Introducing Jody Eklund & Black Ink Playing Cards

Jody Eklund is an illustrator who creates playing cards. And yes we're talking about a traditional deck of playing cards for playing traditional card games - except that these cards don't exactly have a traditional loook. 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". Under the banner of his Black Ink Playing Cards and his website The Art of Jody Eklund (jodyeklund.com), you'll find that he has created not just one deck, but a series of playing card projects that now numbers around half a dozen. And what makes his work unique are two things:
1. History: 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!
2. Style: Jody combines this 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.
It's this combination of historical interest and stylish graphic design that has created a real demand for Jody's decks of playing cards, and contributed to the ongoing success of his projects.

In this review, I'd like to take a look at Jody's work, and give an overview of the decks he's created so far. But first let me tell you a little more about the man himself, and how he got started on this venture. The spark began shortly after he returned to his home town of Aurora, Colorado, in 2013. At the suggestion of a friend who was experienced with Kickstarter, his decided to give it a whirl himself. He launched his Kickstarter project for "The Golden Spike" in July 2014 and with over 750 backers, it proved to be a big success. This was followed by further projects in the years that followed: Innovation, Devastation, Inception, Titans, and his current project, Iron Horse. 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.

How did he get inspired to do this? Here's how Jody himself described the genesis of this series in early 2015, when he came up with the concept for the first two decks of his Inventors series:

"A few months ago I watched a documentary on the History channel called, "The Men Who Built America". In that documentary the stories of John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan were told. I was glued to the TV ... I was hooked. Their stories were inspiring and I was struck by the spirit and ingenuity they showed. I decided that I should do a series of playing cards that celebrated the spirit that these kind of men demonstrated. The Inventors series was born.
Now, not everyone will be an inventor. I decided to do my first two decks in the series about Innovators and Devastators. Men and Women who were either innovators that changed the world on a global scale or those that changed the battlefields of war.
So, I hope you will allow me to tell you the stories about these men and women through pictures as well as words. I will be Illustrating two decks along with a booklet. These will be the first two decks in the inventors series. I hope their stories will be an inspiration to you as well.
"

Since watching that program, Jody has demonstrated his own ingenuity by making this a reality. It's one thing to dream, it's another thing to put in the hard work and make it happen. But make it happen he has, and today he's not just made a deck about Innovators and Devastators, but has followed this up with a number of other successful similarly themed and styled projects as well. In fact, right now with his day job slowing down, he's spending even more time on what was originally just a side-hobby. Let's take a look!




TRAIN SERIES

The Golden Spike project was a very successful one for Jody, and represents the beginning of his success in the custom playing card industry. This train themed deck celebrates the First Transcontinental Railroad. After this, Jody went on to make a series of decks themed around inventors and industrialists, but in his most recent project, Iron Horse, he has returned to the train theme, so I have grouped these two decks together under the same heading.

Golden Spike deck

Jody's first project was the the Golden Spike deck, which he produced in a Bicycle Edition and a Gold Edition. As proof of its success, it almost tripled his original funding goal!



This deck started with his children's love for trains, and his wife's memory of history, and this got Jody to begin thinking about steam engines and their history. The deck is inspired by the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10th, 1869, which was the first rail line to connect the east to the west, thus revolutionizing transportation and commerce in a post Civil War United States. As many readers will know, the completion of the railroad was celebrated with the creation of a commemorative Golden Spike, which was driven into the ground where the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah. This key moment marked the beginning of a new era of industry and expansion in the United States.

Very deliberately Jody has used a cross hatch technique of illustration, to reflect something of the style of engraving and lithographs that was common to the time period he is depicting, as you can see from the card-backs.



All the court cards and Aces feature unique illustrations that capture the leading figures of the time.



Each individual card was carefully researched and meticulously illustrated, to ensure accuracy and historical depth.



Notice the small details that have been incorporated, like the hearts on the diagonal belt and lapel.



Here's a card that lists the names of all the characters on the court cards and Aces, as well as a commemorative card that represents the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.



The detail in the artwork here is very beautiful, and captures well the spirit and flavour of the historical era it depicts.



The standard edition features the Central Pacific train "Jupiter" on the tuck box, while the Gold Edition features the Union Pacific train "119". The tuck box of the Gold edition also features embossing with gold foil, and its cards use a more luxurious looking red and gold metallic inks for the pips and indices.



But the Black Ink limited edition of this deck (which is the one I have) is perhaps my favourite of the lot, with the incredible combination of gold and black accents.



And check out this beautiful and individually numbered custom seal printed with gold metallic ink on black.



But what I especially love about Jody's decks is his love of the history behind the topics he is covering. With the Golden Spike deck, he made available a companion book, and he's done this with more of his decks as well.



Iron Horse deck

Jody's current project is called Iron Horse Playing Cards, and is currently on Kickstarter for funding. It was inspired by a short story written by Jody's friend Ricky Cassford. In this deck he returns to the train theme, and a historical setting that reflects the era after the completion of the transcontinental railroad that was celebrated in his original Golden Spike deck. Although in this case it's a fictional story that forms the basis of the story-line and characters reflected on the cards, the charm and setting of the Golden Spike deck is also found here.

The standard edition of this game comes in a lovely Black Ink Edition tuck box, with a similar look to the one issued for the beautiful Black Ink limited edition of the Golden Spike deck. I have this edition of the Golden Spike deck, and find it very elegant and classy! There is diptych art for the front and back of the Iron Horse tuck box, with silver and black foil completing a very classy look.



The story is called "The Attempt on the Iron Horse". This opening introduction introduces some of the main characters as follows:

"By 1885, Frank Hokey, and his band of miscreants, were poised to be remembered with the likes of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and the Dalton Brothers. In fact, it was likely that they would have surpassed those well-known names with their strategic style, and infamous flair for larceny, if it hadn’t been for lawman Cletus McCoy on that fateful day, in July, on the San Juan Extension of The Denver Rio Grande Railway. Sheriff McCoy had enlisted the help of a bounty hunter, called Baron Jim Templeton, to assist he and the deputy of Conejos County Colorado, who now went by the name “Traitor Face” Steve Houston, having previously ridden with The Frank Hokey Gang and embracing their attempt at condescension. The Baron’s task was to follow Frank, because he had been known, of late, to cross out of Conejos County jurisdiction, into New Mexico. Little did either man know, that on the train that left Chama, New Mexico that morning was the Sheriff’s fiancé, and the bounty hunter’s god-daughter..."

The entire story will be available as a PDF download via the Kickstarter project, and this will also include Character Bios.



Pictured here is the Ace of Spades, along with gang leader Frank Hokey.



The good guys are pictured on some of the red-suited cards, including Sheriff Cletus McCoy as the King of Diamonds, and Bounty Hunter Baron Templeton as the King of Hearts.



The Jokers also feature a diptych image, highlighting a train robbery in progress, depicted with Jody's signature black and white ink styled drawings.



Other characters, cards, and rewards for different support levels can all be seen at the Kickstarter here.


INVENTORS SERIES

After the Golden Spike deck, Jody commenced his Inventors series, which would occupy him for some time to come. It consists of several projects, including the Innovation decks, the Devastation decks, and subsequently the Inception decks. All of these commemorate the great minds and individuals whose creativity was responsible for some of the greatest inventions of our time.



Innovation deck

As mentioned already, it was a History Channel documentary that inspired Jody to come up with his "inventors" series. This plays tribute to the brilliant minds of creators and inventors, and the Innovation deck is his first in that series.

In Jody's own words, "The last half of the 18th century was littered with minds that immeasurably stood out from the rest, inventors and innovators that supercharged society to new heights launching mankind into the new century. Represented here are the royalty of Innovation, categorized into four suits: Illumination, Transportation, Communication, and Aviation. "



Pictured here is the Standard edition. I especially love the attention to detail, such as the line "Necessity is the mother of invention" on the tuck box lid.



The court cards, Aces, and Jokers, all have original illustrations with a style that is true to the era they depict. The Aces all depict key inventions, with the Ace of Spades and the Aces of Clubs seen here depicting the Model T Ford (Tin Lizzie) and the Light Bulb respectively. The other Aces picture the Wright's Flying Machine and Alexander Graham Bell's Telephone.



The King of Spades pictures the Model T's creator, Henry Ford, while the King of Clubs pictures American inventor Thomas Alva Edison.



Women are also represented, such as Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician often credited as the world's first computer programmer, and aviation pioneer Amelia Mary Earhart, who was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic.



Here's a complete list of all the Aces and court cards (A/K/Q/J).

Spades: Model T Ford, Henry Ford, Mary Anderson, Karl Benz
Diamonds: Wright Flyer 1, Wilbur Wright, Amelia Mary Earhart , Orville Wright
Clubs: Light Bulb, Thomas Alva Edison, Ida Henrietta Hyde, Nicola Tesla
Hearts: Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, Ada Lovelace, Samuel Morse
Jokers: Henry Ford, The Wright Bros

Pictured below are inventor Samuel Morse and flyer Orville Wright.



Also created at the same time were a Black edition (with gold foil embossing and metallic inks), and a beautiful white Signature edition.



Once again, Jody has created a book to go along with this deck, which gives historical information about all the characters featured.



Some of the cards are also profiled in Jody Eklund's blog, such as his spotlight article on Nikola Tesla here.

The most recent addition to the Innovation series is the special "Innovation Blue" edition of this deck, which comes in a special custom deck case and cards printed with gold metallic ink for the black suits. This deck was produced to make this popular deck more available again, and has just recently completed funding on Kickstarter, and will undoubtedly be available from Jody's website in due course.



Devastation deck

First we build up, and then we tear down! Isn't that the story of much of mankind's history? This led to Jody's next idea for his inventor's series - those who created weapons. Introducing: the Devastation deck.

The tuck box for this is a stunning black and red. Wow, does it ever look classy and stylish, and due to the colour combination, it has to be one of my favourites.



Here's how Jody describes the thematic concept behind the Devastation deck, in his own words:

Since the beginning of time, man has sought protection through the creation of weapons. Weapons molded and changed the course of history, destroying civilizations and creating new ones. As enemies became more sophisticated, the weapons of choice became more crafty, cruel and deadly. The Macedonians became a great civilization due to the introduction of siege weapons. The Romans capitalized on their creations and crafted war as a strategic art ruled by precision. The Chinese introduced gunpowder in the Middle Ages, which lead to a military strategy of propellent-based ordnances. The art of war and death was screaming forward changing the scope of conquest and World power. The crown jewel which would open the door to the threat of mass slaughter as a form of deterrent and change the tide of war.... the Atomic Bomb. World wars, dictators, rank and file soldiers would rise and fall on the creation of weapons of devastation. So, after all the bombs have been dropped and the ashes have settled the question remains...is there any hope?"

On the tuck box flap it says "Man's Best to do Man's Worst", which sums up the idea well.

I love the combination of red and black on these cards, which looks super classy!



All the cards have elaborate borders, and the person's name in the middle. Seen here are Alfred Nobel and William Mills.



Lancelot Mole, pictured below, was the inventor of the Tank. The Joker on the right pictures the Atomic Bomb.



But it's not all doom and gloom. Some of the characters featured are those who worked hard to defend human life, like Clara Mole, founder of the Red Cross. Meanwhile, Anton Fokker, pictured on the right, is most famous for the fighter aircraft he produced in Germany during the First World War.



Here's a complete list of all the individuals featured on the court cards (in order of K/Q/J):

Clubs: Lancelot de Mole, Florence Nightingale, Richard J. Gatling
Hearts: Alfred Nobel, Clara Barton, Sr William Mills
Clubs: Helge Palmcrantz, Mary Lincoln, Samuel Colt
Diamonds: John Ericsson, Mary Mahoney, Anton Fokker

The number cards also have intricate designs along the borders.



In addition to the Standard edition, there's also a Limited edition and a Collector's edition, which feature beautiful red foil, printed on red and black stock respectively.



Inception deck

Next up is the Inception deck which is a series of three decks, which are also available separately. Shown here is the blue Intellectus deck.



The concept here is that an innovative idea begins with a spark of light in the darkness: an inception. This is where the greatest inventions of our world began, in the minds of their creators.

So these decks are about the beginning of the thirst for knowledge, and they celebrate these revolutionaries, as Jody puts it: "The Inception playing cards were created to celebrate the people who were vanguards in their fields. Their ideas laid the bedrock for growing fields of knowledge, discovery and invention."



Jody's more specific inspiration came from the great artist DaVinci. "For Inception my inspiration came from Leonardo DaVinci’s sketches and his obsession with knots. I wanted to create something that looked like it was created 500 years ago and use the knots as a design element that is woven throughout the project. "

The series actually consists of three decks: Intellectus (blue deck), Inceptus (black), and Illustratum (red).



The tuck boxes are lavishly accented with beautiful gold foil - a touch of luxury and class that corresponds to the ingenuity and creativity of the men and women featured within.



The decks are identical except that the Ace of Spades features unique artwork and the King of Spades features a unique character for each: Leonardo Da Vinci (Intellectus), Hero of Alexandria (Inceptus), and Archimedes (Illustratum).



The card-backs are also in different colours, but aside from those differences, these three decks are the same - which means you can pick whichever colour you prefer, or get all three as a set.



The artwork on these cards is absolutely beautiful, and in my view this is Jody's best effort yet. I love the style, which is a photo realistic black/white portrait, with a background image to add extra context and character, and very stylized handwriting that includes the person's name. Stunning!

Here's Aristotle and Galileo:



Women are also featured on the cards, like Phillis Wheatley here, alongside Charles Babbage.



Here's the complete list of individuals featured:

Spades: Leonardo Da Vinci (alternates: Hero of Alexandria & Archimedes), Abigail Adams, Sir Isaac Newton
Diamonds: Galileo Galilei, Mary Musgrove, Louis Pasteur
Clubs: Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Charles Babbage
Hearts: Aristotle, Annie Oakley, James Watt
Jokers: Henry Ford, The Wright Bros

I also love the style of the number cards.



But the Aces are particularly stylized and beautiful.



As mentioned earlier, a signature series is available, which includes all three decks.




INDUSTRIALISTS SERIES

I've listed this next project separately, because strictly speaking it is not about inventors, although the historical approach and feel that is evident in the Inventors series is also present here. Here Jody set himself to take a look at the high achievers in business who stood on the shoulders of the great inventors. New industries and technology revolutionized the world, and this gave capitalist businessmen opportunity to ruthlessly build powerful financial empires. Currently there is just one deck in this series, but perhaps Jody will return to this theme at a later point, or find another related theme that will enable him to turn this into a series, so for now the term "Industrialists series" is my designation rather than his.

Titans deck

The Titans deck is one of Jody Eklund's most recently produced decks, and it's about the industrialists of the late 19th century. The tag-line for the Titans: Robber Barons deck is "Elegant playing cards depicting the Capitalists who acquired wealth by ruthless means and the women who fought for their rights."

Like some of the earlier projects, this also comes in three decks, all with classy looking tuck cases, and different coloured card backs.



Here's how Jody describes the people featured in this deck:

"Titans are defined as "one that is gigantic in size or power: one that stands out for greatness of achievement." The men in this deck of cards were referred to as "Titans of Industry". For over three decades, the rise of new industries and technologies revolutionized the entire world. This made many men very wealthy and with their great achievements, came ruthless behavior an abuse of power. The capitalists of the late 19th century became know as "Robber Barons". The kings and jacks depict those that build empires through ruthless means, and the queens are women that spent their life's energy to liberate those oppressed in many ways. It's a story of juxtaposition; misuse of power and strength from weakness, oppression and liberation."

Here is John D Rockefeller, alongside the ornate and beautiful card back from the Standard edition.



I love the fact that this deck has a real contrast, because it features unscrupulous men who employed unethical and abusive business practices to get wealth, while in contrast it also features women who dedicated their lives to free others from this kind of oppression.

Here are Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman:



Some more Robber Barons - Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick:



The Aces and Number cards in this deck are also very stylized, and have a very elegant feel to them.



A Signature Series with all three decks in the series comes in a special package, with stylish gold foil.




CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

There's a lot to like about Jody Eklund's decks of playing cards, and here are some notable elements:

History: Firstly, it is clear that Jody enjoys history. He's found a way to keep his own nose in the pages of history, as part of the research that goes into the creation of each project. But with his playing cards, we also get the opportunity to take a look at the movers and shakers that have helped make today's world what it is. His accompanying booklets that are available are a good way to learn more about these things. Certainly I found it rewarding to study the historical figures that he has featured on his decks, and it motivated me to find out more about their lives and achievements.

Inventors: Not all aspects of history are equally interesting, but I do share Jody's fascination with innovation and invention - in fact it's probably true for most of us. As a result, the Innovation and Devastation decks are of special interest, in how they document some of the men and women who changed the way people lived, or who changed the way people died.

Trains: There are a lot of people who have a real interest in railroads and trains. In the game industry, there "train" theme is a very common one, and "train games" make up a much larger component of games than what would otherwise be representative for a single theme. This interest should mean that the Golden Spike deck and the Iron Horse deck will have a broad appeal to a lot of people. The Iron Horse deck also has somewhat of a Western setting, which is another common theme in the game industry, and will also be a point of attraction for many.

Style: After looking at some of Jody's decks, it's very clear that he has a style of his own, especially with his black ink type images. It's this style that many appreciate about his work, accompanied with his attention to historical detail. At the same time it is evident that his style has evolved over time, and I especially love the look of his later decks.

Experience: While Jody has quite a bit of experience under his belt, with several successful campaigns so far, it's clear that he wants to keep challenging himself with new territory to explore, and also to continue to refine his style. With the current Iron Horse project, this is evident in the fact that the theme is tied to a fiction story which is made available as part of the project. Coming up with an idea that people are going to support is never easy, but he's managed to find somewhat of a formula that has attracted a solid support base, while at the same time he's prepared to make changes and adapt where necessary. His experience is only going to hold him in good stead going forward.

Refinement: Not only does Jody's style become more refined over time, but he's also exploring new ideas, as is evident for example in the Inception series, where he chose to make a trilogy of decks that differed only in the Ace and King of Spades as well as the card backs. He's also explored a range of different and unique add ons that many backers might enjoy. Even though I've not had opportunity to read the story that accompanies the Iron Horse project, I appreciate the fact that this does bring something new and interesting to the table, and offers an additional element that takes this project beyond the ordinary.

Quality Cards: From the cards and decks I've seen, the quality of the cards is great. Jody only uses reputable big name companies, so we are guaranteed of a good product. The decks I have are all produced by Legends Playing Card Company, which I have previously reviewed here. The Classic Finish that Jody has opted for is a high quality product that consider to be at least the equal of USPCC produced decks, and in some respects even surpasses it.

Signature Series: I especially like the Signature series of decks, which come in their own special stylish case.



Recommendation

I'm pleased to have discovered Jody's decks, and come across his website. If you're interested in picking up some of his playing cards for yourself, the first place to look is his webshop here or the Iron Horse Kickstarter here. Supporting his efforts directly via his website is the best thing, but the selection there is somewhat limited, so another place you can look is over at Rare Playing Cards.

There's a wealth of historical background that goes into the creation of these decks, and I can see them having educational benefits for families with children. This is particular the case for decks that are accompanied with the historical booklet that Jody often creates for his decks. But besides that, they also look very attractive; I'm especially partial to the limited Black Ink versions, which look particularly stunning and classy. But the reality is with all these decks you get Jody's signature `black ink' style, which is his distinctive and unique contribution to the world of custom playing cards.

Jody has acquired somewhat of a loyal following as a result of his dedication and contributions to the world of custom playing cards, and the decks shown above are all excellent examples of his work. They should appeal to anyone who enjoys playing cards, but also to anyone who has an interest in history or in science, and they could also make an excellent gift for the historian or scientist in your life. I enjoy using his decks when playing Cribbage and other traditional games with my family - beautiful decks like these can add to the enjoyment of a great game!

Want to learn more?
The Art of Jody Eklund: http://jodyeklund.com
Iron Horse Playing Cards: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/910678389/the-iron-hors...




BoardGameGeek reviewer

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Jeff Clarke
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Another great article Ender. I saw the Iron Horse Deck on Kickstarter earlier today and I'm contemplating backing it.
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Matt Hulgan
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I love this series of reviews! Thanks for the hard work on these write-ups.
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Jacovis
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Thanks Ender! I wasn't interested in this one, but I went to his page and ordered the Iron Horse deck. Great stuff, and I'd not have known about it otherwise!
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