A Guide to Publishing Your Own Custom Deck
by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
We live in a wonderful era of playing card luxury, because the market is flooded with a host of wonderful new designs on a regular basis. With the help of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, we can become patrons of the arts, and play a small role in collaborating with designers by supporting them in making their projects become a reality. We are spoilt for choice as far as the available decks are concerned, and for playing card hobbyists the current marketplace is a buyer’s dream come true.
But what about if you are a creator yourself, and want to make your own deck? For the modern playing card enthusiast, our current technological climate means that the resources to make your own deck of playing cards are well within reach. Publishing your own custom deck is not nearly as difficult as it sounds, and is much easier than you might think. There was a time where the only channels for producing a custom deck were via the few playing card manufacturers that existed around the world. To get a design successfully into print, you needed to be one of the select few artists that these manufacturers collaborated with. Prior to the age of technology and the Kickstarter revolution, the number of different designs was not nearly the amount we see today.
But today it’s a brand new world, and the hobbyist playing card designer now has the ability to turn his personal design into something fantastic, and making it a printed product is far from impossible. Courtesy of technology and of the internet, you don’t need to be a highly trained graphic designer to create something truly beautiful, because if you have the right software and artistic skills, you can design something impressive on your home computer. The barrier of entry has dropped significantly, young designers don’t have to spend enormous sums of money to be working with powerful graphics programs, and creating innovative designs. There’s always a chance that your design could even become the next big thing!
But even if our aim is more realistic and far more modest, at the very least we can find a way to bring our design from our computer screen and turn it into an actually published brick of custom decks. With the help of today’s technology, it’s really not that difficult to find printers that will produce your playing cards for you. And if you really want, you can even try to harness the power of crowdfunding to get the financial backing needed for a larger print-run, as well as get your deck into the hands of other playing card enthusiasts.
1. Concept: Your Idea
Before you think about the ways that you are going to achieve your dream of printing your own deck, you want to think carefully about what your personal goal is and have a clear idea of what exactly you are aiming for. There’s going to be a lot of decisions that you have to make as part of the process of producing your own deck, so it makes sense at the outset to consider carefully the different factors and choices you have.
What will the theme and central idea of your deck be? It’s worth doing some research to see what is already out there. Has the concept, or subject matter of your deck been done before? Has the name you have in mind for your deck already been used by an existing project? There’s nothing worse than pouring an enormous amount of time or energy into a project, only to discover that someone else has beat you to the punch, or that a very similar product or design already exists. Is your theme just of personal interest, or is it something that you’re going to have to bring to the masses? If so, you want to try to find out if it’s something that will interest enough people to make your creative efforts worthwhile.
You also have to be careful with projects based on popular music, films, or books. These are typically protected very carefully by laws governing trademarks and copyright, and you’ll only be able to use their names or artwork if you get a license to do so. These licensing requirements are typically going to be frightfully expensive and will put such projects well out of reach for the average person.
Further along the road there will be questions you’ll need to answer about the kind of card stock to use, and what company to use for printing your deck. You’ll also have to answer questions about the artwork, such as: Are you going to have standard faces, expect perhaps for the Jokers and Ace of Spades, or is your deck going to be fully customized? If it is customized, will this primarily be about the court cards, or will you have totally custom pips and indices as well?
How you answer these kinds of questions will usually depend on what you plan to use your deck for:
● For card games and magic: Is your deck primarily going to be used for playing card games or for performing card magic? For example, maybe you’re a magician and want a custom deck that says something about your brand or image. If so, then you probably want to make sure it remains that everything about it remains clear and functional, and you don’t want to deviate too much from the standard formula, or from traditional courts. Otherwise your deck might unnecessarily draw attention to itself, or even suspicion. At the very least, you don’t want spectators or fellow gamers distracted too much by novelty, or have cards that are extremely flashy but where the values and suits are very difficult to distinguish with ease, and that the deck isn’t even usable.
● For collectors: On the other hand, if your deck is geared to be primarily for collectors, then none of this matters too much. Then it is quite fine to have more extensive customization, even if you compromise somewhat on the clarity, because your playing cards aren’t intended to be used in performances or games, but rather enjoyed and appreciated as a work of art. You might also want to invest more time and energy, and even cost, into a more glamorous tuck box with embossing and foil, or even a limited edition with a custom numbered seal.
● For cardistry: Something similar regarding the clarity of the indices and pips is true of a deck geared towards card flourishing. A cardistry deck has a very different function than a regular deck, so having clear indices and pips isn’t your biggest priority. Instead you want cards that look aesthetically pleasing, especially when the cards are moving or displayed. But even then you have to consider whether you want a design that looks optimal in fans and spreads, or whether you are more concerned with how cards look in motion, in spins and twirls. A different focus and emphasis will lead to a different design. This is one reason why some cardistry decks feature geometric designs, while others feature lavish colours. Even a simple choice like whether or not to have a two-way or one-way design on the card backs can have a big impact on how a deck will look when it’s being used for flourishing, and you don’t want to make the mistake of only thinking about this for the first time only after your deck is in print.
Another important factor will be how many decks you want to print. If you are planning on producing a relatively high volume, of at least 1000 decks or more, that will give you access to the bigger card manufacturing companies like USPCC, LPCC, and Cartamundi, that typically require a minimum order size in that range.
2. Artwork: Your Design
What is your deck going to look like? What will the cards themselves look like, and what about the tuck box? This isn’t something you want to rush, because it is going to be the key thing that makes or breaks your deck. A poor design won’t look good when it’s published, nor will it attract buyers.
The purpose of your deck will steer your direction here. So will your personal taste, which will determine what aesthetics you prefer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even so, there are principles of design that are almost universally applicable. So you should keep in mind and consider some objective criteria, like the material and concepts covered in another of our articles about “What to Look For in a Quality Deck of Cards” [link].
For example, cards with black borders and faces will show signs of wear much more quickly, as the cards wear and the white paper shows underneath. This is a practical reason why most playing cards have white borders. Similarly borderless card backs with a full bleed artwork may look nice on a computer screen during the design process, but they can be impractical for card magic, because the white borders can help disguise reversed cards and certain sleight of hand moves. This is an example where the direction of your artwork will be shaped by the purpose you have in mind.
There are also aesthetic considerations such as aiming for a straight forward overall design on your card back, because something overly busy with too much detail typically won’t work well. Experience can play a role here too, because someone who spent a lot of time with playing cards, may be able to give good advice about what works and what doesn’t. Colour distinctions between the traditionally red and black pips, and even the arrangement of the pips of the number cards – all of these things involve standards of beauty and excellence, and have implications for functionality and aesthetics.
Once you’ve got an idea of what you want, you have to decide whether you’ll do the artwork yourself, or get an expert in the field to do it for you.
● Self-designing: If you are going to do the artwork and design work yourself, you’ll want to start with some standard artwork for the cards, then changing these as you go along. Often the printer you are working with will be able to supply you with a starting point. You will also need to check the kinds of files that your printer accepts, and the requirements they have in terms of bleed areas, dimensions, and more. Some fantastic software is available for doing digital artwork, but if you are interested in doing this, expect to spend a lot of time with your computer, exercising your creativity and getting the details right. On the other hand if all you’re designing is a custom card back, then this process might turn out to be quite easy, because you can use standard card faces, and all you have to come up with is a custom design for the back of your deck.
● Freelance artist: You might find a freelance artist online whose work you like, and perhaps even a very specific design that you want to use for your card backs or another aspect of the playing card artwork. Obviously if you get someone else to do the work, you’re going to have to find someone that you can work well with, that communicates clearly and promptly, and where you can afford the extra cost. If it’s a graphic artist who is coming up with the artwork and designs for you, you will have to pay for this, and that might cost more than you might think. This will also have an impact on ownership of the final designs, because as a creator and collaborator, they own what is fundamentally their work, which they’ll be selling to you. Expect a lot of back and forth communication, depending on how much input you want to have as the artwork and design takes shape, unless you prefer to just give your overall concept and let your graphic artist run with it however they please.
● Design agency: Even if you do decide to do most of the designs yourself, if you are inexperienced in this area, you might want to pay a graphic design agency to do the final cleaning up for you. In this case you retain all the rights to the artwork, and they are just polishing your overall design.
● Publisher: You might want to collaborate with someone who has a proven record in publishing custom decks, and is interested in working with you on your project. It is simply a publisher who is working with you, then you’ll just be tapping into their expertise in the field, and they’ll leave all the actual work of creating the artwork to you, and help walk you through the steps you need to take along the way.
Before getting too heavily invested in a particular graphic design, you are going to have to know which company you’ll be printing the decks with. Different playing card manufacturers will have different requirements for the files that you have to submit. Typically they will provide detailed information to you about the kind of files that they accept, including full details about the bleed area, and colour choices.
In this early stage of your project, it’s usually a good idea to print a few prototype decks, so that you can check to see how your artwork and designs looks. You may need to use a different company for printing the prototypes, since the larger manufacturers typically won’t let you produce only a dozen trial decks. But it is an important step in the process, especially if you are planning a big print run, because that way you can catch any mistakes that might have escaped your notice. It also gives you some decks you can send to reviewers, who will help you spread the word as part of your promotion. You can also use these for making a video trailer and promoptional photos of your deck. You’ll need all this for the marketing campaign that is essential as part of a crowdfunding project.
Whatever route you decide to go, this isn’t a part of the process that you want to rush. Take your time to get things right, so that you can be happy with the result.
3. Production: Your Printer
Of the different playing card manufacturers out there, who are you going to use to physically print your cards? As mentioned earlier, this is something you’ll have to consider before you even start your graphic design work, because it will have an impact on the types of image files you create, and details like the dimensions and colours.
There are a number of large playing card manufacturers, most of which are quite well known, and but there are also some smaller players worth considering. Which you choose is not just a matter of price, but it also depends on your needs, such as the volume of decks you are producing, and the kind of quality and service you are after. Here are the main contenders:
● United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) – This is the industry giant and heavy-weight, which produces the most playing cards in the United States today. It was established in 1894, and was recently acquired by European company Cartamundi. This isn’t something you need to worry about too much, however, because USPCC is an established brand, and not likely to stop any of their product line any time soon; if anything they will only get better. The merger with Cartamundi does potentially reduce some of the competition in the industry, since these two companies are arguably the two biggest players out there. But on the other hand, if it means that USPCC can build on its established products and improve them with the benefit of technology and input from Cartamundi, then everyone stands to benefit. One negative to be aware of is that USPCC decks are notorious for having inaccurate registration, which means that occasionally a deck will be printed with inconsistent borders, looking particularly ugly if the design has narrow borders. USPCC also does not do small size orders, so they will only really be an option for you if you are planning on producing at least 1000 decks or more. But they one of the biggest and best, which is why so many projects choose to print with them.
● Cartamundi – Based in Europe, this is another giant manufacturer of playing cards. However it is only in recent years that they have started to become a big player in the custom playing card market. Previously no playing card projects used them for production, but that has changed over the last year or more. Their style of playing cards looks and feels quite different from a standard Bicycle deck from USPCC, and will also handle differently. Overall their playing cards have been very well received and are of excellent quality, but they aren’t for everyone given the different feel. In recent times big brands like Ellusionist have been printing more and more of their custom designs with Cartamundi instead of USPCC, and when a large company like Ellusionist is confident enough to do this, it means you can have confidence in Cartamundi as well. Like USPCC, you will need a decent size order, which for Cartamundi is a minimum of 200 decks.
● Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) – LPCC prints the bulk of their playing cards in a factory in Taiwan, and has been a popular choice for many crowdfunding projects due to the high quality of their playing cards. The card stock is extremely durable, even more so than USPCC playing cards, but it tends to feel stiffer and snappier, resulting in a different feel, which is especially ideal for cuts and cardistry. Fans and spreads can start to clump a little over time, but overall LPCC decks are of a standard that almost matches USPCC decks, and exceeds it in some areas, such as the smooth cut on the sides of the deck. And unlike USPCC printed decks, their printing registration is consistently spot on, so a design with narrow borders is never a problem. In a new development, they are also starting to work with another factory in China, where the quality apparently matches that of the Taiwan factory.
● Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC) – EPCC also prints the majority of their decks in Taiwan, where they share a factory with LPCC. These two playing card manufacturers are typically lumped together, and although they use different terminology to describe their available finishes and card stock options, their final playing card product is practically identical in most cases. EPCC is managed by Bill Kalush in the USA, while LPCC is run by Lawrence Sullivan in Hong Kong (a magician who is a perfectionist at his job, and who is committed to the highest quality possible). Much like USPCC, LPCC and EPCC both require a minimum order size of around 1,000 decks and up.
● Taiwan Playing Card Company (TWPCC) – This is another smaller manufacturer based in Taiwan, and is closely linked to their distributor Bomb Magic, which produces magic supplies for the Asian market. Their playing cards are quite similar to the previously mentioned Taiwanese playing card manufacturers, and they also use the same factory and create a similar product. English isn’t their first language, however, and in my own experience in corresponding with them, communication can prove to be a challenge.
● Shenzhen Wangjing Printing Co (WJPC) – Based in mainland China, WJPC has a large operation. Creators that have used them in recent years include Elephant Playing Cards and Guru Playing Cards. I’m told by those who have used WJPC personally that they have a comprehensive range of options and competitive prices, are easy to deal with, and good in communicating quickly and respectfully. The quality of their decks won’t quite match what you’ll get from manufacturers like USPCC, Cartamundi, or Taiwanese-based producers, and decks won’t fan or spread as smoothly. But they do have an air cushion finish, are very well priced, and the average person will likely be happy with the outcome.
● Shuffled Ink – This company offers a similar service to MakePlayingCards, but is based in Florida. Although they occasionally produce some of their products in China, the majority of their playing cards are printed and produced in the United States, and for some creators this will be an important consideration. From personal experience, the quality is quite similar to that of decks by MakePlayingCards, so these decks won’t faro easily, and are the best choice if you want something with top-of-the-line handling qualities. When you are making a custom deck, you will want to produce some prototypes to see how your design will look on a printed deck, and since that isn’t offered by larger companies such as USPCC, manufacturers like MPC and Shuffled Ink are perfect for the purpose.
● Noir Arts (NPCC) – Also known as the Noir Playing Card Company (NPCC), Noir Arts not only prints playing cards but also offers a fulfilment service for shipping them to your buyers and backers. They are based in the Ukraine, so communication may not always be as smooth as it is with some of the other playing card manufacturers, although they certainly do have English speaking staff. They print a high volume of very cheap decks for local tourism in Europe, but they also have been contributing to the market with custom playing decks, and doing production and fulfilment for some crowdfunding campaigns. Their strength lies in producing outstanding tuck boxes that look fantastic, many of which have full interior printing, embossing, and luxurious foil, with an overall look of quality that exceeds your typical deck from other publishers. While they do offer embossed card stock, their playing cards tend to clump quickly, and do not shuffle very smoothly or consistently, making them poor for faros, fans, and spreads. So the quality and handling of the cards themselves is noticeably less than what you will typically get with a deck printed by USPCC, Cartamundi, or EPCC/LPCC. This makes them less than optimal for cardistry or for magic or card games, and better for decks intended specifically for collectors.
The above list can seem a little overwhelming, so let’s narrow down your options a litte. For the best quality possible and with a large print run of at least 1000 decks, consider USPCC, Cartamundi, or LPCC/EPCC. If you’re just printing a smaller number of decks, such as prototypes or a small print run for family or friends, try MPC or Shuffled Ink; only serious cardists and dedicated collectors will notice that their cards won’t fan quite as smoothly, and the average person will still be impressed with the quality and air cushion style finish. You might consider some of the other manufacturers if you want lower prices, but this comes with an increased risk of a reduction in quality.