When Playing Cards Become Puzzles, Part 1: Fine Art Decks With Panoramic Polyptychs

Posted by EndersGame Reviewer on

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

What is A Polyptych?

We've all seen ordinary playing cards. But what really floats my boat is the extraordinary. So when it comes to playing cards, I'm a big fan of novelty, originality, and creativity. A deck will get my attention when the designer has come up with something unusual, striking, or memorable.

Come custom playing cards that feature flip-book animation are a fine example of this. These decks have a series of slowly changing images, so that when you flip through the deck quickly with your thumb, it creates a miniature animated film. It's a very visual effect that is sometimes described as "taking a deck to the movies", and gives these creative decks an instant appeal. A special part of my personal collection is devoted to decks like this, and you can see a list of examples in my article on the subject.

But alongside decks with flip-book animation, there's another type of deck in my personal collection that you need to know about. In this article I'll introduce you to another type of novelty playing card that I'm very excited about, and that is also worthy of attention for its extraordinary qualities. In fact, let me give you a spoiler of what to expect right up front.

pip men puzzle playing cards

This, ladies and gentleman, is a fine example of what the art world calls a polyptych. That's a fancy word that simply refers to a panoramic image made up of multiple parts. We're all familiar with a deck of playing cards being a miniature portfolio that consists of 52 separate miniature works of art. But what happens if you combine those individual pieces in order to make a single large picture? That's the idea behind a deck of playing cards which makes a polyptych.

The Pipmen World deck pictured above was my first introduction to this concept applied to playing cards, and I was immediately smitten. When I first saw pictures of this amazing deck, I just knew that I had to get my hands on it. After all, each individual card looks great on its own. But when you put the cards together on the table to make a single massive image, it looks even more stunning. At the same time, it's still a functional deck with indices on the corners, so it can still be used for playing card games.

As I immersed myself more in the world of custom playing cards, I've kept a special eye out for decks that are polyptychs, and I'm pleased to be able to introduce you to some splendid examples. I'm still in love with the original Pipmen World deck that sparked my interest in this fascinating type of playing cards. But now I've just found several other polyptych decks to love along with it. And by the end of this article, perhaps you just might too.

starry night puzzle playing cards

Pipmen World Playing Cards (2017)

The Pipmen World Deck was created by Ben Jones from Elephant Playing Cards in 2017. Already a few years earlier Ben had come up with the fun idea to have his playing cards inhabited by pipmen, a novel word coined by combining the words pips and stickmen. Instead of stick figures, we have what he calls "little stickmen figures interacting with the pips to create a unique scene."

Prior to creating the Pipmen World deck, Ben had created several Pipmen decks, which proved to be a big success. It's a brilliant concept after all, and as far as novelty decks go, the Pipmen decks are filled with terrific detail and humour, making them fun to use and admire. But with his Pipmen World deck, this idea was taken to the next level.

pip men puzzle playing cards

As with the other Pipmen decks, every single card in the Pipmen World deck is a self-contained picture. You'll find Pipmen divers exploring the bottom of the sea, Pipmen fliers in hot air balloons, Pipmen workmen digging underground, and even a romantic Pipmen couple enjoying the moonlight.

For example, on the 2 of Spades we see some adventurous Pipmen climbing a snowy mountain, and on the 4 of Diamonds we see some hard-working Pipmen digging tunnels below the earth. That's already a degree of creativity to get excited about.

pip men puzzle playing cards

But the artwork was designed so that all these individual cards can be put together to form a single giant image that makes up an impressive panoramic work.

The original Pipmen World deck had white bordered cards, but a "Full Art Edition" was subsequently produced which removed the distraction of the borders, to heighten the visual impact of the polyptych even further.

pip men puzzle playing cards

Ben spent nearly three years creating and developing this special deck of cards, and the stunning result speaks for itself.

Here's a close-up showing a cityscape, set beside a farmer's field and some desert camels.

pip men puzzle playing cards

Here's another example from the full art version that showcases some details from the deck. This time it features an ocean scene, where our Pipmen friends are active both above and below the water.

The visual detail on the individual cards is already creative and striking, but when placed alongside each other in this way, the impact is even stronger.

pip men puzzle playing cards

Birth of Venus Puzzle Playing Cards (2018)

Famous works of art make good material for custom decks, because the canvas of a playing card is an ideal place for exhibiting paintings and other art-works. As a result, there are already plenty of custom playing cards that depict works of famous masters.

It is a small but logical step to take this to the next level, by devoting an entire deck towards recreating a single work of art as a giant panoramic picture in the form of a polyptych. Creator Lynn Patricia has done exactly this in her Birth of Venus Puzzle Deck.

Birth of Venus Puzzle Playing Cards


This is the first of two "masterpiece" decks that Lynn produced. And as you'd expect, it is a tribute to Sando Botticelli's famous painting The Birth of Venus.

The borderless card backs have a floral decoration in soft colours, that matches the colours we'll see later on the reverse side.

Birth of Venus Puzzle Playing Cards

While the card backs look pretty, they pale beside the main feature, which is found on the card faces.

When placed alongside each other and puzzled together, the card faces create a large polyptych, which shows Botticelli's painting in all its glory - including Venus in all her glory.

Birth of Venus Puzzle Playing Cards

Recreating the painting only requires the number cards, so the court cards aren't part of the overall polyptych.

Instead, the three court cards of each suit form a separate triptych. Each of these effectively zooms in part of the main artwork, and shows close-up details of the overall image.

Birth of Venus Puzzle Playing Cards

Some collectors have found the artwork of this deck too lovely to keep inside the box. I know of at least one instance where someone glued the cards of the large picture onto a firm backing material, and turned it into a visual art display to hang on their wall.

That is certainly a great way to display a beautiful deck like that, so that it can be enjoyed constantly.

Birth of Venus Puzzle Playing Cards

Van Gogh Starry Night Puzzle Playing Cards (2019)

The Starry Night Puzzle Deck is Lynn Patricia's follow-up to her Birth of Venus Puzzle Deck, and is a tribute to the work of legendary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

Van Gogh Starry Night Puzzle Playing Cards

As a representative of the post-impressionist movement, van Gogh has had a major influence on Western art, especially as a result of his many oil paintings that showcased his recognizable style.

While his final years were marked by episodes of depression and poverty, the acclaim that van Gogh's paintings have received posthumously makes them among the most expensive in the world.

Van Gogh Starry Night Puzzle Playing Cards

Fortunately, you don't have to splurge millions to get your van Gogh fix, because there are some lovely decks of custom cards that are a tribute to his work, including this one.

Among van Gogh's most notable works are paintings like The Potato Eaters (1885), Sunflowers (1887), Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), The Bedroom (1888), Irises (1889), and Dr Gachet (1890). But no list of van Gogh greatest hits would be complete without including the one featured on this deck, The Starry Night (1887).

Van Gogh Starry Night Puzzle Playing Cards

This is not the first deck to feature artwork of The Starry Night, with a Cartamundi deck the same year also featuring a distinctive image borrowed from the famous painting on the card backs.

But unlike that deck, Lynn Patricia's puzzle deck takes this to the next level by turning the entire deck into a giant display of the famous painting. The faces of the cards all depict small parts of the famous Starry Night artwork, and can be put together to recreate the painting as a single massive work of art.

Van Gogh Starry Night Puzzle Playing Cards

Considerable attention to detail has been given in the execution of this project. As an example, the card values used for the indices have been taken from letters with van Gogh's own handwriting, and the pips from shapes in his paintings.

A custom deck of playing cards like this is a wonderful way to enjoy van Gogh's artwork without breaking the bank. It also makes for a wonderful conversation piece that can still also be used for playing a card game if you wish.

Van Gogh Starry Night Puzzle Playing Cards

Dance of Death Playing Cards (2019)

The Dance of Death Decks also feature a large polyptych that is created from the playing cards. Even the tuck boxes of the three decks that make up this set have the feel of a polyptych.

Dance of Death Playing Cards

This project is unique in that you need all three decks to get the cards needed to make the polyptych. Each individual deck only gives you the cards for creating part of the large single image, so ideally you want the entire set.

Part of the reason for this is because not all the cards in each deck are part of the polyptych. The number cards all have heavily customized pips, but are otherwise free of artwork.

Dance of Death Playing Cards

The panoramic artwork is reserved for the court cards, Aces, Jokers, and extra cards.

Using cards from all three decks, you can create a single large art-piece, which looks like the picture below.

Dance of Death Playing Cards

These decks are based on the work of engraver and artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who was a German artist and printmaker known for his woodcut illustrations.

His "Dance of Death" illustrations date from around 1526. They originally began with a set of small woodcuts, which were later published extensively in book form, over multiple editions.

Dance of Death Playing Cards

Each scene followed the "Dance of Death" concept, a well-known artistic genre from the late Middle Ages, commonly designated with the French Danse Macabre.

It typically personified Death summoning individuals from all walks of life, and functioned as a visual allegory to remind people of the transitory nature of life.

Dance of Death Playing Cards

Hans Holbein the Younger's Dance of Death series is particularly famous. It shows Death in many disguises, surprising victims from all stations of life.

Based on this well-known and influential work, creator Sergey painstakingly drew all these cards by hand, with many hours of loving work going into each of them.

Dance of Death Playing Cards

Bosch Puzzle Playing Cards (2021)

The Bosch Puzzle Deck was produced by Sunish Chabba and Guru Playing Cards. Sunish has successfully produced several unique custom decks already, but the Bosch deck is unlike anything that he has done before.

Bosch Puzzle Playing Cards

This is a fine art deck that is a tribute to Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516), and incorporates aspects of his artwork on the playing cards.

Bosch is renowned for his fantastic religious illustrations, many of which depict hell in a nightmarish manner. Borrowing heavily from Bosch's work and style, this cosmic setting of spiritual beings has been brought to life on the playing cards of this deck.

Bosch Puzzle Playing Cards

To create this remarkable deck, all of Hieronymus Bosch's seminal works were closely studied and explored for hundreds of hours. These were then cleverly combined in an entirely original manner.

The result is an independent and unique work of art that is a creative and wonderful tribute to this famous master.

Bosch Puzzle Playing Cards

Of special interest to us is that each playing card has full-bleed artwork, so that the individual cards combine to make a complete puzzle.

Once again the entire deck forms a single massive picture, as all 54 single cards combine to make a giant polyptych.

Bosch Puzzle Playing Cards

An additional point of interest is that many of the cards have a semi-transformational style. This means that the pips have been transformed to become part of the picture, making the individual playing cards beautiful pieces of art in their own right.

Overall this deck is a wonderful tribute to the unique artwork of Hieronymus Bosch, and has been the subject of praise and enthusiasm from art fans and playing card collectors alike.

Bosch Puzzle Playing Cards

Final Thoughts

I'll be showcasing more decks with polyptychs in my next article. But we've already seen enough to realize why a deck of playing cards that produces a polyptych is so appealing. Most of us already appreciate seeing custom artwork on the individual cards. But to see these separate pieces combine to form a single larger picture is an outstanding and visually stunning concept that immediately impresses. Especially when it is done well, the result can produce a single whole that doesn't feel like a cobbled-together collection of disconnected pieces. Many collectors already find themselves drawn to uncut sheets of their favourite decks, and a deck that doubles as a polyptych offers the same kind of appeal.

It can also be a fun exercise to assemble the cards to make that single image, especially if you've never seen the deck before and don't know what the overall image looks like. I've enjoyed giving decks like these to family and friends as a fun puzzle challenge, and watching them solve it. It's not as easy as you might think, and in my experience it usually takes them around 20 minutes to complete. Most people are blown away by the concept, and really enjoy the process of discovering what the larger picture is. When doing this at a family gathering or party, it also becomes an instant attention-getter, and you'll soon have other people gathering around, clamouring to see what is going on, and wanting to help.

If you ever needed reasons to justify your love for playing cards, polyptych decks provide you with two convincing ones: novelty and art. I've often said that a deck of playing cards is a miniature portfolio containing over 50 separate works of art. By turning this into a polyptych, creators have found a creative and novel way to turn these individual illustrations into a single whole, which is designed to be a beautiful work of art in its own right. Not only is it a rewarding activity to piece the playing cards together into this giant puzzle, but it is also rewarding to see this final picture in all its glory.

These are wonderful decks to collect, and also make fine choices to display to friends and family who are wondering about the appeal of custom playing cards. Get them busy puzzling with one of these decks, and by the time they're done, perhaps you'll even have a brand new playing card collector on your hands!

pipmen puzzle playing cards


About the writerEndersGame 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.

badge
Avatar
Last update date: 08/03/21

0 comments

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published