Unique Playing Cards from Noir Arts

I appreciate things that are artistic, and you can tell already from the name of this outfit that these guys are really into art: Noir Arts. That's confirmed by their tag line: "We are Arts! Unique playing card designs". Noir Arts was officially formed in 2014, but their history goes back much further than this. Based in Ukraine, the people involved with Noir Arts have been producing beautiful playing cards for the local Ukrainian market already since 2005. I've seen pictures of some of the decks they produced during this phase, and while the majority of those decks were souvenir decks that will primarily have localized interest, they feature some beautiful designs and artwork.

Initially operating just under the label Noir Playing Card Company (NPCC), in 2014 they expanded to begin producing playing cards for the worldwide community. They began by designing their own decks, and soon began cooperating with talented independent artists and design studios. Presently they work not just with designers from Ukraine, but from all over the globe, and wherever they see talent that fits with their style. But always, the focus has remained on art. The result is a very strong portfolio of custom playing cards that represent diverse styles, but a very unique bent. They describe their vision as follows: "We strive to create each deck eye-catching, combining various features and styles, experimenting with new materials and techniques." Noir is French for "black", and so quite a number of their decks are more dark in theme. You'll find decks that reflect skull themes and horror, but equally royalty and humour. But what they all have in common is that they all are unquestionably unique and stylish.

The man behind Noir Arts is Roman Kotiv, and he and two partners are the team of three that is primarily responsible for making all of this happen. Roman is an engineer-constructor by trade, but has a love for collecting playing cards, and producing his own playing cards was a long-time dream come true. Since embarking on this road, he's learned an enormous amount along the way about how to produce premium playing cards. With the help of his partners and of more than a dozen workers who are involved in producing the actual cards in a printing factory, he's now producing a steady stream of quality playing cards.

In addition to creating an impressive range of playing cards under their own design, Noir Arts offers a printing and fulfilment service under their original name NPCC, to create and print custom decks of playing cards for other designers and creators. While they continue to produce budget quality playing cards for the Ukrainian market with souvenir type decks branded with local company names, they have a division within NPCC that focuses on printing premium quality playing cards for the global market. Creators of custom playing cards are always looking for good sources to produce and fulfil their projects, so this will certainly be of interest to many designers - but only if they produce a quality product, and of course that's one of the things I'll be considering in this review. In this feature, I will showcase the custom playing cards Noir Arts has produced, to give an overview of their work and style, and a glimpse of the artistic talent that is evident from their portfolio. I'll also come to some of my own conclusions, based on my personal experience with a wide range of their decks.




PLAYFUL DECKS

Geistreiz Playing Cards (2015)

I'll begin with one of my favourite decks in the entire Noir Arts portfolio, the Geistreiz Original version pictured here on the left in red, and later the Geistriz Classic version on the right in blue. Both of these have attractive tuck boxes with a smooth matt finish, with eye-catching and playful designs that immediately capture one's attention and interest.



The illustrations for this deck were created by Maike Venhofen and Stefan G. Halbuer. In a striking departure from many other decks in the Noir Arts portfolio that are darker in tone, this is more playful and fun deck, which yet retains a "noir" feel, accompanied with an incredibly unique style which I've never seen before.



The concept behind the Geistreiz deck was to focus on "unique characters with a modern touch, unique and interesting-looking. The main intention was to create a style of cards, never seen before." Judging by what you see here, I'm sure most people will agree that this aim was accomplished!



In addition to the unusual characters, each of the court cards (and especially the aces) all contain one added item of interest. Examples include a King with a tv-remote and a beer cup (King of Diamonds), or a glamorously looking Queen with long cigarette (Queen of Diamonds) or a glass of wine (Queen of Clubs). Here's a college of some of the cards:



The illustrations were hand-drawn and use a unique stipling technique in which small dots create shading and shadows.



Because the Geistreiz Original deck featured unusual pips, to enhance playability a Geistreiz Classic deck was also developed that had a more traditional layout and pips, while still retaining the unique artistic flavour and style of the original.

Here you can see the unusual suit icons used in the original deck, including the fact that each suit has its own colour.



A very energetic deck, the Geistreiz Playing Cards is a colourful and memorable creation that will be appreciated by those who have an eye for something different and lively, and with these decks, Noir Arts has made a very novel contribution to the custom playing card industry.

Carnaval De Muertos Playing Cards (2017)

The Carnaval De Muertos decks were produced earlier this year by Noir Arts with the help of nearly 1000 backers on Kickstarter. Two versions were made: the burgundy/yellow-themed Carnaval De Muertos Marigold deck and the white-green Carnaval De Muertos Alheli deck.



It's themed after the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a Mexican holiday tradition to celebrate the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties. Celebrations typically take place with street parties, parades, and vibrant clothes and festivities, with skeletons and skulls being common symbols, but depicted in a playful and colourful way.

All of these elements are captured in the lively court cards you see here, which are from the Marigold deck.



The card-backs of the Marigold deck have an intricately patterned design with vibrant colours, and the Jokers continue the playful theme which runs through the entire deck.



Even the number cards feature unusual pip designs and arrangements, and thin borders add a touch of style and class. However the indices remain easily recognizable for those who might want to use this creative deck for playing a card game.



The tuck cases of both decks are absolutely splendid, with the Marigold deck finished off with lavish red foil accents, while the companion Alheli deck is touched with magnificent gold accents. Photos really can't do justice to how amazing both of the tuck boxes look.

And the positive impressions only continue once you open the box, with both having interior printing that includes extensive foil - red foil in the case of the Marigold deck, blue foil in the case of the Alheli deck. You really need to see these boxes first-hand to see how impressive they are!



The companion deck to the burgundy/yellow Marigold is the white/green Alheli, which has a similar style to the Marigold deck but a different colour scheme. I was especially delighted to discover that although the Jokers in both decks have matching artwork, the court cards of the Alheli deck have completely new characters, for added variety.



The card backs of this deck - seen here with the Jokers - also feature an entirely different design.



Like the holiday that they celebrate, the Carnaval de Muertos decks are celebratory in nature, and take a light-hearted and playful look at what would normally be considered macabre subject matter. Noir Arts has done a fantastic job in bringing these wonderful decks to life in a very colourful and quality product, that is both fun and incredibly classy at the same time.


LIGHT VERSUS DARKNESS DECKS

Indictus Playing Cards (2015)

These decks were created by freelance artist Nicolai Aaroe, who hails from Denmark, and represent the first pair of a three volume set of dark art decks entitled "Light Versus Darkness". Dark art is a style of art in which the artist conveys his thoughts in a mysterious/bizarre style that at times draws on related genres like Gothic/surreal/horror, and can include attempting to depict somewhat morbid/disturbing/nightmarish subject matter in a fascinating and beautiful way; this style is evident in varying degrees in the Light Versus Darkness series.

The Indictus set consists of a matching pair of decks: Indictus Pristine and Indictus Antique.



Indictus means "unspeakable", and this set is the first of two that Nicolai designed to be deluxe dark art poker playing card decks. He describes the Indictus decks as "a sophisticated and highly thematic deck that take inspiration from the tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, The Tudors and the history of human ethics."

In his words, "The deck illustrates the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek to gain power through activities related to the underworld and dark faith. Furthermore, Indictus is a visual depiction of deception, ethical treachery and shadowy immoral shortcuts." His parting words as you start exploring the deck are this exhortation: "Get off your moral high horse and start double-dealing."



Nicolai also describes this pair of decks as follows: "Indictus is a deluxe deck of shadowy philosophy, mysticism, sinister deeds, dark art and semi-occultism. With the use of matte finish, embossing detail, metallic ink and foil ornamentation Indictus will leave you breathless and humble to the unspeakable essence."

I'm personally not a huge fan of all the artwork here, especially the Kings, which like most of the Jacks as well, are pictured as skeletons - but to be fair, this is intended to be a dark art deck after all. On the positive side, gold metallic ink helps add a real touch of luxury and class. And besides the kings there's nothing too macabre as such, although this definitely has more of a darker feel in contrast to the Geistreiz and Carnaval De Muertos cards we looked at previously. But despite the darker overtones, there's still lots of class, as is evident from the Aces shown here.



The court cards, aces, and Jokers each also have a Latin phrase on them, some of which are used as legal maxims today:
Ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia: A consequence from an abuse to a use is not valid
Amor et melle et felle est fecundissimus: Love is rich with both honey and venom
Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit vea: No one is in duty bound to accuse himself unless before God
Actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea: An act does not make one guilty unless there is a criminal intent

The number cards are also very stylish, especially with the use of elaborate pips, and gold metallic ink for the traditionally red suits.



And you have to appreciate the detailed artwork on the card-backs, which have white bordered cards for the Pristine deck (shown below), and a matching pattern but with black bordered cards for the Antique deck.



But best of all are the two tuck boxes, both of which are designed to look like ancient tombs that have been handed down from the Middle Ages, with dusty down brown covers, decorated with fine embossing and lovely gold borders, and have full interior printing as well. The Antique deck shown here is identical to the Pristine deck, but reflects what a book might look if it has become weathered, worn, and antique.



The same difference is the case with the cards inside the decks: the Pristine deck has white cards, whereas the Antique deck has off-white cards that like like weathered parchment.

The dark arts style might not suit everyone, but almost everyone will have to recognize the fine achievement that these decks represent, especially as a set showing the transition from the new to the old. The tuck boxes are as beautiful as you'll see, making the Invictus decks particularly suitable for collectors, and those who appreciate fine art.

Dominus Playing Cards (2016)

The Dominus Divinus and Dominus Obscura decks were also created by Nicolai Aaroe, and he sees this pair of decks as the artistic and spiritual successor to his Indictus project.



This two-deck series represents Light and Darkness, and this time all the court cards telling a story of fate, destiny, choice and consequence. In Nicolai's own words, he intends to tell "a story of the shadowy union between the deceptive underworld and the european monarchy of the late middle ages. Betrayal, deceit, double-dealing. A deck of moral value, wealth and virtue that carries a message for subjective interpretation."



As you'd expect, the Divinus deck that represents Light features white cards, while the Obscura deck that represents Darkness features black cards. Once again, gold metallic ink has been used for both decks. Thematically, the Dominus set is a visual depiction of "moral balance, the power of monarchs, and endless battle between the light and the darkness" (especially the white deck), but it is also a visual depiction of "deception, ethical treachery, and shadowy immoral shortcuts" (especially the black deck).

The court cards feature rulers of European monarchies, which in the white Divinus deck are walking on their moral right paths. As an explanation card included with the deck explains: "Divinus illustrates the path of the noble and righteous ruler. The power of good." There's also this encouragement: "A single tiny light creates a space where darkness cannot exist."



In contrast, in the black Obscura deck, the very same rulers are pictured in their darker versions. As the explanation card in this deck explains: "Obscura illustrates the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek to gain power through activities related to occultism and dark magic." There's also this warning: "If you flirt with the underworld it might swallow you whole."



Here's a direct comparison, showing the Jack of Diamonds from each deck.



Both decks also repeat the four Latin maxims we saw in the Indictus deck, with these appearing on the court cards, Aces, and Jokers.

All the artwork here was done in combination with Eugen Poe, and a lot of thought has gone into everything. The black faces of the Obscura cards have a scratched and dirty look which may fool you when you first see the cards in person - but it's not a quality control issue, but is by deliberate design. Meanwhile the number cards of the Obscura deck are frameless, to illustrate the unrestricted morals of their darkened minds. In contrast the white faces of the Divinus number cards have a delicate frame to represent the limits of self-control.



The card backs are decorated with all kinds of symbolism, representing the rule of monarchs, and so an entirely different design is used for each. The noble and honorable ruler of the Divinus deck stays on a path of light, while in contrast the relentless ruler of the Obscura deck may be lured by the underworld into ambitious blindness.



As clever and beautiful as the cards are, my favourite part about this set has to be the incredible tuck boxes. Both feature banners with mottoes corresponding to each theme: the white Divinus deck says "Justice is Prosperous" and "Fight Shadow With Flame", while the Obscura deck says "Reach Beyond the Light" and "Embrace the Darkness". While one side of the box (shown in the first image above) has a very lavish and detailed design that is gushing with gold foil, the other side (shown below) has a more subdued but far more elegant look. In the case of the Obscura deck in particular the gold foil is offset beautifully against the background of a matte charcoal black that is very soft in feel and looks absolutely gorgeous.



Like the Indictus decks that preceded it, the Dominus decks make a wonderful set and continue Nicolai Aaroe's contribution to the custom playing card industry with decks that have a dark arts theme, and work well together. They will appeal to people who enjoyed the Indictus decks, and it is hard to make a call as to which of the two sets is the better.

A third and final set of decks in Nicolai's dark art Light and Darkness series, entitled Culminus, features a similar style of design. This is currently in the process of production, and should be available early next year.


DESIGN IMPERATOR DECKS

Chivalry Playing Cards (2015)

The Chivalry Silver and Chivalry Gold decks were made by a group of independent Scandinavian developers who call themselves "Design Imperator".

They previously produced a custom deck entitled Noble Playing Cards, and later also created the Norse themed decks that I'll cover next. The Design Imperator decks have all involved contributions from freelance artist Nicolai Aaroe, who also created the Indictus and Dominus decks above.



What is chivalry? The designers explain that in their view, chivalry as it was understood in the late Middle Ages is "a moral system which combined a warrior ethos, knightly piety, and courtly manners, all conspiring to establish a notion of honor and nobility." An extra card that quotes this definition is included with each deck, while another extra card gives the mottoes Fortes fortuna juvat (Fortune favors the brave) and In actis esto volucris (Be swift in action).



Very medieval in flavour, this deck is considered to be a tribute to the chivalry of that time period, and to medieval ornamentation and knightly piety.



The court cards illustrate loyal knights, who are depicted with their helmets prominently featured.



The artwork for each suit's coat of arms is displayed prominently on the Aces. This reflects things like knightly piety, bravery and ceremonial jousting, and is reprised on the court cards, the frequency of its occurence also giving some suggestion about the relative ranks of the Jacks, Queens, and Kings.



The card backs are particularly beautiful, with a well-placed triangle at the middle of each of the four edges, making them very ideal for cardistry as well.



As mentioned already, the Aces feature the coat of arms for each suit, which is considered to be its own knightly order, as follows:
Spades = Order of The Black Ibex
Diamonds = Order of the Red Stallion
Clubs = Order of The Black Bear
Hearts = Order of the Red Lion.



But as good as the cards are, it's the tuck box again that is a real star - it turned out far better than I ever expected. Noir Arts has pulled out all stops, and the Gold Edition is a knock-out combination of gold foil on burgundy red, while the Silver Edition has silver foil on charcoal black/grey for a similar effect. Interior printing only adds to the feel of luxury.



Both the Gold and Silver editions of the Chivalry deck are beautiful inside and out; cardists will especially take a real liking to the beautiful card backs, while collectors will love the gorgeous tuck boxes. These luxurious looking decks are very impressive, and will look great on the shelf or on the table.

Midgard Playing Cards (2017)

Coming from the same Design Imperator team is the Midgard Playing Cards series, which consists of two decks: Midgard Daneveld and Midgard Yggdrasil. This is another recent project which had support of more than 1000 backers - which reflects remarkable consistency in the level of strong support for Noir Arts projects.



It's a Norse themed deck that was designed in Denmark, Scandinavia, and created by the makers of the Chivalry deck featured above, with the lead artist being Nicolai Aaroe, who also did the Indictus and Dominus decks. Like the Chivalry decks, the Midgard set features a matching pair of decks.

The tuck cases of these two decks look absolutely stunning, with a simple colour scheme that accentuates the gold/silver foil and embossing. The artwork features an intricate design which includes images that fit the theme well, and create an immediate impression of sophistication. They also have beautiful interior printing that confirms this high quality, not least because the interior printing is with gold and silver foil respectively.



The Daneveld deck pictured above refers to a tax that Viking raiders received to avoid lands being ravaged, while the Yggdrasil deck is named after Norse mythology's famous ash tree.

The card backs owe their inspiration to the classic Bicycle design, but images of Viking ships and warriors along with woven borders create a very stylized look, and Odin’s two wolves Geri and Freki also make an appearance. The number cards feature large and intricate pips which are very recognizable, and yet feel very customized, and in keeping with the rest of the deck.



The courts (which are identical in both decks) picture legendary Viking leaders and mythological Norse deities, and were illustrated by Patrick Leis with Nicolai Aarøe. For example, pictured here as the Jacks we see Ragnar Lodbrok, Harald Bluetooth, Erik The Red, and Gorm The Old.



The Aces all have their own individual artwork, which is unique to each of the two decks, to ensure some variation between them.



As well as two Jokers picturing Odin’s two ravens Huginn and Muninn, each deck also comes with two bonus cards: Loki (pictured below), and a card with a runic alphabet.



A follow-up to the Midgard project is currently on Kickstarter, entitled Ragnarok Playing Cards.

The Midgard decks are one of the most sophisticated and elegant decks I've seen from Noir Arts. Despite the brawling reputation of the Viking characters that feature in this deck, the tuck box looks very polished and refined, while the card backs have a very strong and memorable design. These are very usable and functional decks that will add a touch of luxury and class to a game of cards or poker, and will easily find a welcome place in the home of gamers and collectors alike.


HISTORY & CULTURE DECKS

Branle Playing Cards (2015)

Several decks produced by Noir Arts have a strong element of depicting history/culture, and that includes one of their earlier in-house luxury-style decks entitled Branle Playing Cards. The Branle tuck box features some very intricate and ornate artwork, with stunning beautiful detail.



This deck has the unusual distinction of bearing a name that originates in a 12th century French chain dance, which was later adopted and popularized by French and English aristocrats in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. In England the word "branle" was anglicized as "brawl". The `branle' dance involved pantomiming things, often in a lively way. Don't these court cards look magnificent?!



The deck itself portrays the history and culture of the 16th and 17 century, with each suit corresponding to a different country as follows:
Spades = Britain
Hearts = France
Clubs = Spain
Diamonds = Eastern Europe
The creators of the deck state that the associations are not intended to be direct or exact, but "more like an alternative view to the real European history and culture of that era."



Here are the two Jokers, and the intricately decorated card back, which has an unbordered full-bleed style.



The number cards are also very stylized, and have been designed to evoke the feel of a different time and place than the modern age.



The detailed artwork of the Branle deck was created by Chesley Trem. It really reflects the era, and is highly attractive.



The Branle deck has proven to be quite a strong design for Noir Arts, and the original design has even been followed by a couple of limited edition projects that brought it to a new level of luxury with the addition of deluxe extras, such as the Royal Branle deck that came with real gold pigment inks and a velvet tuck box, and the Branle Tesoro deck which featured double-foil stamped cards and gemstone inlaid tucks.



Nipponia Playing Cards (2015)

The Nipponia deck is a Japanese-inspired design by Kieran Alexander, and was produced and fulfilled by NPCC.



Kieran is an Australian living in Japan. The title Nipponia means "about Japan", and reflects his long-standing interest in Japanese history.



The card backs of the Nipponia deck are heavily inspired with motifs from Japan, with shoji sliding doors influencing the design of the center, a traditional architecture inspired pattern as the background, and bamboo designs in the corners.



This deck brings together Japanese samurai, kunoichi, and orian onto the court cards, which have beautiful patterned panel-style backgrounds in light blue and light red.



In keeping with the theme, the pips are inspired by Japanese house emblems. The number cards also have this house emblem as a faint watermark-style background image, and further elements of customization is provided by the addition of traditional Japanese numeric characters on the opposite corners.



Finally, here are the two Jokers that round off this very stylized and unique deck.



The Nipponia deck will endear itself to those who have an interest in foreign cultures and faraway places, especially Japan. The thematic style has been woven into every element of this deck's design, starting with the style of the tuck-box. It extends far beyond mere customized court cards, because even the number cards and card backs have a very fresh feel that is in keeping with the rest of this deck.


DARK ART DECKS

Memento Mori Playing Cards (2016)

Memento Mori is derived from the Latin expression meaning remember that you have to die. It was commonly associated with reflection about mortality, and thinking about the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits, and considered to be a way to perfect your character, by encouraging thinking about the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.

The series consists of two decks, the first entitled Memento Mori Carpe Diem, and the second entitled Memento Mori Vanitas. The artwork for both decks was created by Moritz Schaaf.



As mentioned earlier already, Dark Art is a style in which artists communicate ideas in a mysterious/bizarre style that can include depicting morbid/disturbing/nightmarish subject matter in a fascinating/beautiful way, and at times draws on related genres like Gothic/surreal/horror.

The Memento Mori deck fits loosely within this genre, as is immediately evident from the black and white colours and macabre style of the Carpe Diem deck. Carpe Diem is Latin for "Seize the Day", and signifies the importance of seizing the moment.



As further examples of the style of this deck, here are some more court cards, featuring the traditionally red suits of Hearts and Diamonds. Aside from these glimpses of red, the remaining artwork fits squarely within the dark art genre.



The number cards are a little more tame, but still feature heavily customized pips that are stylized to complement the rest of the deck, by incorporating tiny skulls into the oversized shapes.



As we've noticed on several occasions already, the tuck boxes produced by Noir Arts are particularly superlative, and are often worth a second look. In the case of the Memento Mori decks, they are exquisitely decorated with a richly decorated design that is foiled and embossed, and they also have an oversized and heavily customized seal to add an additional touch of glamour.



Both decks also have full interior printing, the Carpe Diem deck depicting a Philip Galle print entitled "The Triumph of Death" (~1565 AD), and the Vanitas deck shown here depicting a corpse lying in a landscape from an anonymous French woodcut (~1580 AD) that.



The title of the Vanitas deck is derived from the Latin word vanitas, meaning "emptiness". It refers to the worthless nature of earthly goods and pursuits, and has its origin in the "vanity of vanities" mentioned in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.

This deck features a more antique looking earthy colour scheme, and thus has cards with brown colour card-back.



The Memento Mori decks won't appeal to everyone, in view of the dark art style, but most collectors will find the exquisite tuck boxes hard to resist. The thematic material that this deck is somewhat macabre, but it does try to deal with deep themes relating to the significance and frailty of life, and so there is thoughtful content to be found here. In the end, this pair of decks will primarily appeal to those who already have an interest in the dark art genre.

Bone & Ebon Playing Cards (2016)

These next two decks, Bone Playing Cards and Ebon Playing Cards, both feature artwork by Noah Whippie, a comic book artist, graphic designer and illustrator.



These decks are an attempt to portray the modern world in dark surreal aesthetics. In the words of Noir Arts: "The deck reads like a 54-page occult manuscript steeped in other-worldly dark aesthetics, with an intense focus on Gothic surrealism. The glyphs or “letters” that was used in the designs are stylized “demonic calligraphy”, a unique phonetic alphabet – to add character and subtext to the art."

In addition, each suit represents a different society "caste":
Hearts = clergy
Diamonds = merchants
Clubs = military
Spades = working class



To achieve a very unique look, the background of the cards has been customized to look like bone and slate, and the traditionally red and black pips has been customized to look like carved ebony and ivory. For the Bone deck, metallic silver and golden inks are used, and the deck was made with ivory shades, giving the images the look of polished bone. These pictures don't really do justice to how much the design has a "bone" look to it, particularly on the ornately designed card-backs!



If you can overlook the dark art style, or perhaps even appreciate it, it has to be admitted that these are very creative looking cards. To my surprise, I found myself being more and more taken by this unusual deck, in part due to the uniformity of style within the deck, where all the cards have a bone look ornamented with metallic gold.



The companion Ebon deck instead uses silver metallic ink and grey shades, to give the images the look of hewn slate, while the use of metallic inks really complements the faux-slade background.



The court cards have a deliberate one-way design, to maximize the detail of the unusual and unique images.



Metallic silver is used for all the cards in the Ebon deck, and metallic gold for all the cards in the Bone deck, so the suits aren't easily distinguished at a glance. But this is a deliberate choice designed to enhance the visual aesthetics - clearly this is an artistic deck designed for collectors rather than for functionality in game-play. Here are some cards comparing the two decks, with the Ebon deck on left and the Bone deck on the right.



Once again special praise needs to be reserved for the tuck box. The Bone deck, for example, has a soft white tuck box, and on this background the bone coloured embossed artwork and gold foil accents really spring to life. The inside has full interior printing, with touches of red foil, while the addition of a stunning custom shaped seal really helps complete a package that feels completely over-the-top in terms of superb quality.



The Bone and Ebon decks are somewhat unusual, and won't be to everyone's taste, but it can't be denied that they are creative and artistic in their own way. From the moment you hold the luxurious and artistic tuck box in your hand, you can't but be impressed with the artistic merits of these decks, and the amount of craftsmanship that has gone into producing them.


OTHER SPECIALTY DECKS

Animagique Playing Cards (2015)

Noir Arts doesn't only produce playing cards with a dark arts style, but also has made some other specialty decks that almost defy categorization, and the black Animagique Nox deck, and white Animagique Blanc decks is a good example. They were created in a limited edition, each tuck box having an individually numbered seal, and colourful full interior printing.



The title Animagique is created by the fusion of the words animal and magical.

This set of two decks features animal fantasy in which each suit represents a different race of animal, depicted with anthropomorphic features. Each suit also has its own colour. Representing each of the four suits are the following:
Hearts: cats (red)
Spades: elephants (blue)
Diamonds: primates (yellow)
Clubs: rhinos (green)



The stylish and detailed artwork has been created by Denis Sirotinin, using a digital painting technique.



The number cards have the standard indices of hearts/spades/diamonds/clubs familiar from traditional French suited cards. However for the center of the cards, customized icons have been used: shields, roses, acorns, and bells. These are the traditional suits of German suited cards, and have a long history in the world of playing cards. With the Animagique deck they also add to the sense of immersion in a fantasy world.



The card backs are simple black and white, while the Jokers feature chameleons.



The companion Blanc deck has similar artwork to the Nox deck, but has cards with white borders and backs. This creates a whole different look, although the enchanting artwork ensures that both versions match each other in charm.



The Animagique deck confirms that Noir Arts isn't just about dark art, but that they also have a playful side, and the ability to produce colourful and cheerful decks that amuse and entertain. This deck will certainly make a great novelty item for playing card games with, or even for a collector who is intrigued and enchanted by the unusual and inspiring artwork on the cards.

Chernobyl Memorial Playing Cards (2016)

To commemorate those affected by the devastating nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, and to mark the 30th anniversary of this tragedy, the Chernobyl Memorial Premium edition deck was created. A Chernobyl Memorial Limited edition of this deck (shown on the right) was also produced.



This pair of decks were produced by NPCC on behalf of a team called Misery Dev. Ltd., who had previously created two other decks (Decks of the Aftermath Vol. 1, and Black Market Playing Cards) that they printed with other publishers. But a familiar name served as lead artist of the Chernobyl Memorial project, Nicolai Aarøe, who you will remember was also the creator of the Light and Darkness series covered earlier in this feature article.

The Premium edition is the main deck, and the tuck box immediately impresses you with its full interior art, which gives the visual impression an abandoned building, where paint is peeling off the ceilings and walls.



The court cards of both editions of the Chernobyl Memorial deck feature full colour and actual photographs of locations from the Zone, e.g. the swimming pool, hospital and power plant control room.



The values and pips are custom designed, and feature colours often found on the original wall paintings of the Pripyat buildings.



The jokers of this edition, which has green card backs in a Bicycle riderback inspired design, feature the two "Shadow Men" that are large wall paintings in the middle of the exclusion zone.



The Limited edition has an even more stunning tuck box. Two types of foil have been used to simulate the illusion that parts of the box have been subject to heavy corrosion.



It looks just like rust, and it's only when you touch the box with your finger that the illusion is broken, and you realize that it's simply a very convincing illusion created by incredible artwork and clever design!



The limited edition deck has the same artwork and pip designs on the cards as the premium edition, but the colours of the suits have been adjusted, with red/brown more prominent.



This has been done to match the card backs, which are now brown instead of green. The tuck box of this edition is further enhanced with embossing, and extensive use of gold foil - again the picture below doesn't do justice to how impressive this looks in person.



The Chernobyl Memorial decks are certainly unusual and memorable, and do an excellent job of capturing and evoking a sober and serious theme. Collectors will absolutely adore the tuck box of the limited edition in particular, and gamers will enjoy using the heavily customized cards in card games, since they are functional as well as beautiful and memorable.


OTHER DECKS

More Specialty Decks

The above is certainly not a complete list of decks that have been produced by Noir Arts. A few other projects they have been involved in to varying degrees include the following:

The Chess and Chess Limited Edition decks (2014) have cards inspired by the game of chess. This project began with drawings by George Sikes and Eric Siddall, and features cards that can actually be used to play chess, when used with a custom game board.



The Demon and the Demon Limited Edition decks (2014) picture demons from the underworld, with artwork by Egor Klyuchnyk. For this project, Noir Arts partnered with Anomaly World Studio. This was one of the very first Kickstarter projects successfully funded and produced by Noir Arts.



The Defunctorum Nox and Defunctorum Dies decks (2015) were a pair of black/Night and white/Day decks, with a style typical of dark art. Published as an add-on to the original project was a Defunctorum Cruor Edition (= Bloody), and while this deck is more macabre, the addition of extra colours makes this arguably the most stunning of the three.



The Asylum, Back to the Asylum and Asylum Inmate decks (2015) are designed to have court cards that look like they were made by asylum inmates. Many will find the blood stains and the graphic nature of some of these cards quite disturbing. This series of decks was originally created by Serbian artist Milan Colovic, and after an initial campaign for Asylum that was run by Ed Nash's Altius Management failed to deliver and even ended up in legal hot water, Milan was finally able to make the project a reality with the help of NPCC.



The HorRoar! deck (2017) is a newly released horror-themed deck which was produced in collaboration with Ace Collectable Cards. It brings together vampires, werewolves, ghosts and witches on cards which have a black background with touches of moonlight. With jet black cards, the use of vivid red and white for the pips and backgrounds of the characters ensures a look that confront you with the shocking unpleasantries of the horror genre, so this is certainly not a deck for everyone.



Noir Arts is continuing to add to their portfolio on a regular basis, and the Matra Collection is a series of three decks dedicated to Hindu deities,

Souvenir Decks

In addition to the higher quality poker-sized playing cards featured above, NPCC also produces locally branded souvenir decks for the Ukrainian market. These are typically bridge sized decks, and their content means that they will mainly be of interest to locals. They are also budget quality style decks, with no embossed paper-stock, so they won't handle or last like a premium deck of cards - but this is also reflected in a much cheaper cost.

You can see some examples here, here and here, although do realize that many of these are branded with the names of the client companies they produced these for.

I managed to check out one of these many decks, entitled Forts and Castles of Western Ukraine (Фортецi та замки захiдноi Украiни), which was a 54 card deck similar to what is shown here.



The card-backs have a busy design with a medley of crests, but the card faces look absolutely beautiful, with water-colour style images of various forts and castles from throughout parts of Ukraine.



The face cards and the aces are marked with the Ukrainian letters that correspond to the rank names, with К for the King, Д for the Queen, В for the Jack, and T for the Ace.



One particularly nice thing about these souvenir decks is that even the number cards have their own full sized artwork, so every single card is colourful and entirely customized - making it beautiful to look through.



As mentioned already, the card quality of these decks is cheap - while they have very clean edges, the cards feel quite thin, smooth, and paper-like. These characteristics are of course fairly standard for a souvenir style deck, and since they come at a very low price-point, it's not reasonable to expect anything different anyway. All things considered, these are attractive products, and well done.

Printing Services

As well as produce their own decks, Noir Arts offers a fulfilment/printing service for people wanting to make their own decks under their label NPCC, and this will especially prove to be of interest to many creators of playing cards. NPCC advertises themselves as providing "all-in-one solution from design to final product", and not only can they assist artists in bringing their designs to print, but they can also take care of the complete fulfilment side of things, including packaging and delivery.

From the above reviews, there's no doubt that Noir Arts has a range of skills when it comes to special features on cards, and that includes all the usual glamour options like custom seals, embossing, foil (130 colours & patterns), and metallic inks. They also can provide the kind of add ons common in many crowd-funded projects, such as wooden dice, boxes, metal coins, poker chips, certificates, and more.

So how much do they charge for printing an order of their higher quality custom playing cards? A friend of mine recently had a quote for printing a deck, and it turns out that this can depend on a very large number of factors. These include the card design (colours, number of inks, colour of metallic inks, difficulty of embossing pattern), tuck features (card-stock, shape of custom seal, number and colour of foils), and the quantity being produced. Fulfilment is a separate cost and NPCC uses and recommends registered ai­rmail with tracking worldwide; obviously shipping costs and exchange rates can also fluctuate. Even so, the final cost of production and fulfilment should in most cases end up well under $10 a deck.

Often people turn by default to industry leaders like United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), or the cards produced in Taiwan by Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC), while Make Playing Cards (MPC) is another popular choice for producing cards in lower quantities. It's good to know that there are other alternatives to consider, and undoubtedly this will be of real interest to many designers.




CONCLUSIONS

Overall

Unique: Many of these decks of playing cards feature a very unique art-style that you won't find in many other places. I especially liked the playful Geist deck, which is a good example of this. The dark art style of some of their decks will be disturbing to some, but it is certainly unique, and creative in its own way. But the level of innovation goes far beyond the style of the artwork - the tuck boxes are also very unique and stylish, and make the Noir Arts decks stand out from the average deck of custom playing cards.

Dark: Quite a number of the decks feature dark themes, with skeletons and blood featured in several of these decks. Perhaps isn't surprising given that "Noir" means black, and that they appear to have a fondness for the dark art genre. This is especially evident in the Light Versus Darkness series from Nicolai Aaroe, and in other decks like Memento Mori and the Bone/Ebon series. Some people (including me) will find some of the playing cards they produce rather unsettling and unsavoury. Fortunately it's a simple matter to avoid those decks if you are so inclined. Just be sure to do your research, and know what you're getting in advance, rather than make a purchase only to get an unfortunate surprise when you open the deck.

Non-dark: Fortunately not all the Noir Arts decks are in the dark art genre, and they have also produced plenty of decks that are bright and cheerful as well. The Geistreiz deck is a good example of a vibrant deck that has its own style, and yet the bright red/pink and blue colours ensure that it feels energetic and playful. Similar comments could be made about decks like the Carnaval de Muertos deck, which is very lively and cheerful - despite its darker subject material. And there are plenty of decks in the Noir Arts range that wouldn't be considered dark or bright, but are simply attractive decks in their own right, like the Chernobyl Memorial decks, and even the Animagique ones.

European flavour: Noir Arts are based in Europe, and many of these decks have a real European style and feel about them. Even though the designers of the artwork featured in these decks are sourced from around the world, there is a very definite flavour that fits with the Noir Arts vision and style, and it's hard to imagine some of these decks being produced in America! I find that refreshing and appealing. It can only be good to have more competition in the world of custom playing cards, both in terms of the creators as well as the producers. If the playing card industry was limited to contributors from a certain demographic or culture, it would eventually feel somewhat stale, so having creations from other parts of the world injects different flavours and influences and ensures welcome variety.

European source: These decks are produced in Ukraine, which for many of us may seem somewhat of an unexpected source for custom playing cards. I have no idea about the standards of manufacturing in Eastern Europe, and can only judge by the goods themselves, which generally speaking are quite satisfactory. The decks were all individually shrinkwrapped, and came packed in a cardboard box - my only complaint here is that shipping from Ukraine can take a long time, as I experienced.

Partners: In producing decks, Noir Arts partners with a variety of artists whose talent they have sourced from around the world. Some of their decks have similar themes and styles since they are by the same artist, like the ones by Nicolai Aaroe from Denmark. Others like their Carnaval De Muertos and Mantra decks have been designed in house by Ukrainian artists. But a range of different artists from around the globe is represented.

Tuck boxes: One thing that really impressed me from the outset is the high quality of Noir Arts' remarkable tuck boxes. From pictures I'd seen online before seeing their decks in person, I was expecting something merely average, so I was quite blown away by how they looked in reality. They make significant use of foil and embossing, but it isn't just pure bling - it's also very stylish and well-crafted. To my surprise, these were among some of the nicest tuck boxes I'd ever seen! The seals are also heavily customized, and these are often oversized and feature unique shapes and styles that fit with the overall themes of the decks. My favourite is probably the luxuriously gold foiled and jet black Dominus Obscura tuck box, but the matching Indictus tuck boxes are also terrific. The Memento Mori tuck boxes are very lavish, and the design of the new Midgard decks also looks very classy. The limited edition of the Chernobyl deck has a faux rust look which is especially eye-catching. Many of the tuck boxes feature full interior printing - in some cases with luxurious foil! Certainly it has to be said that the quality and looks of the Noir Arts tuck boxes is outstanding, and makes an immediate impression of luxury and quality, which in many cases even exceeds that of some of their bigger name competitors. Whatever you think about NPCC, they certainly do make killer tuck boxes!

Printing/Fulfilment service: The fact that Noir Arts offers a printing/fulfilment service for crowd-funding project creators will be welcome news for designers of custom playing cards looking to get their projects into the hands of the public, as an alternative resource to consider besides the usual big players in the industry. It depends of course on what you are looking for. While not the best choice for card magic or card flourishing, I think the quality is quite satisfactory for those making a custom deck just for collectors or for playing card games. And unlike LPCC/EPPC, which have 54 card decks as a standard, the NPCC decks typically contain 56 cards (like USPCC decks), so having two extra cards adds extra possibilities for designers.



The cards

Reputation: An important question for consumers in the custom playing card industry will be what the Noir Arts cards are like. From comments I've seen in forums and elsewhere, NPCC's reputation hasn't always been exactly stellar. They haven't usually been considered an industry leader alongside bigger names like USPCC, or even Taiwanese printers like LPCC and EPCC. From what I can gather, this reputation is largely a result of their earlier products, which don't measure up to the quality of what they have been producing in the last couple of years. I'd be the first to admit that their older decks aren't of a standard that most readers here would be happy with - they don't always fan or spread evenly, and can be a little clumpy or sticky; some early decks didn't even have embossed card-stock. However it's not fair to judge Noir Arts' current output based only on their initial offerings, especially if they have made efforts to improve. It takes a long time to earn a good reputation, and the only thing NPCC can do is produce quality playing cards today, and hope that new customers and consumers will give them a chance to prove themselves with their current level of quality.

Improvement: I've had opportunity to look at a very wide range of decks produced by NPCC, and it has to be admitted that the quality of their decks from 2015 and earlier is inferior to their later decks. The Chess decks from 2014, for example, weren't even embossed, and while the GeistReiz decks from 2015 had embossed card-stock, they don't handle quite as smoothly as the newer decks. But with decks produced in 2016 and onwards, starting with the Chivalry decks, NPCC seems to have started to sort themselves out. All the decks from 2016 and 2017 that I've used were more satisfactory, and close to the quality of decks I've seen from MPC. It seems to me that they really started hitting their stride in 2016, and it's from that point on that the tuck boxes and card quality really seems to be of a standard that we'd expect as a bare minimum in the custom playing card industry, making them a legitimate contributor in the marketplace.

Card Quality: For the cards themselves, Noir Arts uses only high quality cardstock - German black-core linen 310gsm card-stock, which is also the top pick used by Make Playing Cards (link). A couple of their earlier decks (Animagique, Asylum, Branle) have a very different and almost plastic-coated feel, because Noir Arts was briefly experimenting with a different German card-stock that wasn't quite the same level of quality. But all the decks I've seen from recent years feature quality paper card-stock. Card connoisseurs will know the importance of embossing and coating, in order to ensure smooth handling and shuffling, and Noir Arts has told me that they continue to work on improving the formula they use for coating their cards, to ensure the optimum amount of slip and durability. They also aren't afraid to innovate, and in the case of their amazing Branle Tesoro deck, they've even used double foil for the backs of the cards, as well as on the tuck box, besides the inlaid synthetic gem on the inside. The cards are all embossed with an air cushion style finish. Many of the card backs have thin borders, but the printing registration is consistently even - even better than USPCC decks in my opinion, which can sometimes be off center - so the backs like very nice. Quite a few of the decks use metallic inks, which adds to the visual appeal. Overall the card quality seems decent.

Card handling: The first thing that immediately strikes you when you hold a deck in your hands is how smooth the edges are - even smoother than decks produced by LPCC/EPCC, which I didn't think was even possible! It's the smoothest I've ever felt in a deck. At first I wondered if they were laser cut, but apparently that is not the case. A straight laser cut would mean that the edges aren't bevelled and that the cards can't be weaved together in a faro shuffle, but the Noir Arts decks do have a modern cut and it is certainly possible to do a faro shuffle without too much difficulty; especially when worn in a little. If you're an experienced card flourisher, you'll immediately notice some differences in how they handle compared with USPCC or LPCC/EPCC produced decks, because they have a different feel and response. The cards have a real snap and spring, and feel firm, with a stiffness somewhat similar to the Diamond/Master finishes from LPCC/EPCC. And like decks from LPCC/EPCC, the cards seem slightly clingy, which means that there is a slightly higher degree of friction between them. I didn't find them as clumpy initially as some people have reported, but the higher degree of friction is certainly evident, and they're not as smooth as other high end decks. I suspect this is a combination of two factors: embossing and coating. My impression is that the coating they use doesn't match the quality of the coating used by USPCC and LPCC/EPCC, and this means that their performance isn't as good. This does has some advantages, because it makes them especially excellent for doing cuts and moves involving packets of cards, which stay together well, and it also makes doing very clean double lifts easier. While they fan and spread reasonably evenly out of the box, it's not anywhere as slick as other high end decks, and it does deteriorate over time.

Card durability: One concern I've heard about from others is that NPCC cards aren't durable, and that the handling deteriorates over time. To be fair, the quality of their decks has improved over the years , as they've worked at upgrading their printing processes, so newer decks will perform better than older decks. But are the newer decks satisfactory? While the paper stock is good, it seems to me that the finish needs more work, and the combination of embossing and coating doesn't quite live up to the high standard necessary for card flourishing or card magic. Some people have reported some clumping happening when handling the cards initially, but this wasn't my experience. I did find that while they performed fairly good out the box, a bit of breaking in did make faros and fans work even better. But after a few hours of use, fans and spread were no longer as consistent, unlike what you see with USPCC or LPCC/EPCC decks. The cards do quite a bit of spring and snap, which normally indicates that they should go the distance, so the paper stock certainly will last, but with heavy use, you can expect to see some clumping and sticking of cards. They certainly outperform cheap department store decks, so I wouldn't consider it poor quality, and certainly fine for playing card games. But they don't quite live up to the exacting standards required by cardistry or magic, where consistency and durability are essential.

How do they compare? The big question for a lot of people will be how NPCC produced decks compare with the bigger and well-known names in the playing card industry, especially USPCC, LPCC/EPCC, and MPC. Are they a legitimate option to consider besides the usual contenders? Using the common letter grades of common academic grading systems, I'd personally ranks USPCC and LPCC/EPCC as an A, and MPC as a B. Not everyone would agree, but in my own opinion (link) I think LPCC/EPCC ranks slightly ahead of USPCC both in terms of card quality and because of their level of innovation and the quality of their tuck boxes. So in the final analysis I'd consider LPCC/EPCC an A+ and USPCC an A; the fact that USPCC decks don't always have consistent registration where borders can sometimes be slightly wider/narrower than the opposite side also accounts for making them my second choice. But on the whole, project creators who use either source are unlikely to be disappointed. MPC decks on the other hand don't handle quite as smoothly or evenly, and the general consensus of most creators/collectors is that they aren't quite as good, which is why I'd consider them a B. I'd rate Noir Arts decks about the same as MPC - they just don't handle as consistently or sweetly as USPCC/LPCC decks. Like MPC decks, Noir Arts decks aren't the best choice for cardistry or card magic. For the average person, they'll be quite satisfactory, and they'll outperform the typical "cheap" deck, hence the B rating, but it's not top of the line. However, Noir Arts produces absolutely stellar tuck boxes, and in my book that means they deserve a higher rating than MPC, so I'd upgrade my final rating to a B+. So in order, I'd rank them as follows: A+ LPCC/EPCC, A USPCC, B+ NPCC, B MPC.

Who are they for? If you're getting these decks mostly as a collector, and because you like the tuck box, then I don't think you'll be disappointed. For use in card games they also should be fine. They'll not make the grade for most magicians, since they don't handle as sweetly as a USPCC or LPCC/EPCC deck, and because you can't count on consistent fans/spreads with heavy use. Card flourishers will likely find NPCC decks inadequate, unless all you do are packet style cuts. In short, I don't think the Noir Arts name should automatically make people stay away, because it depends on what the intended purpose of a deck is. If it's an artistic deck for collectors, and the cards aren't likely to see much use, then I think Noir Arts would make a good choice - their skills in making superlative tuck boxes especially recommends them. NPCC would not be my first choice for a deck designed firstly with card flourishing in mind, and even for card magic, but if it's a collector's type deck or even a creative or artistic deck designed to be used for playing card games, their quality should be just fine. A fair assessment requires us to remember their roots, which is evident from their name: Noir Arts. They are good at doing what was originally the genesis of their company, namely art. If I'm hoping for a "real looker" that looks luxurious and impressive on the shelf, or in a card game, seeing the Noir Arts name associated with that would be an assurance of quality.

Where to get? You can purchase Noir Arts decks from their webshop here.



Recommendation

So is Noir Arts (NPCC) for you? I came across Noir Arts and NPCC quite by accident, when exploring aspects the world of playing cards, but I'm very pleased that I did. They have produced some stunning decks of their own, using the artistic talents of creators internationally. In addition they provide what seems to be a good printing service for their many customers around their world. Knowing that this is a source that can be used to produce playing cards and fulfil crowd-funded projects will mean that many designers of custom cards will want to take note of this option they might otherwise not know about.

While not geared towards producing decks that will satisfy the highest quality standards demanded by cardistry or card magic, they are certainly focused on creating decks with a more artistic look, which they present in very impressive and high quality tuck boxes. Their playing cards cards have an air-cushion style finish and are of a quality that works well for playing card games or for collectors who admire an artistic style of deck. If that's what you're looking for, then do check them, their range, and their services out!



Want to learn more? Noir Arts: www.noir-arts.com

Web-store: https://shop.trycelery.com/page/shopnoirarts
Printing: https://noir-arts.com/npcc-info/




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