Many new collectors of playing cards ask: Where should I start? Old-timers will often give advice along these lines: "Don't just buy every deck you can. Think carefully about what you like. Consider collecting decks that have a common theme or focus." That's good advice!
With literally thousands of different decks on the market, and more arriving all the time, the good news is that there's a huge range of subjects of interests to choose from. So you might decide to collect decks that are about animals. Or playing cards that depict countries and cultures. Or you might focus on fantasy themes, or perhaps music or history. If there's a subject of interest that you enjoy, you can almost certainly count on someone having made a deck of playing cards devoted to it. Because custom playing cards are a form of art, like all art they mirror life, and they tell us something about the things we love and enjoy.
I've always enjoyed fiction and literature, and so one of the categories of decks that I personally collect and love are playing cards that are tributes to famous books. Many creators who share this love will go to great lengths to make a deck of playing cards that is a fine homage to the literary works that they are about. In some case - and these are among my favourites - the tuck boxes are cleverly designed to look like miniature books themselves, with the two sides of the box rendered to look like the spine and pages of a book respectively.
So let's take a look at some of the custom decks that are tributes to literature. These all are in my personal collection, so I'm familiar with them and can share something from my first-hand experience with them. Some of them are now out of print and only available on the secondary market, but this article will give you a taste of some of the wonderful playing cards out there, and increase your appreciation for the creative work of playing card designers. Perhaps it will whet your appetite for building your own collection by adding lovely decks like these!
The 12 Tasks of Hercules (600 B.C.)
We will start our literary tour with some mythology. Ancient Greek myths have been passed on to us via the historians and writers of the ancient world. Many of these are familiar to us from the stories we have heard in our childhood, and so some of the leading characters and figures will not be unknown to most of us, especially the name of Hercules. With illustrations and designs by Blackout Brother, the Hercules deck is a tribute to this legendary hero. Hercules is depicted on the box cover, and this deck tells the famous story of his twelve tasks.
The tuck box has a somewhat subdued look, with red, white, and ivory used against a jet black background. But when you open the box, full interior printing (with a delicate pattern in ivory and black) makes an immediate statement of quality.
Our hero Hercules is famous for his adventures, and the designs in this deck are especially inspired by the tales surrounding his twelve tasks. According to literary sources from the ancient world, after the death of his wife and children, Hercules asked the god Apollo for guidance, and was commissioned by the famous Delphic oracle to perform a dozen difficult feats or tasks. Each of the dozen court cards in the deck depicts something that is at the heart of one of the dozen labours he had to carry out.
These are listed variously in different places, but a common traditional listing of what these were is this one, which is followed by the deck:
1. Slay the Nemean lion
2. Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
3. Capture the Ceryneian Hind
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar
5. Clean the Augean stables in a single day
6. Slay the Stymphalian birds
7. Capture the Cretan Bull
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes
9. Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta
10. Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon
11. Steal the apples of the Hesperides
12. Capture and bring back Cerberus
To say it is a work of art doesn't seem to do justice to the stunning beauty on display on every card! Red touches on the diamonds and hearts ensures that the suits are easily distinguished. The mythical creatures and events illustrated on the cards have an energetic quality that makes them appear as if they are leaping out from the playing cards. Both Jokers also feature our hero Hercules himself.
But it's not just the court cards that look classy, because each number card adopts a similar graphic design of elegance and detail. The indices on all the cards are set in a white rectangular panel and touched with gold edges, while ornately designed pips are set inside intricate oval-shaped banners.
Each card even incorporates capitalized text in small letters to indicate which of the dozen tasks it represents, with the Kings, Queens and Jacks being the following:
● Spades: Nemean Lion, Learnaean Hydra, Ceryneian Hind
● Clubs: Erymanthian Boar, Augean Stables, Stymphalian Birds
● Hearts: Cretan Bull, Mares of Diomedes, Belt of Hippolyta
● Diamonds: Cattle of Geryon, Golden Apples of Hesperides, Cerberus
A Hercules (Limited Edition) deck was also created, which uses a different colour scheme, and each with an individually numbered seal. The tuck box has the same design but is now set on a blue background, and is laced with red, silver and gold foil, for an even more dramatic and luxurious look.
This lavish look extends to the inside of the tuck box, with full interior printing in an impressive and shiny red foil. Another change with the limited edition is with cards themselves, which now have white faces and borders, both on the front and back.
Romeo & Juliet (1595)
We now move forward in history rapidly to the late 16th century, where we come face to face with one of the most famous names of all time in literature: the great bard Shakespeare. While much of his work was designed to be performed in the theater, as a poet and playwright his literary contributions all begin with the written word. Inspired by Shakespeare's famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet and from LUX Playing Cards is the Montague vs Capulet: Romeo & Juliet deck.
Right from the moment you hold the tuck box in your hand, you are confronted with elegance and a look of class, with ornate designs. Intricate patterns adorn both the tuck box and the back of the cards as well, which use metallic ink.
The artwork represents a new and original attempt to capture the characters that populate this well-known Shakespearean play. For the court cards and Aces, each suit has a unique theme and set of characters that fits together, both thematically and artistically:
● Hearts: Romeo, Juliet, Shakespeare
● Diamonds: Lord Montague, Lady Montague, Mercutio
● Clubs: Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Tybalt
● Spades: Friar Lawrence, Capulet's Nurse, Apothecary
The central characters are of course the lovers Romeo and Juliet, who were an obvious choice for the King and Queen of Hearts. They are pictured just before their final demise, Juliet with a dagger and Romeo with poison. The King of Hearts is famously known as the "Suicide King", which makes a good and natural fit for Romeo given the storyline of the play.
The playwright himself makes a cameo appearance as the Jack of Hearts, while framed inside the Ace of Hearts is the love-struck pair themselves. The court cards for both the Hearts and Diamonds suits represent the Montagues, and these are all clothed in red. Besides Lord and Lady Montague, there's also Romeo's best friend Mercutio in this group.
In contrast the Spades and Clubs picture the Capulets, who are clothed in the constrasting colour of dark green, with Lord Capulet (King of Clubs) and Lady Capulet (Queen of Clubs) being leading figures. Surrounding characters that are also depicted include the Apothecary, Capulet's nurse, and Friar Lawrence. The Jokers make up a diptych that pictures the scene of Romeo entering the Capulet tomb where Juliet rests.
I especially appreciate the small details that have been incorporated to try to make this deck capture something unique and special, especially how the two feuding families are opposite colours and suits, and face in opposite directions.
The artwork is by Belgian artist Virginie Carquin, who started her career with traditional painting, and later transitioned to digital painting. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the making of this deck, with fine artwork, metallic ink, and an elegant look that does justice to the classic subject material.
Don Quixote (1605)
Just a decade or two later comes Don Quixote (1605-1615), which was originally written in Spanish during the Spanish Golden Age. The Don Quixote decks were created as a homage to the famous book from Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes. Published in the early 1600s, the full title was "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha", and this influential book is often considered to be the first modern novel. This deck was designed and custom-illustrated by Nam Tibon, from design studio Cellar Window, and was released to mark the 400th anniversary of Cervantes' death.
The playing cards illustrate the characters of the novel and gives a glimpse of their lives. Two decks were created, and shown here is the Don edition, which corresponds to characters that Don Quixote meets during his travels as a medieval knight searching for chivalrous adventures through Spain in the first volume of the novel. A companion deck was entitled Hidalgo edition.
The spectacular tuck box features a copper style foil, and the back of the box is particularly stunning and impressive. I especially love the effect of the matt black used on the front, with the foil lettering, which creates a very elegant and stylish look.
The card backs feature Sancho and the Don, while all the card faces in the deck are black, with beige coloured illustrations. Using just two colours, just beige and black, results in a very elegant and artistic feel.
Each court card represents a central character from the book, and in making their artwork for these characters, the design team researched books and old etchings of the characters.
Here's a complete list of characters depicted on the court cards (in order of King, Queen and Jack):
● Spades: Don Quixote, Dulcinea Del Toboso, Sancho Panza
● Diamonds: Don Fernando, Dorotea, Anselmo
● Clubs: Ruy Perez De Viedma, Zoraida, Don Luis
● Hearts: Cardenio, Luscinda, Lothario
● Joker: Marcela
There are also custom court cards, Aces, Jokers, and a custom pip layout. The level of detail on all the cards is fitting, given the enduring reputation of a novel that has stood the test of time.
While the Dom deck has a white tuck box with black cards, the matching Hidalgo deck has a reversed colour scheme of black tuck box and white cards.
Grimms' Fairy Tales (1812)
Danish artist Nicolai Aaroe specializes in artistic decks, making him an ideal candidate to create the artwork for the Marchen decks which are a tribute to German fairy tales like those of the Brothers Grimm, a collection they first published in 1812.
These short stories typically feature characters from folklore like fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, dwarves, giants or gnomes, and there are often magical elements to the story-line. THe central charactrs are usually clever children and evil kings, along with mysterious maidens and vengeful monsters. The two deck set consists of the Schwarzwald Edition and the Hamelin Edition, and has the aim of bringing these heroes and beasts of German story-telling legends to life.
The green Schwarzwald deck represents the wilderness, a shadowy world of magic and wonder, while the cream Hamelin deck represents the town.
The card backs are very practical, with a straight forward design that includes rich detail and colours that match the overall theme of the deck. In the case of the Schwarzwald deck, dark brown has been chosen as the main colour, bringing to mind the mighty forest trees.
The Aces have giant oversized pips, touched with metallic gold ink, which is also used for the number cards.
Each court card represents a different character from German legends, and the name of each character has also been added to the card, making it easier to identify and appreciate. These are (in order of King, Queen and Jack)
● Spades: the Morbach Monster, Weisse Frauen, Hansel & Gretel
● Clubs: King Watzmann, Lorelei, Knecht Ruprecht
● Hearts: Rubezahl, Princess Brunhilde, Pied Piper of Hamelin
● Diamonds: Barbarossa, Perchta, Drude
The Hamelin Edition has a beautiful tuck box like the Schwarzwald edition, but instead of a moss green colour it features a gorgeous cream, to represent something of Germany's castles, towns, and villages. The dark brown of the Schwarzwald card backs has also been replaced with beautiful red and gold colours.
The same court card characters are used as the Schwarzwald deck, but the Hamelin edition adds a red background to give a different look to the cards, and red is used instead of gold for the Diamonds and Hearts.
The Kalevala deck is a tribute to a great work of literature that may be unfamiliar to many of us. First published in 1835, it is national epic of Finland. The name "kalevala" means "land of heroes", and the mythological characters and events of this story had a big impact on Tolkien in the writing of his Lord of the Rings.
The deck was produced by Sunish Chabba of Guru Playing Cards, and he was determined to stay true to the original story as much as possible. In the making of this deck he did much research, and he collaborated with award-winning illustrator Ishan Trivedi.
The cover artwork is a good example of his attention to detail, because the knots and scrollwork depicted here reflect Finnish sword designs from 8th-9th century onwards. Väinämöinen is the central character of the epic, and is typically depicted in Kalevala artwork as holding a sword.
The deck consists of entirely hand-drawn artwork with a simple mono-coloured scheme, which emphasizes the legendary roots of the tale behind the deck. The poem itself covers an enormous spread of time, starting with the Finnish story about the origins of the world, moving through history all the way to the introduction of Christianity.
Featured on the court cards are the following characters from the Kalevala (in order of King, Queen and Jack):
● Spades: Väinämöinen (the main character), Aino (sister of Joukahainen), Joukahainen
● Clubs: Marjatta’s son (King of Karelia), Marjatta (his mother), Sampsa Pellervoinen (god of fertility)
● Diamonds: Seppo Ilmarinen (inventor blacksmith who creates Sampo), Maiden of Pohjola (wife of Ilmarinen and daughter of Louhi), Kullervo (the tragic enslaved youth)
● Hearts: Lemminkäinen, Lemminkainen's Mother, Tiera (friend of Lemminkäinen)
For convenience there's an extra card included with the deck that lists all the character names featured in the artwork. The mural style image shown below incorporates artwork used throughout the deck, and gives some sense of the epic feel.
The card backs have browned edges and are deliberately designed to give the impression of old parchment, in keeping with the legendary feel of the deck. The oversized pips on the Aces also evoke a primative and vintage feel, while the extra large pips on the number cards also strengthen this impression.
The deck has been the subject of accolades from Kalevala fans in Finland. And anyone familiar with the rescue by eagles in Lord of the Rings will be interested to know that Tolkien got this idea from the Kalevala (hence the artwork on the cardbacks which feature this image), and that other elements of Middle Earth were also drawn from Finnish and Nordic myths.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1845)
The Frenchman Alexandre Dumas is a literary giant who has the distinction of having his works translated into almost 100 languages. He's known for his historical novels of high adventure, his two most famous novels being The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-46) and The Three Musketeers (1844). Bona Fide Playing Cards created a lovely set of two companion decks, with a matching style but different colour schemes and artwork, as a loving tribute to these novels.
The Count of Monte Cristo deck is the first of these, and honours the book of the same name, which was originally serialized over the course of around two years.
This novel is a massive work of fiction with many literary themes such as romance, loyalty and betrayal, justice and mercy, revenge and forgiveness. It is set against the historical backdrop of the historical events of 1815–1839 in Western Europe, and the main plot is about a young man named Edmond Dantes (featured as the King of Spades), who is wrongly imprisoned, becomes wealthy after escaping from jail, and undertakes revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment, with far-reaching consequences.
The historical and geographical setting is reflected throughout the deck, including the tuck box, the ornamented card backs, but especially in the court cards and Jokers, which all include details taken from the descriptions found in the book itself. The Aces are also worth scrutinizing closely, and have oversized pips and details drawn from the novel's themes and concepts. There's some wonderful information about the book's setting, plot, and each of the characters on the Bona Fide website here.
The main characters of the novel all make an appearance on the detailed court cards. Characters featured from the novel are the following: (in order of King, Queen, and Jack)
● Spades: Edmond Dantès (The Count of Monte Cristo), Haydée, Abbé Faria
● Hearts: Fernand Mondego (Count de Morcerf), Mercédès Mondego, Albert de Morcerf
● Clubs: Gérard de Villefort, Héloïse de Villefort, Edward de Villefort
● Diamonds: Baron Danglars, Madame Danglars, Benedetto (Prince Cavalcanti)
● Jokers: Bertuccio & Abbé Busoni; Sinbad the Sailor & Luigi Vampa
The background artwork on each of the court cards and Aces incorporates small details that capture symbolic elements of each character's traits.
The number cards have an elegant and court-like look, with the stylish pips and minimalist design inspired by actual playing cards from the 19th century.
This gives them a sense of historical authenticity, while ensuring that they remain very practical for use in playing card games.
The Three Musketeers (1844)
The Three Musketeers deck is the companion deck. This historical adventure novel was written in 1844, but is set in 17th century France and England, and has literary themes that include courage and honour, ambition and treason.
The plot focuses on the youthful d'Artagnan (King of Spades), who heads for Paris to join the Musketeers of the Guards, and gets involved in the affairs of state and court after becoming friends with the three musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.
The card backs have a different design and colour scheme than the Monte Cristo deck, with the red and yellow combination giving a very plush and elegant look.
The historical and geographical setting of The Three Musketeers is reflected not only in the tuck box and card backs, but also in the court cards and Jokers, all of which include elements drawn from descriptions in the novel, particularly the main characters of the book. Once again, some excellent information about the book's setting, plot, and each of the characters featured on the cards can be found on the Bona Fide website here.
In this case the featured characters are: (in order of King, Queen, and Jack)
● Spades: D’Artagnan, Constance Bonacieux, Count de Rochefort (The man from Meung)
● Hearts: Athos (Count de la Fère), Milady de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu
● Clubs: Aramis, Queen Anne of Austria, Duke of Buckingham
● Diamonds: Porthos, The Lover, The executioner of Lille
● Jokers: Planchet & Grimaud; Bazin & Mousqueton.
The number cards adopt a design inspired by 17th century playing cards, to match the time of the novel.
Taken together, this two deck set is a superb and fitting tribute to a wonderful writer and to two wonderful books!
The Wizard of Oz (1900)
Now we move into the twentieth century, where we open up the pages of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This was written by American author L. Frank Baum, and was first published in 1900. It was really the enormous success of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz that has helped cement the place of this story in popular culture. It's an exciting fantasy adventure about the girl Dorothy, who finds herself in a magic land, and must rely on the assistance of her companions in her quest that will bring her to the city of Oz.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the film, two commemorative decks were released, including the Wizard of Oz - Kansas deck shown here.
A companion Wizard of Oz - Oz deck was also produced, and this even comes with a special collectible coin as part of a special limited edition set that has a foil tuck box.
The card backs of the Kansas edition consist of a collage of iconic images from the film.
Appropriately, Dorothy makes an appearance on the Queen of Hearts. Keeping her company among the court cards are her companions the Tinman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion.
Of course it's not just the good guys who deserve a place in our deck, and so there's a full cast of characters both good and bad, including the Wicked Witch of the West, the Good Witch Glinda, a Winged Monkey, three Winkie Guards, and The Wizard of Oz himself. Two unique versions of Toto are featured as the Jokers.
Here's a complete list of the characters on the court cards (in order King, Queen, Jack):
● Spades: Wizard of Oz, Wicked Witch of the West, Winged Monkey
● Clubs: Cowardly Lion, Good Witch of the North, Winkie Guard
● Hearts: Tin Man, Dorothy, Winkie Guard
● Diamonds: Scarecrow, Glinda the Good Witch, Winkie Guard
I'm a big fan of the beautiful number cards, which feature detailed wood panelling, ornate lines, and stylish pips, including a special icon that is used to represent each suit.
A large version of these icons appears on the over-sized and custom Aces, with "Courage" being the badge for the Spades (needed by the Cowardly Lion), a well-timed "Heart" for the Hearts (needed by the Scarecrow), a scholarly "Brain" for the Diamonds (needed by the Tinman), while the Emerald City itself is the badge for the Spades (since the King of Spades features the Wizard of Oz himself).
The Princess Bride (1973)
Most people may be familiar with The Princess Bride from the popular 1987 film. But before it was a film, it was a book by William Goldman, published in 1973. It's a terrific story that is a delightful spoof on the fantasy adventure genre. Whether it's the book or the film, both are full of laughs, loveable characters, and memorable lines.
The Princess Bride - As You Wish deck is a tribute to this classic comedy, and the tuck box artwork will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the movie cover.
The card backs feature an ornate and lush design with gold and maroon, completed by some fencing swords, and the familiar black mask of our hero The Dread Pirate Roberts, aka farm-boy Westley.
All the Aces have over-sized and elaborate artwork.
The court cards all feature characters with artwork inspired by the characters cast in the film (in order King, Queen, Jack):
● Spades: Prince Humperdinck, The Ancient Booer, Count Rugen
● Clubs: Inigo Montoya, Miracle Max's wife, Miracle Max
● Hearts: Westley, Princess Buttercup, Priest
● Diamonds: Vizzini, Princess Buttercup, Fezzik
Naturally the Hearts suit makes an excellent choice for our hero Westley and our heroine Princess Buttercup. And who can forget the loveable Inigo Montoya, who makes an appearance as the King of Clubs, along with his famous line "Prepare to Die!"
Key phrases and lines from the story appear on the court cards for each character to add extra charm and appeal, such as Vizzini's oft-repeated "Inconceivable!", and the giant Fezzik's "Anybody want a peanut?" Perhaps two of my favourite cards are Miracle Max ("He's only mostly dead") and his wife ("I'm not a witch, I'm your wife!"). Even that magical moment of marital union finds a place in the deck, with its memorable opening: "Mawage"!
The number cards are also absolutely exquisite. They have clear indices, and yet feature elaborate custom designs for the pips, and are further ornamented with various fencing swords along the length of the card. This is truly a stunning deck, which shows wonderful attention to detail, and captures some of the magic of a classic love story, with extensive and appropriate customization.
I've deliberately left off a couple of custom decks themed on the classic Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This book features playing cards as characters in the story, and deserves a more extensive treatment in a separate article. But here are a few more of the range of custom decks that are tributes to literature.
Fans of the novels by Robert Louis Stevenson should consider the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 2 deck set, which is also available separately (Jekyll, Hyde). A similarly macabre and dark feel is found in the Edgar Allan Poe deck, which is a homage to characters from various Poe classics.
If you enjoy the story of King Arthur, you might want to take a look at the Merlin Illuminations deck, or Jackson Robinson's exquisite Arthurian Excalibur deck. The The Legend of Sleepy Hollow deck commemorates the well-known short story of the same name written in 1820 by Washington Irving, and includes characters like Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.
If you are interested in exploring a story from your childhood, you might want to start building your house of cards with the help of The Three Little Pigs deck. The court cards all feature pig characters, and are very non-traditional in style, with a full rectangular panel that is filled with art and lines, all in one colour - black for the Spades and Clubs, and red for Diamonds and Hearts. The ornate and over-sized Aces also cleverly incorporate characters like the Wolf. It's a novel deck that recounts a fun and well-known story.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, because there are plenty of other custom decks that have been inspired by literary works. While most of the decks featured here are all tributes to specific books and authors, there are also many decks that have been influenced in a more general way by literature (e.g. homages to fantasy or mythology). You can see some of these over on PlayingCardDecks by browsing the category Fictional.
Final ThoughtsCustom decks today are much more than about a pack of cards to play games with. They are often intricate works of art, with an immense amount of creativity that has been applied to the design of the tuck box and cards themselves. They are typically produced with loving attention to detail, and often with much affection for their subject material. As well as being objects to love and appreciate in themselves, a good custom deck will often be a tribute to something else that we love. It's well been said that art is a mirror of life, and so these works of art will often serve as wonderful tributes to our other life interests and hobbies, including our love for reading.
Many novels have become classics, standing the test of time, and these beloved titles especially make great subject material for decks of playing cards. In that way our 54 playing cards companions (if we include the Jokers) becomes an artistic throng of fellow fans, singing the praises of our favourite books. In the hands of a creative designer that shares our love for a classic literary work, a pack of cards can become a wonderful tribute to the great works of fiction. Given the quality visual art that is a delight to look at, and which matches the quality written art we love, it's no wonder that fiction fans like me enjoy collecting beautiful custom decks like these!
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and 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.