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Thoughts on Making Custom Fate Decks


JMGraham
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Hi all! Sorry it’s taken me so long to get this up.

I’ve produced a number (three, to be precise) of custom card decks to use as giveaways for tournaments. Several folks have asked me to share my experiences in producing them. For reference, the first deck I produced was for the 2011 Walpurgis tournament (a annual 2-day Malifaux tournament we hold on or around Walpurgisnacht). For the 2012 Walpurgis, I produced a deck of Scheme cards, and another fate deck.

A reprise of images:

2011 Fate Deck

Cards manufactured by Customized Playing Cards, Art by Jim Graham and Ravyn Schmidt, Design by Jim Graham

Card Backs (That'd be a hamster skull and crossbones):

card1.JPG

Hodge Podge of cards:

card2.JPG

Rams:

card3.JPG

Crows:

card4.JPG

Tomes:

card5.JPG

Masks:

card6.JPG

Scheme Deck (2012)

Cards manufactured by Superior POD, Art by Jim Graham and Ravyn Schmidt, Design by Jim Graham

IMG_6074.JPG

IMG_6076.JPG

2012 Fate Deck

Cards manufactured by Customized Playing Cards, Art by Nathan Lough and Jim Graham, Design by Jim Graham

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facecardsneak.png

back3.png

tome1.png

mask1.png

crow1.png

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Here’s the completed 2012 swag, with the 2012 Fate Deck on the left and the scheme deck on the right.

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Preparing the Art

So I should probably start this bit by saying that I’m not a professional designer or artist, so there are likely MUCH easier ways to go about this than I’m about to describe. I’m pretty much entirely self-taught. With that said, my holy trifecta of card design has been MS Paint, Picasa, and Inkscape, with Inkscape being the true workhorse. Inkscape is an open-source vector graphics program which is somewhat akin to Adobe Illustrator. Vector graphics involve the shape of objects being determined by a series of equations, rather than a series of pixels. Thus, you essentially get unlimited resolution with vector graphics programs – you can scale to any size without losing image quality.

Download Inkscape Here

For the 2011 fate deck (and the 2012 scheme deck) I used a series of found clipart images that I modified and manipulated through MS Paint for simple corrections. In cases where I wanted to turn something more grayscale into black and white line art I cranked up the contrast with Picasa and tweaked the odd pixel here and there with MS Paint. Then I imported images into Inkscape and traced the bitmaps into vector images. During vectorization it tends to simplify lots of the lines and actually stylizes things quite nicely (though it takes some practice to get the settings just so). For most of the voodoo dolls I couldn’t find what I wanted so I drew up some sketches, “inked” them with a Sharpie, scanned them, and vectorized them. The skull and crossbones on the card backs and the joker art were drawn up by a local artist and vectorized in Inkscape. The textures and borders were also from clip art textures that were manipulated with the 3 programs.

For the 2012 deck, I asked Nathan Lough, a member of my local wargaming club to draw up some suits and face cards. He designed the suits in Inkscape (using various shapes and the like), and I tweaked them somewhat. Since they were objects in Inkscape, it was easy to lay them out in the card-suit style. For the face cards and jokers, Nathan drew some line art, inked it, and scanned them. I then manipulated them with the trifecta, in some cases asking Nathan to redo some art and combining pieces from different versions. The card backs were cobbled together from a variety of clip-art and self-made sources. The borders were done in Inkscape, and the distressing texture was likewise created by me by vectorizing some photos of distressed surfaces.

The actual formatting of the cards depends entirely on the company you use to manufacture the cards. Most companies have specific format requirements, and typically provide some sort of template to follow. It’s likely a good idea to know what manufacturer you’re using before starting layout and design, as you don’t want to have to re-do all of your work. I’ll describe the different layout requirements with the different manufacturers I’ve used below.

Card Manufacturing

I’ve done a fair bit of research on the various custom card manufacturers out there, and have direct experience with two companies. I’ll try and describe the pros and cons of each of these as accurately as possible. Keep in mind that while the final product might be a 3.5” x 2.5” poker card, the file will usually be 3.625 by 2.65 (to allow for “bleeding”) and the actual “live” print area will be smaller. Again, it’s worth checking into the requirements of a specific manufacturer before you begin.

Most of the card companies out there are set up to produce generic playing cards, with modified backs all sharing a common artwork. That’s not what we’re after – we want what are referred to as “custom faces and custom backs”.

Also, you want to be certain to plan enough time before your event for manufacturing. For me, I aim for submitting the card order 2 months prior to the event; that way there is time to correct any possible problems with the first run of printing, and time to relax and celebrate if there are no problems!

Customized Playing Cards

http://www.customizedplayingcards.com/index.html

Used For: 2011 Fate Deck, 2012 Fate Deck

Order Process: They don’t list prices and the like on the web, but are very forthcoming with quotes if you ask. When you contact them, let them know that you’re interested in cards with custom faces and custom backs. They respond readily by e-mail throughout the entire process, are very open in answering questions and the like. Once you submit the files (see below), they do the final formatting/layout of the cards for printing. They do prefer being paid in check, and offer a discount for doing so (I believe the quoted prices they send you assume you’re paying by check). This doesn’t slow the process down, however, as you give them a credit card number to beging production, and can send the check along later.

File Format: They accept a wide variety of formats, and want a separate file for each card face and one file for the card backs (unless you’re using different card backs). They then take your files and do the file layout and formatting of the print files. Part of what you’re paying for, therefore, is for another human being with expertise in their specific card making process to handle and check your cards. My first run using CPC involved lots of dialogue back and forth between myself and the company trying to figure out what format to save in from Inkscape. They were infinitely patient and responsive in the face of my ineptitude, and we eventually found a format that worked. The second go around was much easier – I exported the files as very high resolution .png files – they imported them into their software and sized them appropriately.

I’ve got to say, them handling the final layout was totally worth it – it relieved my anxiety of not knowing whether I had everything exactly as it should be, and it was great to have a second set of eyes double checking things.

Print Quality: Their print quality is extremely high – very vibrant colors, very black blacks. Everything they printed looked, color-wise, exactly like the files I sent. Top notch.

Card Quality: I’m fairly certain I used their plastic-coated 300 gsm stock for both decks (though it may have been 310 gsm for the 2011 deck). They also offer linen-textured cards that look GORGEOUS, but they can’t guarantee their print quality for small (less than 500 decks) runs.

The card quality is simply outstanding. I have a deck that I’ve used for over a year, and it’s held up very well. It shows no signs of giving up. I bridge when I shuffle, so my cards get abused pretty well. The plastic coating makes for a durable deck that stands up well to abuse.

Price: Price varies based on the number of decks you order, the card stock you use, etc. For the quantity I ordered with the 2011 deck (around 35), it cost a bit more than $9 a deck. For the amount I ordered for the 2012 deck it cost a bit more than $5 a deck.

Customer Service: Outstanding. They respond very quickly to e-mails, and are quite helpful. When I made the 2011 deck, some of the decks had misprinted cards, areas where the coloring was faded and where some sort of dust trapped under the plastic coating. I contacted them about it, sent them some photos of the affected cards. They apologized profusely, looked into what had caused the problems, and promptly re-printed and replaced the entire order. Not just the affected decks, THE ENTIRE ORDER. Suffice to say, the other decks I received were perfect, as were the decks from 2012. Again, friendly, courteous, and professional.

Superior POD

http://www.superiorpod.com/category

Used For: Scheme Deck

Order Process: They list prices on the web, everything is laid out quite neatly. Note that I ordered from their old website, though it looks like they’ve changed things up since then. They have a server to which you upload your files, they send you a digital proof, and then update your status to let you know where in the process your order is. At least, they presumably update your order status to let you know when things have begun production, etc. As I’ll describe below in customer service, most of my orders from them didn’t involve getting updates. Basically, Superior POD’s system seems to be largely automated (as compared to the very personal handling of CPC).

File Format: They are mainly after flattened pdf files, though they also accept a variety of other file formats. Rather than asking for separate files for each card, Superior POD asks you to lay out the cards on templates and send them as the actual full-sheet files that will be printed. I’ll admit that this made me a bit more paranoid about whether I was getting things right or not, specifically as there were some sizing issues with the template files. I used their online forums to get some information about using the templates, and received a fairly quick response. Eventually, I ended up figuring out how to get the template open in Microsoft Publisher, and created my final files in there (importing the Inkscape cards as high resolution bitmaps).

Print Quality: Their print quality is fair. Being able to compare the 2011 Deck and the Scheme Deck side-by-side is particularly instructive, as the cards use the exact same artwork. The blacks in the Superior POD are not the deep black of the CPC decks, and the colors are much less vibrant (the red was more brownish, etc.). Moreover, the colors weren’t entirely true to the on-monitor colors. The biggest example is the purple background used for the masks in the 2011 fate deck and the neverborn schemes from the scheme deck. The purple from Superior POD initially came out quite blue when I printed a test deck. After that, I ramped up the red in the purple significantly, but it still comes out rather blue. I also had a test 2012 Fate Deck printed from Superior POD, and again found that the colors were a bit off.

Card Quality: Superior POD does not offer the veriety of card weights and finishes that CPC does, but I’m pretty sure that the weight of the Superior POD cards are in the 280 to 300 gsm range. These cards are definitely not plastic coated. I can’t speak towards how well they hold up over repeated shufflings and play over time. My initial impression was that they would hold up less well, which is why I chose to do the Scheme cards with them (as they don’t get shuffled, just used as references).

Price: Prices are on the web and very by the number of decks ordered. Prices start under $5 for a 54-card poker deck, and drop down to $4.14 per deck for 100. Looking at their updated prices, it looks like their discount now continues the higher you go, and that they now charge extra for shrink-wrapping the decks (which wasn’t the case before).

Customer Service: I’ll admit that I had some problems here. When I first ordered from them I ordered a test deck of the scheme deck and a test deck of the 2012 fate deck. I did this in part because I was nervous about having to do the final layout myself, in part because the price was such that it was affordable to do so, and in part because the artwork wasn’t yet finished for the fate deck, and I wanted to see how they were coming along. The automated system kept me apprised of the order status, and I received the cards several weeks later. When I received them, 6 of the fate cards were misprinted – it looked like there was a smear of some sort on the face of 3 and on the back of a different 3. I immediately took photos and sent a description of the problem to Superior POD. After some time, I received a reply that they were looking into it. I eventually received 3 of the cards. I responded indicating that I had only received half of the misprinted cards, but received no reply. During that time I placed an order for the scheme decks (the fate deck artwork was not yet complete). After a week, my order had not been scheduled for printing so I sent several inquiries, but received no response. Finally, given the time constraints I had in place, and given my order was not yet listed as being in the production queue, I called them to cancel my order. My call was greeted with an automated system with a variety of choices, all of which put me on hold. I waited on hold for approximately 30 minutes to no avail, so I sent e-mails. Eventually, I settled on the direct approach and put a stop payment order into paypal (who I had used to pay for the cards). This got an immediate response. The dialogue went on for a while; Superior POD refused to cancel the order because they had already begun production (despite their on-line tracker saying otherwise) and they were “out money”. Long story short, I eventually got the cards I needed, but the process was quite a hassle. I also eventually got the remaining 3 misprinted cards from the test Fate Deck.

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Comparison: In my mind’s eye, there’s really no comparing the two companies. For my purposes, I’ll continue using Customized Playing Cards in the future, and will not use Superior POD again. For others, if you are producing cards in significant quantities to make it worthwhile, the card quality and service you get from Customized Playing Cards is definitely worth it. However, if you’re doing a very small production run, then CPC is not likely an option. Superior POD is attractive due to the lower price and small print runs, but I’d recommend planning additional time if you go that route, because problems may take longer to correct. I also recommend, should you choose to use Superior POD, that you pay with a credit card and not Paypal funds, as that provides more consumer protection should things go awry.

Conclusion

All things considered, producing custom cards is very time-consuming, but very satisfying. I hope it’s a trend that others pick up, as I think there’s some pretty creative things that can be done with cards. Also, if you produce cards of your own, please share them with the community by offering some for sale (which can also help make everything cheaper by funding larger print runs). I know I’d love the chance to get my hands on what our community produces! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

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Excellent article. It all looks great, but you knocked the 2012 deck out of the park. It's all very easy to read while keeping a strictly Malifaux style, and the face cards are killer.

I'll try my best to make it out next year. If you have any decks left, please let me know and maybe we can work something out.

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I have actually been looking into creating custom card decks in general, not just for this game but because I think it would be a hoot. I found a place that will print custom decks for nearly any size and shape of cards you can come up with, including tarot sized cards. So now I am working on the art for a custom deck.

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I found a place that will print custom decks for nearly any size and shape of cards you can come up with, including tarot sized cards.

I hope you post details! What's the place? How's the quality of the cards? What's it like working with them?

From what I've seen, both of the manufacturers I listed can do various sizes, tarot sizes, etc.

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I've got the 2012 deck and I can attest to both its beauty and functionality.

Its far easier to read from across the table than other alternate decks I've seen. I bridge when I shuffle as well and the cards feel "right" in the hand (if ya know what I'm sayin).

The art is fantastic and really captures the feel of the genre and Malifaux in general. Especially the backs.

One thing you may have missed at a quick glance is that all the face's have the standard playing card suits buried into the Malifaux art so they can be used as a standard poker deck as well (with some close looking)

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  • 7 months later...

how do they compare to bicycle cards and the like? ive been wanting a deck that is legit cards... wyrd cards are either too papery like the faction decks, or too thin and slippery like the puppet and old school style decks...

it makes it very hard to do card tricks and flourishes... been wanting to get a legit deck made and am curious on the comparison?

thanks... great stuff by the way.

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hh. Never thought about the card trick angle. Superior POD cards definitely fall more into the "papery" class of things. The CPC cards are plastic-coated, so they definitely don't feel papery. However, I've only used the heavier stock of paper, which makes them more durable, but a bit more stiff. Not too stiff to shuffle and bridge well, but perhaps stiffer than ideal for some tricks. You can deal off the bottom of the deck, force cards, and do top retention cuts, but I think they'd be too stiff to do the thingee (not sure what it's called) where you have the cards palmed (not the right word) on the back of your hand, display an empty hand, and then make the card appear from thin air. You'd need a thinner card for that to work well. I agree re: the puppet and old school style decks. Maybe I'm a card-playing curmudgeon, but I don't care for the feel of the all-plastic decks in the hand.

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  • 2 weeks later...
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