by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
A Flooded Market?
It's no secret that there are a lot of decks of custom playing cards on the market right now. We are living in an unprecedented time, with an embarrassment of riches as far as playing cards is concerned. The choice is massive, and when you're buying a quality deck of playing cards, there are far more options to choose from than traditional staples like Bicycle, Bee, or Tally Ho. Today you can purchase from a wide range of hundreds, if not thousands, of different decks of high quality playing cards.
As proof of this, you only need to head to Kickstarter, where you're almost certain to discover yet another deck of custom playing cards that is up for funding. As further evidence, just look at the tremendous variety available here on PlayingCardDecks to get an indication of the many diverse decks you can choose from!
Improved technology and the arrival of crowdfunding are two big factors that have contributed to a thriving industry of custom playing cards. Until recently, producing a deck of playing cards with any kind of quality was reserved for the elite who had access to good artists and designers, quality printing processes, and had the finances needed to make all this become a reality. Today, that has all changed. Kickstarter launched in 2009, and after a couple of years of growth and maturing, it soon became the platform of choice for the little guy to achieve his dreams. Suddenly it became possible for the unheralded designer to create an original design, get the financial backing from playing card enthusiasts around the world, and then share his work digitally with printing companies in the US or Taiwan, who would turn the project into an actual deck of quality custom playing cards.
This process has been accelerated by the simultaneous rise of cardistry as an exciting and growing art-form, thus creating an even greater demand and audience for custom playing cards. A further catalyst is the ever-present collector, who just loves the novelty, artwork, or design of these unique decks of playing cards, and is happy to spend money on yet another beautiful and stylish deck to add to his growing collection.
This wonderful state of affairs means that we have an amazing range of high quality playing cards to choose from. But is that really a good thing? Can this growing custom playing card industry really support itself, or is this development unsustainable, and will it produce a flooded market that chokes on its own success?
Certainly there is no doubt that the present state of affairs is different even than what it was just half a dozen years ago. We all know that the internet has changed the way that traditional business works, but crowdfunding in particular has had a massive impact on the playing card market. Publishers had to reinvent the way they that do business, and the way that they do marketing. But more importantly, new designers have entered the playing field, because now technology and crowdfunding have given them the means to produce decks that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. And there's an ever growing audience of consumers, cardists, and collectors, waiting to throw money at anything that looks good.
But this also makes everything far more competitive. The first decks of custom playing cards that appeared on Kickstarter in its first years attracted enormous attention, popularity, and success - and often this equated to enormous amounts of money. It was not uncommon for good decks of playing cards to be funded with the support of amounts in excess of $100,000. Quite frankly, when one looks at those decks now, it is hard to imagine those projects having the same level of success in today's more competitive environment. The market is far more crowded, and the quality of playing card designs has continued to improve, so that even some of the successful projects of those early Kickstarter years pale beside what is being produced today. The challenge for designers today is to figure out how they can stand out in this crowded field. Sometimes it even happens that a deserving project struggles or fails to get funded, because it doesn't attract the attention it deserves, and so it sadly disappears in the cracks of obscurity amidst all the noise and among all the other products competing for attention.
Good or Bad?
Could this new landscape for custom playing cards, with what almost appears to be a glut, perhaps be a bad thing? The outside observer that is unfamiliar with the custom playing card industry might wonder what all the fuss is about, and be quick to conclude that the massive amount of custom playing cards is reaching the heights of absurdity, and that this apparent embarrassment of riches cannot last.
However, I would suggest that the vast number of different decks is not a harbinger of the collapse of the custom playing card industry, but rather an indication that it is thriving, and that the future looks very healthy and positive! Here are half a dozen reasons why the growing number of custom decks is a very positive development and one that both producers and consumers in the industry should welcome!
1. These decks are actually being used
Sure, there are some collectors who might never open the shrink-wrap or actually touch the cards inside - perish the thought! But for the most part, these new decks of custom playing cards are being snapped up by magicians who are using them for card magic, and by cardists who are using them for card flourishing. Not only do magicians and cardists get excited by something new, but they also wear out the old. Playing cards are a consumable product, and they do wear out. That's especially true of a deck in the hands of an enthusiastic cardist, who will give a deck of playing cards an incredibly intense workout, to the point that sometimes in a matter of a few days they are already reaching for another deck. Even the collector will want to keep adding newness to his collection, as new designs appear on the market. So even as people keep buying new decks, the demand doesn't go away, since they are actually using the decks they acquire, and need to replace them or add to them.
2. These decks give opportunity to personalize
Especially since both card magic and cardistry are performing arts, there is a very personal element about a performance. It's natural for performers to want to make their acts stand out as unique, and also to use props that fit with their persona and style. It's only a natural step for this to apply to playing cards as well. We all like something that has a pattern, style, and colours, that suits our own personality. In that regard the growing range of playing cards is welcome, because it means we have a larger range of accessories to choose from, to suit our personal style and needs. What's more, as our needs and moods change, we can choose a different deck. Much like a woman might choose a different set of earrings and handbag to suit the occasion, so playing cards are the perfect customizable accessory for the magician and cardist. Even for someone who enjoys playing card games, a unique deck adds that extra bit of personality to the table.
3. Competition promotes higher quality
There's no doubt that there is a significantly higher level of competition nowadays, and that it is harder to fund a deck of custom playing cards successfully today than in the past. But while this can involve disappointments at times for creators, it is very good for the consumer. Because it means that for a project to make the grade, it has to be good. Very good. Merely "average" won't cut it anymore, and the formula of "same old, same old" won't lead to success. As a result, this forces designers to really stretch themselves; it means that they cannot sit on their laurels or be satisfied with the mediocre, because then they won't succeed. They absolutely need to produce their best, and that's exactly what we're seeing. By and large, the decks we are seeing today are better than those created 10 years ago, and some of the mistakes and weaknesses of older designs simply won't be accepted today. Even the playing cards themselves are printed with very high standards, with an embossed air-cushion finish that handles and performs smoothly being a required and expected minimum. For the consumer, all this makes crowdfunding a gatekeeper of sorts, and while it isn't an infallible guarantee of quality, there is generally a positive correlation between success and quality.
4. Competition promotes greater creativity
In order to stand out from the crowd, creators also need to resort to new methods and techniques. It's not enough to create a slight variation on a previous success. This forces creators, designers, and publishers, to be willing to experiment with new processes and styles. I believe that as a result, we are seeing playing cards today that are unparalleled in quality. Obvious examples of this would be the levels of innovation in tuck box design, which typically display the very highest levels of sophistication and class, with the help of rich embossing, touches of foil in gold, silver, and other colors, and make a supreme statement of luxury. This innovation also extends to the playing cards themselves. We are increasingly seeing things like the use of metallic inks, foil backs, and the use of specialized processes like UV spot printing to produce cards unlike anything ever seen before. An extreme example of this would be some of the custom decks produced by Greek designer Lotrek, who has produced some remarkable and highly collectable cards that are printed entirely with foil!
5. Crowdfunding enables creators to obtain consumers
One of the remarkable things about crowdfunding is that it opens up the market. Before the age of the internet, the only way to buy a custom deck of playing cards was to visit a local store, and typically that meant your options were very limited. There was certainly no way for me to know about some designer in Italy who was producing an amazing deck of cards that I would surely buy if only I knew about it. The crowdfunding era means that not only I can find out that this fantastic deck from Italy exists, but I can support its designer in producing it by buying it, simply with the click of a mouse from the other side of the world. The creators and consumers were always there, but given that the custom playing card market is a very niche genre, it was very difficult for creators and consumers to connect. That has all changed, and so a demand that was always there now can finally be met, and this is good both for the creators and the consumers. The creators now can connect with a worldwide market of buyers, while the consumers can now connect with creators and have access to a range of products they didn't know existed. The result is good for both parties, and ensures a thriving industry.
6. Crowdfunding enables consumers to influence creators
Another unique thing about crowdfunding is the way that supporters of a product can be involved in the creation process. As a project travels from launch to fulfillment, there is ample opportunity for their input and comment. While this does give opportunity for the internet troll to sometimes enter the conversation, for the most part this is a wonderful opportunity for backers to have a say in what the final product looks like, and even make a positive contribution as it shapes up. Designers and producers can only benefit from hearing what consumers think, and allowing them to engage in the design process, and this gives creators the rare and welcome opportunity to actually improve a product before it is produced and brought to market. That is a wonderful state of affairs that is only going to benefit everyone involved, will inevitably lead to better products, and again promotes a healthy and thriving custom playing card industry.
Certainly there are always going to be examples of disappointed designers who haven't been able to be successful in today's increasingly crowded market, and of disappointed consumers who are frustrated with a project that didn't turn out how they had hoped. But overall the state of affairs we find ourselves in today with the apparent "glut" of custom playing cards is a very happy one. We are seeing unparalleled innovation, creativity, and quality, and unparalleled opportunities for designers and consumers to connect in a way that benefits both.
More custom playing cards a bad thing? I don't think so. Playing cards are only getting better and better, so designers and publishers, keep them coming! We love what you are doing, and we're not going to stop buying any time soon!
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known reviewer of board games and playing cards.
He loves card games, card magic, and card collecting. You can see a complete list of his playing card reviews here.