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Subject: ArtsCow/CowCow guide and warning rss

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Ben Kyo
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This a guide intended to help people improve their chances at getting what they want from an ArtsCow/CowCow deck order, and to warn people of the risks involved.

First, I'm just going to define what a "bleed area" is in normal practice.

Bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of where the card will be trimmed. In other words, you expect the bleed to be trimmed off. This gives the printer some leeway to allow for misalignment of the card during trimming. Without a bleed, a small misalignment could result in ugly white lines down one or two sides of your printed product.

In home print and play designs, the cards are often printed without any space between them, allowing you to use one cut to carefully separate adjacent cards. In commercial printing, every card is surrounded by its own bleed, and is cut out individually with rounded corners.

This means that when you have a typical PnP design, you may need to add your own border to the image for each card in order to have a bleed for commercial printing.

So how does this all apply specifically to ArtsCow/CowCow? (incidentally, I'm sure they are the same entity - a CowCow representative linked me to an ArtsCow guide, for instance, and there is some crossover in their design client - I'll be referring just to ArtsCow from now on).

When you use the design client, you get card images like these to work with:


The guidelines they provide give examples of correct and incorrect designs:


So it appears that the grey border is the bleed, and will be cut off when printed.

Based on this, let's say you decided to print the PnP of Mottainai, for whatever reason (I don't recommend doing this though, as unless you want to make a localised language version or something, the commercial release will get you much better results).

The PnP design does not have a bleed area, so you can add one using whatever method works for you. In this case, Photoshop's "context fill" does a reasonable job of extending the complex border. It's a bit messy, but good enough for a bleed that will be cut off anyway.


You put this into the design client, and zoom it in or out until the bleed is within the grey border.


The purchase preview confirms that your design is correct, and you are good to order, assuming there is a substantial discount available (27.99 + shipping!)


Sometime later, the order arrives, and it might look like this:


So, what went wrong? It appears that the so-called bleed area is not a bleed at all, and was printed entirely within the trim. So, is the solution to simply ignore the grey border in the design client, and order cards without worrying about a bleed?

Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. 7 out of 15 of my ArtsCow orders have been printed treating the bleed area as a bleed, resulting in most of the bleed area being trimmed off, while the other 8 were printed treating the bleed area as part of the card face, resulting in almost none of the bleed area being trimmed off. In other words, because Artscow is simply an agent that out-sources to different printers, each printer handles your data differently, and there is no way to know how it will be used.

Here's an example of an order that was printed in a way that resulted in about 90% of the bleed being cut off. The image on the left is the design, with a red border showing roughly where the trim ended up, resulting in the printed card on the right.


Here's an example of a separate order, that was printed in a way that resulted in only about 10% of the bleed being cut off. The image on the left is the design, with a red border showing roughly where the trim ended up, resulting in the printed card on the right. The design is almost identical, but the result is significantly different with white borders around all four edges.


So, what can you do to mitigate the risk of inconsistent printing?

The following advice is the result of extensive e-mail correspondence with a CowCow representative (actually, probably many different CowCow representatives, given the level of repetition involved) and my own deductions based on the results of 17 different orders.

First, always provide a fully-covered bleed area. You can do this by using Photoshop, by using the card colour selection in the design client (switching from white cards to black cards, for example), or simply by printing images with sufficient single-colour borders. This won't guarantee anything, but it will mean that the end result should look OK regardless of how the data is handled. It also means that ArtsCow will have to take any complaints seriously, preventing them from fobbing you off with a standard "you must provide a full bleed" copy-paste response.

Second, it appears likely that the darker grey line around the outside of the grey border in the ArtsCow design client indicates where the trim will be. Plan for this and you might have a better chance of receiving what you expect. Do not rely on the print previews, and do not treat the full grey border as a bleed. It also seems that regardless of how the printer handles your data, they likely won't printing a substantial bleed, and are printing the cards very close together with perhaps a millimetre of bleed at most. Evidence for this lies in the way that when misalignment occurs, a border from one card sometimes ends up on an adjacent card. So there isn't much of an actual bleed, and the odds are that most of the image you provide will be printed within the trim (although my own results are close to 50/50).

Third, where possible use a "54 playing card" design instead of a "multi-purpose card" design. Of course that isn't possible if you need different card backs, but seriously consider it if you can. With the 54 playing card designs, I have always had consistent results for the 54 cards in a deck. If you choose the more flexible multi-purpose cards, you may find that some cards are printed without a bleed, and some cards are printed with a bleed. I have had identical card backs printed differently - one edge to edge, the other with four white borders - making the deck clearly marked and kind of useless without opaque card sleeves.

Fourth, if results matter, use a different printing company. I was repeatedly told that there is no way to ensure that ArtsCow will handle your data one way or the other, so if you can't provide a design that will look OK either way, you might not want to chance it.


So, that's my take on how to use ArtsCow and CowCow most effectively. If anyone has any comments or additional information to add, please let me know! I'd love to build up a more comprehensive database indicating what, exactly, results in different handling of your image data. Needless to say, numerous attempts at rephrasing this question didn't get any straight answers from ArtsCow. I won't reproduce the whole email chain below, because it is very repetitive, but I want to highlight a few pertinent answers that I received.


CowCow wrote:
Yes, the bleed area might or might not printed out. That is why the images should fill in the bleed area and the essential part should not near to or in the bleed area to avoid any print problems. Also, the bleed are is not for cut off the non-essential image.


CowCow wrote:
Anyway, the bleed area might or might not printed in the final product and there is no estimate cut off area. To avoid the printing problem, you may also consider to add background colour to fill in the bleed area that using the "Colour Icon" (circle in red) shown in the attachment. Thank you!


The closest I got to a direct answer was a clear evasion, indicating that there is no way we can determine how the so-called "bleed area" will be handled:

I wrote: "I understand the examples. Assuming I follow the "good example 1" in the design guide, will the cards look like A (left) or B (right) when printed, or somewhere in-between?"


CowCow wrote:
Due to the bleed area might or might not printed in the final product, the card will be printed might like A, B or the version in-between of them. Thank you.



Finally, a word about refunds and replacements. If your order has a clear and massive printing error, like a huge shearing effect halfway down a card, then ArtsCow will probably ship you a replacement deck without any trouble.

Unfortunately, there is also a chance that they might ship you a single replacement card for a single misprinted card. This happened to me once, and the card they sent was completely different to every other card in the deck - massively pixellated front and back with no color matching - so it was completely useless.​

If you aren't happy with the way your image data was arbitrarily edited, or misused, or misalignment caused trimming to be off by even 4 millimetres, they will not send you a replacement. You can send the deck back to Hong Kong at your own expense, in order to receive an 85 % refund for a "non-defective product". This probably isn't a good idea for a $4-$6 deck.

Update: As of 2018-04-27, Artscow has sent out an email headed "Bleeding area changed for Multi Purpose Cards and 54-Design Cards":
Quote:
We send this email to you because you have bought Multiple Purpose Cards / 54 Design cards before.

In order to get better result of final products of multi purpose cards and 54-design cards, we expanded the bleeding area, for all old designs you guys made, they will be trimmed for extra 2 mm. Therefore, we highly recommended you to add more bleeding area for us to trim. If no changes made, there will be extra 2 mm to be trimmed.

What this actually means remains to be seen, but I think it's a positive change?
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John "Omega" Williams
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Great breakdown.

Here may be one clue as to why this happens.

Many a year ago someone here on BGG noted that Artscow, like many POD providers, does not use a single printer or even their own machines. They are a middleman/agent and they then outsource your order to one of possibly several different printers. And no two factories are the same.

Hence why you sometimes see variance even when printing the same game sometimes. Especially if time has passed.
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Ben Kyo
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Omega2064 wrote:
Great breakdown.

Here may be one clue as to why this happens.

Many a year ago someone here on BGG noted that Artscow, like many POD providers, does not use a single printer or even their own machines. They are a middleman/agent and they then outsource your order to one of possibly several different printers. And no two factories are the same.

Hence why you sometimes see variance even when printing the same game sometimes. Especially if time has passed.

That explains a lot, thank you. I mean, I thought they probably weren't printing out of Hong Kong, but I didn't follow through on how that might actually work.

I have edited the guide to reflect this.
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This is a really useful guide and a lot of work has clearly gone into it.

A shame that you have illustrated much of it with a game that is not available for PnP. A lot of people would not be comfortable producing a counterfeit copy of a freely available, fairly priced game. Especially when the example simply copies the original, copyrighted artwork.
 
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MLBath wrote:
This is a really useful guide and a lot of work has clearly gone into it.

A shame that you have illustrated much of it with a game that is not available for PnP. A lot of people would not be comfortable producing a counterfeit copy of a freely available, fairly priced game. Especially when the example simply copies the original, copyrighted artwork.

You are mistaken. The PnP edition is still available, generously provided by angelkurisu here:

Mottainai Print and Play

Unlike many publishers, they did not retract or delete the availability of the PnP files after the commercial release. That said, as I noted in the guide itself, I do not recommend printing this product now that it is available, unless a local version is not available.
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Benkyo wrote:
That explains a lot, thank you. I mean, I thought they probably weren't printing out of Hong Kong, but I didn't follow through on how that might actually work.


This is also probably why you get cases where the test cards can end up different from the full print. They likely went to different factories.

Id lay good odds that many of these POD companies are not being dishonest or misleading about this when they fail to mention it. It simply never occurs to them that no one else is aware of it. To the company its part of the process.

Unfortunately not all PODs tell you there may be variances in printing and cutting.

 
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Omega2064 wrote:
Unfortunately not all PODs tell you there may be variances in printing and cutting.

Variance in printing and cutting (i.e., colours, quality, alignment, etc.) I totally expect. It does surprise me that there is no attempt to standardise how the data itself is used when ordered through the same company, using the same data formatting. When printer A prints the bleed as a bleed, and printer B prints the entire bleed as part of the card, you have to wonder why this is still going on. Apparently Artscow are aware of the variance, but are in no position to do anything about it.
 
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That is because each order can end up going to a different printer and there is no standard format.

What works for factory A may end up different in factory B. This includes variances in print quality or image resolution even.

And likely the POD provider has no control over this. The orders go out to whatever factory is open at that moment that can handle the order.
 
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Oops. That was stupid and a bit ignorant of me. My apologies.

Benkyo wrote:
MLBath wrote:
This is a really useful guide and a lot of work has clearly gone into it.

A shame that you have illustrated much of it with a game that is not available for PnP. A lot of people would not be comfortable producing a counterfeit copy of a freely available, fairly priced game. Especially when the example simply copies the original, copyrighted artwork.

You are mistaken. The PnP edition is still available, generously provided by angelkurisu here:

Mottainai Print and Play

Unlike many publishers, they did not retract or delete the availability of the PnP files after the commercial release. That said, as I noted in the guide itself, I do not recommend printing this product now that it is available, unless a local version is not available.
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Great advice. It's pretty strange they're a monolith but can't control something as simple as how bleed and trim are handled with their sub-contractors, but whatever, at least you took the time to really look the problem over, and the advice about choose the 54 playing cards is great.
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Would you happen to have a good template for creating cards from scratch? Illustrator/PDF would be preferred, but photoshop is fine. Kind of shocked they don't provide this.

These guys make Sticker Robot or VistaPrint look real real good. Unfortunately, they're not playing card printers.

Found this over at My Playing Cards, which looks like a slightly more expensive printer, but more professional:
http://www.makeplayingcards.com/pops/pc-temp-guide.html
 
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zmapenguin wrote:
Great advice. It's pretty strange they're a monolith but can't control something as simple as how bleed and trim are handled with their sub-contractors, but whatever, at least you took the time to really look the problem over, and the advice about choose the 54 playing cards is great.


ArtsCow is big, but it is also small. The big comes from their connections and ability to keep costs down and get things done on a fairly timely manner. Something some other POD providers fail at.

But the downside is the variance in requirements and since the orders go out to random factories there is no way to do a standard template.

I'd guess what they have for templates is for the most common requirement. If even that.

Self publishers have run into this as well when they change print factories and occasionally find out that the new factory has a different format that skews your old files. Requiring some reworking of those files.

As for the 54 cards. That is standard. But some other card factories have formats like 108. You have to research each and talk to the individual factories.
 
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