Usually a lot of the focus in the playing card industry is on big name playing card manufacturers like United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), Belgian manufacturer Cartamundi, and to lesser extent Taiwan-based manufacturers like Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC). While these manufacturers hold a dominant position in the market, there are some lesser known manufacturers that also make important contributions from time to time. You might not immediately recognize their names, but it is worth knowing something about them, so that you have some idea of what to expect from the playing cards they produce, since crowdfunded projects and designers will sometimes use these smaller players to produce their playing cards.
One of these lesser-known manufacturers of playing cards is European company Noir Arts. The company was officially formed in 2014, but has a history going back much further. Already since 2005, the people involved with Noir Arts have been producing beautiful souvenir-type playing cards for the local Ukrainian market. In 2014 they expanded operations to begin producing playing cards for the worldwide community. They kicked off by producing some of their own deck designs, and soon began cooperating with talented independent artists and design studios worldwide. Today they work with designers from all over the globe, and wherever they see talent that fits with their style. The main driving force behind Noir Arts is Roman Kotiv, who has a long time love for collecting playing cards. This inspired him to venture into playing card production, and he's now producing a steady stream of quality playing cards, with the help of several partners, along with over a dozen factory workers.
So what defines the signature Noir Arts style? Even though the portfolio of custom playing cards that they have produced under their own brand represents diverse styles, their focus is very much on decks that are artistic. They describe their vision as follows: "We strive to create each deck eye-catching, combining various features and styles, experimenting with new materials and techniques." Noir is French for black, and so quite a number of their decks have darker themes, and are populated with images that include skulls and themes from the macabre.
But Noir Arts not only produces an impressive range of playing cards under their own label, they also run a printing and fulfilment service under their original name Noir Playing Card Company (NPCC). This continues their long tradition of producing budget priced playing cards for the Ukrainian market with bridge-sized souvenir type decks that will primarily be of local interest only. But they also help create and print custom decks for other designers and creators, including crowd-funded projects. To facilitate this, a division within NPCC focuses on printing premium quality playing cards for the global market.
So what can you expect from an NPCC produced deck? First let's showcase some of the custom playing cards Noir Arts has produced under their own label. These Noir Arts branded decks will give you a sense of the artistic style that is evident in their extensive portfolio.
Carnaval De Muertos deckThe twin decks of Carnaval De Muertos Playing Cards (2017) are a fine example of the playful Noir Arts style, with a burgundy/yellow-themed Marigold deck, paired with a matching white-green Alheli deck.
These playing cards take the Mexican Day of the Dead as their theme, which is a holiday tradition that celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties,. Typically this involves celebrations with street parties, parades, and vibrant clothes and festivities. Skeletons and skulls are common symbols associated with this event, but these are depicted in a playful and colourful way, like the lively court cards from the Marigold deck shown here.
The card backs continue the energetic approach, with an intricately patterned design that has vibrant and expressive colours. These playing cards take a light-hearted and playful look at what would normally be considered macabre subject matter, and are a good fit for the Noir Arts brand.
Indictus deckThe Indictus Playing Cards (2015) represents a darker themed deck, and is considered to be in the "dark art" genre. It is the first part of a set of decks entitled "Light Versus Darkness", and was created by Danish artist Nicolai Aaroe, who has produced several decks for Noir Arts.
The most noteworthy feature of these decks, in my opinion, are the tuck boxes. These are designed to look like ancient books that have been handed down right from the Middle Ages. The tuck box appears to have actual dusty brown covers, with an antique, weathered, and worn look, decorated with fine embossing and lovely gold borders. For added impact, it has full interior printing as well.
This deck was inspired in part by Shakespeare's Macbeth, and has the goal of illustrating the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek to gain power through activities related to the underworld and dark faith. The themes of deception, ethical treachery and shadowy immoral shortcuts flow throughout the artwork on the face cards, and unsurprisingly we have some macabre elements and darker overtones, including some skulls.
Chernobyl Memorial deckAs far as tuck boxes go, my favourite Noir Arts decks are the Chernobyl Memorial Playing Cards (2015). This was created to commemorate those affected by the devastating nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, and marks the 30th anniversary of this tragedy.
The court cards in both decks feature full colour and actual photographs of locations from the Zone, e.g. the swimming pool, hospital and power plant control room. These unusual decks do an excellent job of capturing and evoking a sober and serious theme, and will especially be appreciated by collectors.
Two editions were produced, but I'm especially partial to the stunning tuck box of the Limited edition shown below. Two types of foil help simulate the illusion that parts of the box have been subject to heavy rust-like corrosion. It's only when you touch the box with your finger that you realize that the impressive visuals are simply a convincing illusion created by incredible artwork and clever design!
The Premium edition also has a tuck box with full interior art, but cleverly gives the visual impression of an abandoned building, where paint is peeling off the ceilings and walls.
More dark art decksThe creator of Indictus, Nicolae Aaroe, also was the artist behind the Dominus Playing Cards (2016), which also has dark themes and a similar style. Like the Indictus decks, the highlight here is easily the tuck box, which has very lavish and detailed design that is gushing with gold foil and an elegant look. This looks especially exotic against the background of a gorgeous and soft matte charcoal in the black deck.
Just as exquisite are the tuck boxes from the Memento Mori Playing Cards (2016). The name of this deck is derived from the Latin expression meaning remember that you have to die, and indicates a contemplation about mortality and the transient nature of human life and pursuits. With artwork by Moritz Schaaf, the two decks in this set are called Carpe Diem and Vanitas. Both have richly ornamented tuck boxes that feature extensive use of embossing and foils. An oversized and heavily customized seal adds an additional touch of glamour.
The cards of these decks offer glimpses of red for the pips of the Hearts and Diamonds, but are otherwise done entirely in black and white, to emphasize the dark art genre. All the artwork is heavily stylized, and incorporates thematic elements typical of the genre.
Other custom decksThe above decks are only a small sample of the custom decks that have been produced under the Noir Arts label, because they've been involved in a large number of other projects as well. All of these playing cards are produced with a higher standard of quality than the locally branded souvenir decks that NPCC makes for the Ukrainian market. Those are typically bridge sized, have smooth stock without embossing, and won't handle or last like a premium deck of cards. In contrast to these budget souvenir decks, Noir Arts focuses on providing high quality poker sized playing cards for creators and designers looking to get their crowd-funded or personal projects printed.
As part of this, NPCC offers a fulfilment and printing service for creators of custom playing cards, and they provide an alternative to more well-known printing companies. They advertise themselves as providing an "all-in-one solution from design to final product". As such they offer a similar service to that of larger companies like USPCC, LPCC/EPCC, and Cartamundi, with the goal of helping artists and graphic designers to bring their projects to print, as well as taking care of the fulfilment side of things, including packaging and delivery. All the usual possibilities are available, including glamour options like custom seals, embossing, foil, and metallic inks, as well as accessories popular with crowd-funded projects, like boxes, metal coins, poker chips, and more. So how do they measure up?
ImpressionsUnique style: Many of Noir Arts own decks of playing cards have a unique art-style that you won't find in many other places. They have produced some stunning decks of their own, using the artistic talents of international creators. The dark art style of some of their decks won't please everybody, but there's no denying that it is creative in its own way. Because Noir Arts is based in Europe, many of their decks have a European feel about them, which further helps them stand out from a lot of American-produced decks. Noir Arts branded decks have a refreshing and appealing style. A range of different artists around the world are behind these decks, and particularly Nicolai Aaroe from Denmark is a big contributor.
Tuck boxes: What has impressed me the most about Noir Arts are their remarkable tuck boxes. They often make significant use of foil and embossing, but without being pure bling. These are stylish and well-crafted, and easily among some of the nicest tuck boxes I have ever seen. They are finished beautifully with heavily customized seals, which are often oversized and feature unique shapes and styles that fit with the themes of the decks. Many tuck boxes also feature full interior printing, sometimes with luxurious foil. Whatever you think about NPCC, they certainly do make killer tuck boxes, and these make an immediate statement of luxury and quality that often exceeds that of some of their bigger name competitors.
Improvement: An important question for consumers in the custom playing card industry will be what the Noir Arts cards are like. Certainly NPCC isn't an industry leader alongside bigger names like USPCC, or even Taiwanese printers like LPCC/EPCC. This is in part due to the fact that their earlier decks didn't have embossed card-stock, and tended to be a bit clumpy, not fanning or spreading evenly. Fortunately there has been real improvement in this area. In the last 2-3 years, their playing cards have been of a much higher quality than their early efforts.
Card stock: For their poker decks, Noir Arts uses German black-core linen 310gsm card-stock, which is also the top pick used by Make Playing Cards, and is a decent quality paper card-stock. Collectors, cardists, and players will know how important it is to have good embossing and coating on your cards, to make sure that they handle smoothly and prove durable. One noticeable positive about NPCC produced decks is that the printing registration seems consistently even. With USPCC decks, misaligned cards is a notorious issue, and is chiefly noticeable when thin borders are used, but I've not seen anything like this with NPCC decks. Quite a number of their own branded decks also use metallic inks, to add to the visual appeal. Overall the card quality seems decent.
Card handling: The edges of the cards feel super smooth, and at first give the impression of being laser cut. But they do have some bevels, because you can do a faro shuffle without too much difficulty, especially when the cards are worn in a little, although it's not as slick as with cards from bigger publishers. Experienced card flourishers will immediately notice that the cards have a different feel and response, since NPCC cards have a real snap and spring, and feel quite firm and slightly stiff. They do have an air cushion style embossed finish, but like the Taiwan-produced decks, the cards do have a tendency to cling together somewhat. While this makes them ideal for cuts, they won't always perform consistently in spreads and fans. The handling tends to deteriorate somewhat over time, and they aren't best suited for card flourishing or card magic, where consistency is essential. They do seem to be reasonably durable, but with heavy use you can expect to see some clumping.
While NPCC decks aren't the best choice for cardistry or card magic, they will certainly outperform your typical souvenir deck, and are quite fine for playing card games with. If you are getting an NPCC-produced decks primarily as a collector, and because you like the tuck box, you aren't likely to be disappointed. Magicians and card flourishers, however, will likely find them inadequate due to inferior performance. But if you enjoy artistic cards, or appreciate superlative tuck boxes, then you shouldn't pass something up just because it has the Noir Arts name as the publisher.
NPCC would not be my first choice to produce a deck designed with card flourishing or card magic in mind, given the exacting standards these arts require. But for a creative or artistic deck designed to be used for playing card games or for collectors, the quality is more than acceptable. Some of their tuck boxes are second to none, and works of art in themselves!
Where to get them? You'll find a selected range of NPCC-produced decks on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.