Why should we care about brands and publishers in the world of playing cards? Because they play a huge role in the playing card industry. They are the drivers of the market by connecting creators with consumers, and they help turn projects into reality, and get playing cards into our hands. They decide what playing cards are worth making, organize the printing and distribution, and make decisions that will ultimately determine the quality, look, and feel of the product that eventually gets to us as a buyer. Without publishers, most playing cards wouldn't exist, even though in most cases they don't do any of the manufacturing and printing themselves. But it's their decisions that shape what we're buying.
There are many small publishers that put together a carefully curated collection of decks, but one that typically goes somewhat unnoticed in the modern custom playing card market is U.S. Games Systems Inc, which I'll simply refer to from here on as USGS. So let's find out more about them, and what playing cards they are bringing to us.
Publishing Tarot decksThe origins of U.S. Games Systems Inc (USGS) go back to 1968, when it was founded by Stuart R. Kaplan. That means that just last year they celebrated their 50th anniversary as a publisher. The real driving force behind their origin wasn't the world of standard playing cards, but the more mysterious world of tarot decks. In fact, even today they describe themselves as "the premier publisher of tarot, divination, oracle and inspirational decks." Kaplan's own credentials include being the author of The Encyclopedia of Tarot, an important reference work that is also published by USGS.
The origin of Tarot decks has long been the subject of some controversy. But ever since the publication of Michael Dummett's landmark book The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City (1980), there is an increasingly academic consensus that Tarot cards first originated in the 15th century, and that what we today call the "Major Arcana" in a Tarot deck was originally intended to be a fixed trump suit used for trick taking games. Tarot cards were used in this way for almost 400 years, and only near the 18th century did they first become linked with fortune-telling and the occult. From then on the Tarot deck quickly became a tool of choice for cartomancers, and developed a life of its own. The artwork of Tarot cards also took on a new direction, with Tarot decks commonly having colourful images that depicted both well and woe.
USGS's founder Stuart R. Kaplan also believes that the historical evidence forces us to this conclusion. "Tarot was not originally an occult tool or a way to preserve arcane knowledge, as some esoteric writers maintain. Tarot was a card game for the nobility in fifteenth century northern Italy. The trionfi cards [ed: trumps] are iconographic images of important people and events of the time." This explains why the heraldic devices of wealthy families appear in the iconography of early gold-illuminated Tarot cards. He is also convinced that the occultic use of the Tarot is a much later development: "Court de Gébelin and Etteilla in the later part of the eighteenth century brought forth the idea of the esoteric connection with the cards."
Kaplan has been credited by some as assisting in the Tarot renaissance in the US, by supplying mass-produced and affordable decks to customers through mainstream bookstores. His contribution to promoting the world of Tarot in the United States began by importing Tarot cards from Europe. A personal visit to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in the late 1960s led to his first encounter with a Tarot deck, and he was sufficiently intrigued to negotiate the rights that gave him permission to distribute the Swiss 1JJ Tarot deck in the US, with a initial order of 5000 decks. These decks sold well in bookstores, and it didn't hurt that Kaplan also wrote a small book entitled Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling. This booklet gave an introduction to the history, meaning, and use of the cards, and went on to sell close to a million copies. It was followed by his book Tarot Classic (1972), and the importing and selling of a wider range of Tarot decks.
Eventually Kaplan began publishing Tarot decks himself, and that was really the genesis and cornerstone of USGS. Two of the most popular and influential Tarot decks in the world today are those by Rider-Waite (originally published in 1909) and by Crowley Thoth (created 1938-1943, and first published in 1969). Most contemporary Tarot decks are considered to be modern intepretations of these two. In 1971 USGS obtained the rights to publish an authorized edition of the Rider-Waite Tarot from the daughter of its creator, Arthur Edward Waite, and has been publishing it ever since. This is considered the single most popular Tarot deck in the world, so it's not hard to see how this has proven to be a smart business decision, and provided the backbone for USGS's success. The Tarot deck by occultist Aleister Crowley purports to be based on the imagined Egyptian Book of Thoth, and USGS is also the primary distributor of this deck in North America.
But besides these, USGS has been publishing and distributing a wide range of divination and inspiration decks. Some of these, like the Rider-Waite and Crowley Thoth decks, are quite serious, while others are more artistic or even whimsical. Their catalogue includes items like a Yoga Cats deck, Divine Feather Messenger deck, Ancient Animal Wisdom deck, Inspirational Wisdom from Angels & Fairies deck, and much more. Art has always been a very important part of the interest and appeal of Tarot decks, and Kaplan has always seen USGS as an art publisher, where the illustrations are of prime importance.
Publishing playing cardsWhile USGS began its life by focusing exclusively on Tarot decks, and the company is best known for its Tarot line, eventually they broadened their product range to include standard playing cards as well. Founder Stuart Kaplan has always had an interest in playing cards, and his passion is evident in the fact that he's written much about them, and also has a personal collection of rare playing cards.
In an interview conducted about ten years ago, Kaplan was quoted as saying: "U.S. Games Systems has two distinctly different product lines, the Tarot and spiritual area, and card games. These include historical cards, reproductions of early cards, civil war cards, military cards, educational cards and games, word games, and trump games such as the Wizard Card Game."
It's this second product line that we now turn to, since it covers both traditional playing cards and card games. As evidence of the important role that playing cards play in the USGS catalogue, is the fact that today the company's overall mission today is described as "to create, produce and market high quality printed playing cards and book products." Their line of playing cards includes a variety of decks with novelty themes, and with fine art. Many examples of their themed playing cards are available here on PlayingCardDecks, and include decks like Optical Illusions, Wildflowers of the Natural World, Classic American Rides, Famous Battles of the American Revolution, Vintage Railroad, along with many other historical and novelty decks.
I'm especially appreciative of their playing cards that are replicas of vintage decks. One of my personal favorites is the Airline Spotter deck and Naval Spotter deck. These decks were originally used in World War II to assist people to identify aircraft silhouettes, and thus equip them with the skills of recognition needed to make sure they wouldn't fire at Allied aircraft by mistake. Each of the 52 cards in the Airline Spotter deck identifies a different aircraft, including both Allied and Axis planes, and shows a detailed silhouette from three different angles. The Naval Spotter deck similarly depicts warships from the 1940s-1960s. It's not hard to see how these decks served a dual purpose as entertainment and as a teaching aid. Other lovely vintage decks reproduced by USGS include the Samuel Hart's 1858 deck, Cohen's 1863 Patent National deck, and Cohen's 1864 Highlanders deck, all of which are priced at around $6 each.
While the USGS playing cards focus on beauty and visual aesthetics, the ones in my own collection have been lacking in the area of handling. The cards are typically quite thick and have a very smooth surface. As a result they don't fan or spread smoothly, and aren't ideal for shuffling. On the positive side, they do come at a very attractive price-point, with many of them costing only around half the price of a custom deck produced by USPCC. Given the attractive illustrations and novelty value, this makes them ideal for collectors or as novelty gifts, especially when the subject matter matches your own personal interest or the interest of a giftee.
Publishing gamesStuart Kaplan has also had a long-time interest in board games, and in 1965 even created a game entitled "Student Survival" under a company called Gamemasters which he started himself. After all, it was his interest in games that brought him to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1968, and first led him to discover and become curious about Tarot cards. The last few decades have seen a real growth in the game industry, with many innovations. War games, role playing games, miniature games, and collectable card games have all become very popular. Kaplan has especially been a great admirer of collectable card games like Magic the Gathering that Wizards of the Coast began publishing in the 1990s.
By teaming up with creator Mike Fitzgerald, he's made his own contribution to the game industry as a publisher. Titles like Wyvern, Mystery Rummy, and Lord of the Rings Card Game are all part of the present USGS catalogue. USGS is also the publisher of the hit card game Wizard, which was created by Canadian Ken Fisher.
USGS tries to put out a number of new games every year, and believes that their games are characterized "by the high quality of illustrations, photography, packaging and product design." That is a subjective assessment, of course, but it is confirmed by the fact that many of their products have won illustrious awards, including from organizations like Mensa, Games Magazine, and National Parenting. The award-winning Wizard Card Game is especially a big seller.
My first experience with USGS was with their Mystery Rummy Series of card games, which I highly recommend. I was not a big fan of the original card-stock used for these titles, but the game-play is terrific. If you enjoy rummy style games, these are extremely fun, and well worth looking into getting. While the rights for publishing these particular titles have since been picked up by another game publisher, it was USGS that first saw the potential of bringing these games to the market, and the subsequent success of the series proves that they have an eye for good games.
Final thoughtsIt's obvious that the main contribution made by Stuart Kaplan and USGS has been in the area of the Tarot deck. They have single-handedly played a significant role in the impact that Tarot cards have had, especially in the United States, by making them widely available at an affordable cost. Kaplan's own contribution is not just in the importing and publishing of these decks, but also in the important books he's written about them, and in the legendary personal collection of rare playing card related items he's assembled over the years.
But for people like me, I'm glad that his interests have also included playing cards more generally, and I'm grateful for some of the specialized decks and card games that USGS has produced in recent times. Games like Wizard and the Mystery Rummy series continue to be valued members of my personal collection. Check out their range of lovely playing cards, and I'm sure you'll find that there is something in USGS's product line that's right for you as well!
Where to get them? You'll find a range of USGS products on PlayingCardDecks.com here and 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.