10 Top Decks Produced by PlayingCardDecks
I'm writing a number of Top 10 lists to help celebrate the 5th anniversary of PlayingCardDecks. So of course I also had to do a list about the custom decks that Will Roya has produced under his own label. PlayingCardDecks (PCD) has only been around for 5 years, but already within his first year of starting his business, Will was working on projects to produce his own custom decks. In the context of where PCD was at, this was quite an undertaking. It already requires a huge amount of effort to start up an online business and sales platform, without introducing the extra complication of trying to produce your own decks of cards at the same time.
Many designers and creators have tried their hand at crowdfunding projects for playing cards and discovered how difficult this can be. It's not as simple as setting up a page with nice pictures of your imagined deck, and then waiting for the dollars to roll in. It requires a significant amount of hard work. Not only do you need a good design, but you also need to be good at marketing and communication, and you need to have the right network in place to ensure fulfilment of a quality product in a timely manner. Often creators are happy just to break even at the end of all this - if their project even gets funded in the first place.
But if there's one thing I've learned about Will Roya, it is that he is a man with enormous ambitions, energy, and passion, and he has the smarts to pull this off. Somehow, over the last five years he's managed quite the achievement: running a growing online business, and simultaneously producing multiple playing card projects that have put delightful and high quality custom playing cards into the hands of collectors.
Any "Top 10" is going to be subjective, and it's not my intention to suggest that my choices are necessarily the best of the many decks that have come out under the PCD label. But they are among my personal favourites, and the selections I've made here are somewhat representative of the many different types of custom playing cards that Will has produced since 2018. I've listed them more or less in the order in which they appeared on the market.
1. Chicken Playing Cards (2017)
The first deck that Will Roya was involved in creating was Runic Royalty Playing Cards, which was a collaboration with designer Keith Glover. The PCD logo is on the box, but Will's assistance was mostly with promotion, printing, and distribution. But the very first project that he ran entirely on his own was the charming Chicken Playing Cards. What came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case apparently it was the chicken. Will started from scratch, hiring the artist, and doing all the legwork himself. It was his first Kickstarter project, and almost 30 have followed since.
The design work for the Chicken deck is by Susan Krupp, and it captures a fun chicken theme, where a brightly coloured tuck box immediately sets the tone for the playfulness within. The card backs have a whimsical design, with what appears to be three mischievous roosters playing a game of poker. The delightful court cards are the real highlight of this deck, because they feature our fowled friends in all manner of exalted poses. The number cards also receive loving attention, with detailed artwork forming a background panel to the pips, which are heavily customized with brightly coloured feather-inspired artwork.
The indices are given their own white oval-shaped backgrounds - unquestionably egg shaped - which helps set them apart from the rest of the artwork, and ensures that they are still functional. The Aces are among my favourite cards, with oversized pips, and colourful feather-inspired interior decorating. The humorous Jokers picture matching foxes with a cage, one empty and the other with a young chick inside, giving magicians potential for some fun with a colour change. As the first fully PCD produced deck, this will always be a nostalgic favourite.
2. Alice in Wonderland Playing Cards (2018)
The Alice in Wonderland Playing Cards is a fresh, creative, and intriguing take on the surreal story of Alice in Wonderland, which captured the imagination of Israeli graphic designer and illustrator Sasha Dounaevski from childhood. Of course playing cards feature strongly in Lewis Carroll's book, so it's a natural fit for a custom deck.
Artwork on the interior of the tuck box cleverly pictures Alice falling into the rabbit hole. Sasha's linear style is a deliberately minimalist choice to reflect the absurdity and logic of the story, and the minimalist use of colours ensures a focus on the surreal artwork, with a simple blue and white colour scheme being a recurring feature of the deck. The court cards are a highlight, depicting characters like the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hare, Hatter, White Rabbit, Queen of Hearts and others, while the Aces recall some of Alice's adventures, such as the famous tea-party. Alice is featured on multiple cards in the deck, since she is the recurring and central figure in this tale.
The number cards are customized with uniquely shaped pips in a non-standard arrangement, plus a unique symbol (derived from the story) for each suit, such as the pocket watch and the pepper pot. The Jokers feature special eats and drinks from the story: the "Drink Me" mixture and "Eat Me" cake, which made Alice small and big respectively. And the symmetrical pattern of the card backs represents the garden that she wants to get into. The Alice in Wonderland theme returns through all the aspects of these playing cards, making it a charming deck for the child in all of us.
3. Strigiformes Owls Playing Cards (2018)
You'd think that a deck of playing cards with the word Strigiformes on the front might be a tough sell. Not so with the Strigiformes Owl Playing Cards. The title is taken from the scientific name of the order of birds we commonly call owls. The owl has a legacy as a wise old bird, and this deck also shows that it can be beautiful, courtesy of a gorgeous design by Renee LeCompte.
The artwork has just the right colour combinations to give an appropriately nocturnal feel, with dark colours. That's immediately evident with the tuck box, which confronts us with a gorgeous owl with outstretched wings. The card backs have a starry and dark night-sky background filled with a carefully designed symmetrical pattern constructed from detailed owl related images like eyes and feathers.
The artwork is especially incredible on the court cards, each of which has different owls, and cleverly incorporates imagery from the tarot, such as swords, pentacles, staves, and chalices. The Aces are also unique, featuring a full one-way image of an owl, asymmetrically counter-balanced by an intricate and exquisite design that features the suit of the card in a frosted white. But the number cards are great too, with highly customized pips and intricate detail, and ornate versions of the suits on both left and right borders. This is a magnificent deck that looks even better in real life than it does in pictures.
4. Ancient Warriors Playing Cards (2018)
I first saw pictures of the Ancient Warriors Playing Cards online and liked what I saw, but the real thing blew me away even more. This comes as a matching and limited edition two-deck set, one in a red/gold colour scheme, and another in a black/silver scheme. Designed by Marcelo Simonetti from Uruguay, these decks explore ancient warriors from ancient civilizations around the globe.
Each suit depicts a different culture on the court cards: Crusaders (Spades), Japanese (Clubs), Zulus (Diamonds), and Aztecs (Hearts). Unique aspects of each civilization are also reflected on the Aces, the pips, and the detailed patterns that make up the borders of the cards. There's customization everywhere, and it's amplified by the use of metallic gold and metallic silver ink. The indices are very clear and functional, and yet these decks are highly customized, interesting, and very attractive.
While the face cards in each deck are basically the same, the two decks do have different card backs. This back design includes four repeated icons in the center, which are representative of the four cultures featured in the decks. Diptych jokers and bonus cards unique to each deck complete a wonderful package.
5. Circus Nostalgic Playing Cards (2019)
The Circus Nostalgic Playing Cards was designed by artist Joe Ruiz, and aims to rekindle some of the childlike enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the circus. While the original unbranded version of this deck quickly sold out, the good news is that a Bicycle branded version was produced earlier this year, and is readily available: Bicycle Circus Nostalgic Playing Cards. The graphic design of the tuck box does a good job of capturing the feel appropriate for a nostalgic tribute to the world of circus entertainment from yesteryear. It has retro style fonts, and small touches like a custom seal that says "Admit One".
Joe researched vintage circuses when creating the deck, and the court cards especially do a good job of conveying "the exuberant energy of these old circus performers," by featuring classic figures like the strong man, escape artist, trapeze artist, juggler, and ringmaster. The Ace of Spades welcomes back the lion performer from the tuck box, and all the Aces have an oversized lavish design that matches this style.
The card backs have a "big top" circus tent pattern that is instantly recognizable and memorable, with a borderless design that has red and white stripes branching to the very edges of the cards, for an eye-catching look. I love how this design returns in a more subtle way on the front of the cards, which are further embellished with appropriately vintage borders. Due to the engaging graphic style, even the number cards look colourful and vibrant, with a customized design that includes indices so that the deck is still functional. This is a lively and whimsical deck that I love looking through, and has amused and pleased everyone I've shown it to.
6. Ladybug Playing Cards (2019)
Playing card designer Artur Rajch hails from Poland, and while you might not recognize his name, you might recognize some of his work. The Ladybug Playing Cards was a two deck set that started a wonderful series of insect and critter themed decks. All Bicycle branded, these also include Beekeeper, Dragonfly, Ant, Caterpillar, Butterfly, Grasshopper, Scorpion, Snail, with more "tiny critter" decks in the same style potentially forthcoming. Each represents a two deck set with similar decks that have a slightly different colour scheme or alternate artwork on the card backs.
All the decks in the series are attractive novelty playing cards that will appeal to collectors, and this first one will especially be enjoyed by anyone who loves ladybugs. The card back artwork is a mirrored two-way design that revolves around two lady bugs. I especially love the small touches, such as the miniature ladybugs on each corner of the design, which appear on several places on the tuck box as well. Apparently Will Roya's own passion for ladybugs inspired the deck, and he himself has a ladybug tattoo, and when his daughter arrived he gave her a ladybug-themed nursery. So he knows a thing or two about having them crawling all over the place, not just on his body and in his house, but also on our playing cards.
Artist Artur Rajch has made full use of the card canvas, and this is especially evident on the lovely court cards. Although they build on traditional features expected in court cards, like the King of Hearts suicide king, the artwork is otherwise far from traditional, and has a very lavish and stylish feel about it, a style that returns in all the decks of the series. All the Aces have oversized pips decorated with a black and red spotted design, and are touched with a leafy floral pattern. The number cards also get the benefit of thorough customization. The spotted design is applied to all the pips throughout the deck, including the indices. The indices use a somewhat unusual font, and are further decorated by a miniature ladybug for added fun. The charming critters from this delightful series are well worth keeping an eye out for.
7. Vanity Fair Playing Cards (2019)
Vanity Fair Playing Cards are representative of one of my favourite types of playing cards, namely transformation playing cards. With a transformation deck the pips are incorporated into a larger artistic image. They exhibit a level of creativity and ingenuity like few other decks, because the artists creating them must work within the limitations produced by the need to incorporate the pips into their design, and work with this in a creative, imaginative, and original manner. This genre of playing cards especially enjoyed popularity in the 19th century, and some incredibly creative decks emerged from this time period, this being one of the best.
The original version of this deck appeared in 1895, and this 2019 version is is one of several "reproduction decks" that Will Roya has produced with the help of artist Azured Ox, who painstakingly recreates the original artwork from yesteryear, and helps turn classic decks into fine editions for modern collectors. Two matching versions were produced, one with green backs having a Clown back pattern, and the other with ornately decorated red backs having a Hobgoblin pattern. Unlike most decks, where the court cards are the main feature, the real appeal of transformation playing cards lies in the number cards, with their colourful and creative transformation art.
But the rest of the deck wasn't left out, with the two-way court cards being turned into comic figures (e.g. the King of Spades is smoking a pipe, the Queen of Spades holds a spoon, the Queen of Clubs holds a pickled cucumber with a fork), so each and every card is a unique and attractive work of art. The Aces also received special attention, especially the signature Ace of Spades. The end result effectively represents a miniature art gallery with 52 exhibits. This particular deck remains one of the finest examples of what the genre of transformation cards could produce in the late nineteenth century, and modern collectors are indebted to Will Roya for bringing it back to life for them to enjoy in a fine new edition.
8. Hustling Joe Playing Cards (2019)
The Hustling Joe Playing Cards is another wonderful deck from the late 19th century that has received the benefit of a fine reproduction version courtesy of Will Roya's efforts under the PCD label. Like several other reproduction decks he has produced, two separate versions were produced with different card backs. A blue Gnome back design takes over the black and white artwork of the original deck from 1885, and pictured gnomes ice skating by moonlight; while a green Frog back design provides an alternative back design based on a vignette featuring frogs.
The name and artwork of this deck was inspired by the notion of a classic "hustler". It represents a trickster who would lure someone to gamble on an apparently certain bet, only to find out they were scammed. Each suit represents its own domain and focus (e.g. the Clubs show a law enforcement officer), while Hustling Joe himself appears on the Ace of Spades.
I particularly like the coloured backgrounds which have been added to each card. These suit the comical and light-hearted nature of the deck by adding aspects of vibrancy and playfulness. The result is an amusing novelty deck with both visual appeal and charm.
9. 5th Kingdom Playing Cards (2020)
I've already acknowledged my fondness for transformational cards, and one of my favourite modern decks that showcase this feature is the 5th Kingdom Playing Cards which features a creative design by Russian artist Maria Fedoseeva. This deck is technically considered a semi-transformation deck, because the pips are cleverly integrated into the artwork on the cards, but the usual requirement of maintaining the traditional location of the pips is abandoned.
A black "Artist" edition and a blue "Players" edition were produced, and both feature tuck boxes that offer a classy and sophisticated look, with elegant lettering touched with gold foil. The deck is inspired by world cultures and creatures, which is why the card backs integrate the shapes of several different animals, along with some ornate touches around the borders for extra style, and touches of yellow gold for extra luxury. Each suit represents a different kingdom: primeval Africa (Spades), spicy India (Hearts), medieval Europe (Clubs), and mythical Japan (Diamonds).
The court cards pick up aspects of each suit's different theme, and the same is true of the Aces, which make full use of the card canvas. But as with most transformation playing cards, it's the number cards that are especially creative. These showcase the artist's skill and imagination, by cleverly incorporating the pips in the artwork in all sorts of interesting ways, in order to bring to life each suit's unique culture.
10. Cotta's Almanac Playing Cards (2020)
Over the course of two years, Will Roya has been partnering with graphic designer Azured Ox to produce a set of fine reproductions of the most historical transformation decks of them all, the famous Cotta's Almanac Playing Cards. There was a boom of transformation decks in the late 1800s, but the very first published and complete deck of transformation cards was produced by Johann Freidrich Cotta of Tübingen, Germany. He went on to produce a series of six playing card almanacs in successive years from 1805-1811, with a new deck appearing in all but one of those years.
The series is now famously called: the Cotta's Almanac. At the time it was popular to produce an "almanac", which was easily adapted for playing cards by having each of the 52 cards in the deck represent a week of the calendar year. The number cards featured pictures that were largely independent drawings without a common topic, and were intended as conversation pieces that accompanied the companion almanac, a small booklet that referred to the illustrations.
Each of the court cards from these decks had its own theme or area of focus, with the first set being based on a Schiller play about the famous historical figure Joan of Arc. Following the success of the Jeanne d'Arc deck (1805), further almanac decks followed in successive years: Classical Antiquity (1806), Wallenstein (1807), Arabs (1809), The Pantheon (1810), and Knightly Orders (1811). The Cotta transformation decks are extremely significant, given the many transformation playing cards they subsequently inspired, and the unique place they occupy in playing card history. It is fantastic that high quality reproductions of these keystone decks are now available for modern collectors to enjoy.
Restricting myself to featuring just 10 decks from the PCD catalogue was a real challenge. So I have to leave you with a few "honorable mentions" in order to add some other personal favourites, all of which came out in the last year or so, and which are delightful novelty decks well worth taking a look at:
● Parrot Playing Cards (2021) - This colourful deck features over 200 unique parrot species from around the world, each number card having parrots corresponding to its value.
● Ninja Playing Cards (2021) - A ninja themed deck might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is a semi-transformation deck, and the artwork on the number cards is especially creative and fun.
● Jolly Roger Cards (2021) - Who doesn't like something with a good pirate theme? The fully custom artwork on all the cards is especially well done, right down to the wooden planks that make up the background.
● Balloon Jungle Playing Cards (2022) - Imagine a vibrant landscape of colourful balloon animals to get some idea of the playfulness of this fun novelty deck.
There's no doubt that PlayingCardDecks has made a significant and welcome contribution to the playing card industry over the last few years. I'm personally very appreciative of the wide variety and creativity of the designs that have been produced so far. I have a special fondness for novelty decks, and plenty of the PCD decks fit that category very well. These are decks that are fully customized, and will especially be enjoyed by collectors who appreciate looking at all the artwork and detail.
The other area that PCD has made an important contribution is in the area of reproduction decks. They've put out some lovely historic decks in fine new editions, thus preserving significant aspects of playing card history, and putting these beautiful relics from the past into the hands of modern collectors.
For the most part, the playing cards produced by PCD are printed by industry leader United States Playing Card Company, maker of the famous Bicycle playing cards, with their standard "air cushion" finish. So they are a quality product that will stand up to use, and handle smoothly and well. USPCC produced cards have a well-deserved reputation, and rightly receive respect for their consistently good card-stock, clear printing, good handling, and a durability which ensures they last longer than a regular deck of cheap playing cards. In many cases luxury gilded versions of all these decks are also available.
Will Roya has always had a passion and a pursuit of excellence, but now he has added another important arrow to his quiver: experience. Today has even more connections in the playing card industry than when he started out, and he has an established base of supporters, and a proven track record of success. With nearly 30 successful Kickstarter projects under his belt, supporters know that they can count on him to come through in a timely manner, and that they'll get exactly the quality product that they've been promised. I'm already excited about what the next five years will bring under the PCD label!
Where to get them? Some of the earlier PCD-produced decks are now sold out, but you can see the full range of PCD-produced decks (including their newest releases) here.
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
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