks, Home Run Games worked closely with the USPCC over a lengthy period of time. This labour of love included researching archives, designing, and formatting, plus pouring hundreds of hours into painstakingly re-drawing the artwork, in order to bring these treasured cards back to life for the modern generation.

I contacted Michael Scott from Home Run Games, to find out more about the process involved in making a restoration deck.

What is your own background and expertise?

I am a builder by trade. I restore old historical homes regularly as well as build new ones. I have always been interested in the past, which led me to studying history. I graduated in Russian Language, Literature and History. My idea of a good book is non-fiction history. One of my hobbies is restoring old cars, which is a true labor of love, as you usually never get the money out of it after you put it in. However there is great satisfaction in rebuilding something and restoring it. I am currently working on a 1956 Chevy truck and a 1961 Unimog.

How did you become interested in restoration decks?

I have collected cards since I was very young. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in history, my interests in collection were focused on pre 1900’s decks and the origins of the innovations associated with playing cards. As I was doing research and began collecting these more expensive decks, it occurred to me that I became very nervous as others handled them. I was in a predicament because I wanted to show everyone the beauty of my collection, but it was difficult to share these priceless treasures for the fear that they could be destroyed.

At this point I decided to undertake redoing the art of one of my favorite decks that I owned, the No.18 Triplicate deck from Andrew Dougherty. I did the artwork for the Ace of Spades and the back of the deck and approached the USPCC. We had worked together on other decks that we had produced, so the relationship was already there. After a thorough review of the art, they asked for some of the other art to be reproduced. I finished the tuck and many of the face cards, and from there we moved forward and I was hooked on restoring the historical decks that I love.

How do you select the decks that you decide to make replicas of?

When looking to restore a deck, it is most important for us to find a deck with historical significance. Something that pushed the innovation of design and playability forward. I selected the Triplicate deck first because it is so unique. My favorite decks to collect were from Andrew Dougherty, I have always been drawn to his designs.

What is involved in making a restoration deck? How do you actually go about this?

After the deck is selected we try to get as many copies as we can. There can be significant differences due to the printing quality back in the 1800s. We gather decks, pictures, and archives from the USPCC, and a group of collectors from all over the US that we regularly consult with.

You have mentioned that you work with USPCC in researching and restoring the decks. What does this cooperation with USPCC actually involve?

We collect any archives and information they have on the deck we are restoring. And we begin with the back, Ace of Spades, and the tuck, and go back and forth with them for authenticity and approvals. After that we move on to face cards and Jokers, then 2-9.

How would you describe the kind of consumers are especially interested in decks like these?

We have a large group of collectors that we regularly correspond with. It is so much fun to hear from them and what they are doing with our cards. They range from older collectors, magicians, and new collectors, but I would say the majority of them are 20 to 40 year old card enthusiasts.

Have you considered producing any restoration decks from Europe from the same time period as these decks or from an earlier era?

Yes, I am working on an early Spanish deck right now. I am also doing a lot of research on English and French decks. We get requests from collectors, and when we do, we look at all of the ins and outs of each deck.

Do you have any future restoration deck projects planned that you would like to tell us about?

I am working on several decks right now. For each deck we need to clear legal authorizations. We are in the process of finalizing that with the upcoming projects we are working on, so I cannot yet mention which decks they are until we receive legal clearance.

Where to get them?

These beautiful restoration decks have been created by Home Run Games. Besides being available directly from the publisher, a good selection of these restoration decks is also available at PlayingCardDecks:
- Hart's Saladee's Patent (1864)
- Triplicate No. 18 (1876)
- Mauger Centennial (1876)
- Murphy Varnish (1883)
- Tally-Ho No. 9 (1885)

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Fri Feb 15, 2019 1:28 pm
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Q&A with Playing Card Designer Karin Yan (Bona Fide Playing Cards)

Who is Karin Yan?

Bona Fide Playing Cards is a creative outfit based in Spain, that has produced several beautiful decks of custom playing cards. The expression bona fide comes from Latin, and literally means "in good faith", and so hence today "genuine, real, sincere". And that's what Bona Fide Playing Cards strives for in their decks of playing cards, as they explain: "a genuine union between the genuine love for art in general and beautiful and unique playing cards in particular, covering a wide range of themes and styles.

Despite their relatively short history, Bona Fide Playing Cards has achieved the honorable distinction of having one of their designs, Nouveau Playing Cards, being chosen as the United Cardists annual deck for 2016. Karin Yan is the creator and designer behind the Nouveau decks and behind Bona Fide Playing Cards. She has an enthusiasm and passion for art, and drawing and design is something she has long enjoyed as a hobby. Karin loves the creativity and versatility that art and design offers, and is particularly drawn to classic drawings and designs.

So it is no surprise that in the Nouveau series (nouveau being French for "new, fashionable; newly arrived or developed") she created a number of designs that go back to the roots of French playing cards, and was also inspired by the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century. The original Nouveau deck went on to become part of a larger series that consists of several similarly styled artistic decks: Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, Nouveau Perle, and Nouveau Gemmes, some of which are jewelry inspired designs. Besides these, Bona Fide Playing Cards has also produced a set of elegant decks inspired by literary classics, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and right now is in the middle of producing a luxurious looking chess-inspired deck called King's Game Playing Cards.

As part of a series of interviews with designers of playing cards, Karin was found willing to answer some questions from her perspective as a designer, and so I am pleased to be able to share her insights and observations about playing cards with my readers.

The Interview

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?

I’m living a quiet life as a student and insurance agent by day and (recently) a freelance designer by night. I was never big on having many hobbies and rather enjoyed the few things that I truly liked, such as reading and (mostly) drawing.

When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?

Drawing has always been my unwavering passion and I never missed the chance to indulge in it, spending most of my free time sketching whatever came to my mind. This passion was the reason why, after stumbling upon the growing world of custom playing cards back in 2014, I decided to create something serious and real for the first time and take my chances without giving it a second thought. I can say that my first deck, Nouveau Playing Cards, was undoubtedly the push I needed to pursue professionally something I always regarded as nothing but a hobby.

An old intricately illustrated deck given to me by my grandfather was the reason why the idea of creating custom playing cards immediately caught my attention. I put together the first deck in 2014 and, after a few failed attempts, teamed up with Mike Ratledge from the United Cardists forum and brought Nouveau to life a year later.

How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started?

To put it shortly, in my case a designer didn’t create the deck; a deck made the designer. When I started I had no previous experience designing, nor any related studies. Needless to say, I lacked in many ways, so the different projects and decks created during these past few years, as well as all the wonderful people I met thanks to them, helped me to grow both on a professional and personal level.

There’s clearly still a lot of room for growth, but I can say that now I’m confident in my skills and ideas thanks to the experience gained during the last 4 years.

What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?

What I like the most is trying and combining different concepts and styles. Creating designs that can actually work on a deck of playing cards can be challenging but that’s what makes it interesting and fulfilling.

How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?

Coming up with ideas was never an issue for me; there’s always something out there that can be turned into a deck of playing cards. So far I’ve done different topics, such as going back to the roots of playing cards as we know them today and then restyling them to pursue a jewelry inspired design. I’ve also paid tribute to some of my favorite literary classics, as well as to the most widespread board game in the world. There are more decks I’ve been slowly working on which cover completely different topics, such as the Carnevalia series.

So, basically, you could say that I don’t specifically try to come up with ideas but rather give freedom to my mind and when I see or think about something that has potential for becoming playing cards material, I think about it for a length of time and try to figure out whether it’s actually doable or not.

How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs?

So far I’ve designed 6 decks, 3 of them having two versions in different colors. The most popular has been, hands down, Gemmes Playing Cards, followed by Nouveau UC2016 and The Three Musketeers.

Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?

My favorite design happens to be the most popular one, Gemmes. I tend to like intricate designs, and I specially love mixing concepts. That’s why Gemmes is the perfect match for me, since it’s not a mere tribute to the roots of playing cards as we know them, but also a collection of intricate jewels inspired by the Art Nouveau style.

The other deck I’m really fond of is King’s Playing Cards, which is currently in production. Though not as artistic as Gemmes, it keeps the level of detail I like and it also brings a fresh approach to a topic that has been widely covered in the playing cards community. Working on it has been really fun since I found it challenging to be original while keeping the essence of chess untouched; going around these limitations to put together a deck with my own seal was an interesting process.

How would you describe the style of your playing card decks? Are there any particular features or characteristics of your decks that you hope people will notice and appreciate, or help make your decks different from the many others out there?

So far, pretty much every deck I designed has a different artistic approach to it, but I’d say that what all of them have in common is the attention I like to pay to detail, as well as the meanings and ideas behind every design. An easy example of this would be the two decks that pay tribute to Alexandre Dumas’ classics: The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Both decks depict some of the most important characters from each book and each design is full of details that represent the story and the most memorable traits of each character. Most people, mainly those that never read these books, would probably get these decks because they liked the artwork or simply enjoy collecting playing cards. However, those that read the books will easily spot the details in every design, making it more memorable.

In other words, I always try to add a reason behind every choice in every design, going from the suits’ distribution to the clothing’s ornaments. That’s probably what I’d love for everyone to notice, since it makes every design way more interesting.

What is your process in designing a deck of playing cards, starting with the concept, all the way to completing the project and having finished decks?

After settling on a certain topic, I tend to list the different characters and concepts for every suit, find and list the details that each of them needs and then start sketching. For the backs and tucks the main point is to represent, in the best and most minimal way possible, the idea behind the deck. From there on, I work on the artwork until I’m satisfied, set the goals I need to produce it and move forward to fund its creation. If it’s successful, the following steps are usually revision and fixing of the artwork, proofing, changes and then finally production.

What are some of the easiest, and what are some of the hardest parts of the process in making a deck of custom playing cards?

The easiest (for me) is coming up with the idea, the hardest is to make this idea doable and appealing for different tastes and minds.

What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?

Mainly, the time and thought process behind the designs.

The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last decade. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today?

I think that it’s actually a natural course of events. A few years back, when this trend was just in its early stages, some designers and their custom decks gained a notorious popularity and found success within the crowdfunding platforms. This success inspired many designers to try and create their own decks, and that’s how the market was soon filled with many new and different decks. The expansion of the industry has both positive and negative aspects to it, such as offering different and creative ideas for everyone to enjoy but also leading to a market saturation and decrease in design quality.

What impact has crowdfunding like Kickstarter had on the custom playing card industry? And what has your own experience with this been like?

I can’t say how things would have turned out if there was no Kickstarter around to actually help bring these ideas to life. As things are today, everyone can agree on the fact that it played a huge role in the industry’s expansion. You can have an idea and even create something great out of it, but will hardly risk your funds or time for producing something that may or may not be successful. Having a platform where people can share their feedback and actually show whether your designs are worthy of their time and money is certainly helpful in many levels.

What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today? What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what they should look for in a quality deck of playing cards?

I can’t consider myself as a collector so there’s not much advice I can give to someone just starting to collect cards. For me a quality deck is one that is original, has a meaning to it and not just a pretty design, and is durable (though I’ve been mainly talking about design, paying attention to the printing quality is just as important). I don’t believe in trends so I’d suggest to collect only those decks that we actually like or find interesting, but that’s just my personal opinion.

Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

My most recent project was King’s Playing Cards, a chess inspired custom deck. I have several other decks scheduled to be released in the near future, such as the remaining 5 decks in the literary classics series, the Lewis Wars Playing Cards as the second chess inspired deck and the Carnevalia series. There’s also another design I’m currently working on which is still a secret, as well as a collaboration with Andrea Pellegrini from Trinity Playing Cards for a really fun yet mysterious deck that’s scheduled to be released in the upcoming months. More details will be shared soon.

My next project, however, will be something new and different: a collection of enamel pins and other goodies inspired by the designs from Gemmes playing cards.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to Karin for giving us opportunity to have a question and answer session and to learn something about the creative design process that produces the lovely decks of cards we've seen from Bona Fide Playing Cards. I have personally much especially enjoyed the Nouveau series of playing cards; the stylish back designs have made them ideal for cardistry, and I also really appreciate the inspiration taken from classic art and jewellery and how this has influenced the design. Using the classic French characters that were commonly featured on court cards from the 16th century is also a wonderful touch that makes these decks a lovely tribute to the important sources that have shaped the decks we enjoy today. The classy and attractive tuck boxes of the Nouveau series are also outstanding, and I am particularly fond of the Nouveau Bourgogne tuck box, since the intricate detail of the circular design really comes to life with the gold foil, and the combination of gold and burgundy creates an immediately stylish look.

The Alexandre Dumas decks are totally different again, going in a literary direction, and incorporate many elements from the books, with remarkable attention to detail. The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers decks show that Karin not only has ability to make ornate designs, but also to incorporate thoughtful symbolism and content based on characters and themes drawn from classic novels. That same creativity, depth of thought, and artistic design is also present in the forthcoming King's Game decks, which are a wonderful tribute to the classic game of chess; these decks are both sophisticated and classy, while remaining practical and playable.

My respect and admiration for Bona Fide Playing Cards only continues to grow, and by the sounds of things, Karin Yan has many more wonderful decks in store for us. Meanwhile, check out out the range of their decks that are already available, and consider adding these artistic beauties to your collection.

Where to get them? You'll find most of the Bona Fide Playing Cards range here: Nouveau, Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, and Nouveau Perle, as well as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Also check out the official website (, or stay in touch on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr).

Author's note: I first published this article at here.
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Wed Dec 26, 2018 2:15 pm
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