puzzle playing cards

When Playing Cards Become Puzzles, Part 2: More Creative Decks With Panoramic Polyptychs

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Puzzle Decks With Polyptychs

In the world of art, polyptychs have existed for centuries. These are typically paintings composed of multiple panels, which function together to produce a single larger image. They're found already in medieval manuscripts, and were used extensively in the religious art created by painters in the early Renaissance.

Given that a deck of playing cards is also a miniature work of art, it's no surprise that creative designers have applied the same concept to playing cards. Most commonly this is found in the form of a simple diptych, which is a two part polyptych, where the two Jokers fit together to create a bigger picture. Most decks of playing cards published by the Uusi brand have this feature, and the two examples pictured immediately below are taken from their decks.

polyptychs playing cards

In a previous article, When Playing Cards Become Puzzles, Part 1, we showcased five fine art decks that apply this concept on a much larger scale, and turn the entire deck into a single giant polyptych, using most or all of the playing cards. Famous paintings from the world of art provide natural material for this, such as the examples pictured immediately below, which were covered in the previous installment. But that's not to say that an enterprising and creative designer can't use this concept to create an entirely original work, as is the case with the wonderful Pipmen World deck.

But there are also other less orthodox ways of using playing cards to create a polyptych, and that's what this follow-up article is about. Creators of playing cards have used polyptychs to send secret maps to prisoners, or to just add an additional layer of interest to an already creative deck. In the hands of a brave creator, there's even room for turning a cardistry deck into a polyptych, as we'll see shortly. So let's take a look at another five unique decks of playing cards that turn the entire deck into a giant puzzle.

puzzle playing cards

Escape Map Playing Cards (2013)

Our exhibition of polyptychs begins with the oldest deck on this list, which is the Escape Map Deck from Bicycle.

Escape Map Playing Cards

Even though the version you can buy today was first published in 2013, this deck originally goes back to the time of the Second World War, and has a fascinating true story attached to it.

Being somewhat removed from the actual events behind this deck, it's somewhat difficult to determine all the facts with certainty. But the general idea is that it was used in World War II to assist prisoners piece together a map that they could use to help them escape. As part of a special project, USPCC partnered with the military to create special playing cards in which a complete escape map was printed between the two pieces of paper that make up a typical playing card.

Escape Map Playing Cards

By including them in Red Cross packages, the decks were delivered to Allied prisoners who were held captive. The idea was that soldiers could soak the cards in water, peel the two layers apart, and then puzzle together the pieces to create a map that would give them essential information about escape routes out of Germany.

This ingenious map has been commemorated with a special deck printed by Bicycle, so a reproduction version is readily available for collectors today. Fortunately you won't need to soak this in water and start peeling back the layers to discover its secrets. Instead the map has been printed on the card faces for all to see.

Escape Map Playing Cards

Only a handful of the original Escape Map decks are known to have actually survived.

Pictured here is a card from a limited edition reproduction that was made in 1990, which shows the map between the two paper layers of the card.

Escape Map Playing Cards

It can be a fun exercise to piece the commemorative deck of playing cards together, at the same time appreciating a true story of intrigue and ingenuity. Extra cards that come with the deck include an information card briefly telling the story behind the deck, and an answer key that gives the solution for how the cards puzzle together.

To learn more, I recommend watching this video, which shows the entire deck pieced together, and explains exactly how the escape instructions work.

Escape Map Playing Cards

Odyssey Playing Cards (2017)

The Odyssey Deck from Glow Creative Innovations has largely flown under the radar of many collectors. But it is a quality deck that was printed by USPCC and worthy of attention in light of a large polyptych that has been cleverly included on some of the card faces.

Odyssey Playing Cards

The concept of this deck is described by the creator as follows: "Odyssey highlights the struggles within humanity during the rapidly-expanding world of the 16th through 19th centuries.

It was a time when the landscapes of myth, magic, and legend were charted and mapped. Valiant heroes, fierce monsters, ancient gods, mighty tribes, and sea creatures were demystified and transformed into commodities of a global economy.

Odyssey Playing Cards

Of particular interest for our purposes is the fact that all the number cards combine to form a single larger image.

Appropriately, these can be puzzled together to make up a large old world map, which is in keeping with the overall theme of the deck.

Odyssey Playing Cards

The level of detail is sufficient to recognize the presence of a map as the background artwork on each card.

At the same time it's not so distracting that it completely takes away the functionality of the cards for game-play.

Odyssey Playing Cards

Special mention should also be made of the stunning artwork by Michelle Lenkner, whose work has made the cards look absolutely exquisite.

The court cards and Aces are particularly gorgeous, and are bursting with colour and detail. In the words of the ad copy, "Each court card was hand-crafted with attention to fine detail and the imagery exudes history, mystery, and great symbolism."

Odyssey Playing Cards

They all use asymmetrical designs, which means that the deck is brimming with twice the usual amount of artwork you'd expect to find on the court cards and Aces, even in a fully custom deck.

Odyssey Playing Cards

The deck also comes with a card that describes the artistic themes of all the face cards. In addition, a free PDF is available from the creator, which gives helpful educational information about the historical and cultural background behind each card.

Clearly a lot of love has gone into this beautiful deck - and it shows.

Odyssey Playing Cards

Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition (2018)

Jaspas Deck had previously released numerous decks under his New Deck Order label, the brand known for producing "non-standard playing cards" that are optimized for cardistry by having identical faces.

But when he launched the Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition on April Fool's Day in 2018, he raised more than a few eyebrows. The video trailer was released the day before and offered no clues whatsoever about what the deck looked like.

Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition

Jaspas is well known in the world of cardistry not just because of The New Deck Order, but also because of his work with The School of Cardistry, which is devoted to teaching cardistry.

He is also very active on youtube, where he regularly posts reviews and cardistry related videos, in his inimitable quirky and humorous style. If you've ever watched his videos, you'll quickly learn that he's somewhat of a joker with a real sense of humor.

Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition

So it's no surprise that the ad copy for this deck says that the 1st of April has always been an important day to Jaspas. This deck was produced in a limited edition of just 888, and he deliberately released no teaser or images. In other words, you had to purchase it on blind faith and trust in the man. This didn't stop plenty of people from buying it sight unseen, because the deck still sold out, despite customers having no idea what they were buying.

Here's the ad copy: "1st of April has always been an important day to Jaspas Deck, and this year is no exception. This year, Jaspas challenges you to put your faith (and money) in him. No images of this deck will be released. Yes, you'll have to buy it blind." It also promised a new stock and finish, and a new take on the classic Jaspas Deck design that "will destroy your perception of reality and make you doubt your understanding of "Cardistry", "Playing Cards", and "Design"."

Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition

The biggest surprise was with the card backs. At first sight, these seem to be an ordinary black design with the signature split pip design common to many of Jaspas' playing cards.

But upon close examination, it appears that these actually make up a puzzle. And sure enough, it turns out to be a polyptych that reveals the man himself: a large picture of Jaspas Deck, paradoxically holding one of the Favourite Day Edition decks in his hand, along with a selfie stick and a sword.

External image

The biggest clue comes when you notice that the face of the Jack of Spades is black instead of white. When you turn it around, we see Jaspas himself staring at us. Once you realize that the deck isn't all that it seems, you're all set to take on the challenge of piecing together the puzzle, featuring none other than Jaspas himself.

Eventually all would be revealed, courtesy of this video from reviewer The Gentleman Wake, which was produced with the blessing of Jaspas Deck himself. So despite April 1st being the date on which the deck launched, it was obvious that Jaspas Deck hadn't swindled or disappointed his supporters.

Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition

The card faces have their own appeal. These feature pip arrangements in the usual Jaspas Deck style, with traditional artwork used for the courts, but the pips and art are all given a coat of colourful paint for a completely different look.

If this April 1st deck proves anything about Jaspas, it is that the man is clearly no fool.

Jaspas Deck Favourite Day Edition

World Tour: China Playing Cards (2018)

The World Tour: China Deck is one of five decks released by Vanishing Inc Magic as part of a set, designed to celebrate exotic places around the world.

The premise behind the set is that it is 1902, and a fictional magician named Ezra the Great is touring the world to perform his show. To commemorate his adventures, he purportedly buys a deck of cards at different locations, which he sends back home as memorabilia.

World Tour: China Playing Cards

Each deck features a design that reflects different aspects of the land and culture where it originates - France, Switzerland, Mongolia, China, and Egypt. The tuck box of the China deck brings to mind an ancient travel document with official stamps and Chinese characters.

Your first impression of the cards themselves may leave you somewhat confused, because the backs are all different, with swirls of black on a plain white background.

World Tour: China Playing Cards

But when you stay in a foreign country long enough, you will eventually learn the language and figure things out, and it is the same with this deck. The challenge here is to piece together all the cards, in order to arrange them into a single large image made up of 9 rows of 6 cards each.

Unlike some of the other polyptychs we've seen, the World Tour: China deck doesn't reveal a picture, but two giant Chinese characters.

World Tour: China Playing Cards

Fortunately the ad copy helps us with a translation: "This unusual deck boasts a back design that isn't a design at all. Instead, when all the cards are arranged in new deck order, in a grid, they create a mosaic of the Chinese character for Mystery."

The face cards can also be puzzled together into a single whole, which depicts something in Chinese characters as well.

World Tour: China Playing Cards

And if you do get stuck in figuring out how to arrange the cards, you can use the answer key provided on one of the cards.

The World Tour: China deck is certainly an unusual set of playing cards that evokes something of the culture that it represents, making it a unique novelty item well suited for the collector.

World Tour: China Playing Cards

Hanafuda Playing Cards

There are plenty of examples of custom decks that use the concept of a polyptych on a smaller scale. An example of this is when the two Jokers combine to form a single image, which is known as a diptych. You'll occasionally come across a deck with a triptych, where three court cards from the same suit make up a larger picture in the same way.

The number of decks that employ diptychs and triptychs is too numerous to cover here. But special mention has to be made of the delightful Hanafuda cards created by Jason Johnson and artist Antonietta Fazio-Johnson of IndianWolf Studios. These playing cards create numerous smaller polyptychs consisting of four cards each. The technical term for this is a tetratych, which comes from the word "four". But each of these tetratychs is unified by a single theme that runs throughout the deck, and they are all stunningly beautiful.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

● Hanami Edition (2018)

Hanafuda literally means "flower cards", and hanafuda are playing cards of Japanese origin which are also commonly used in Korea and Hawaii. They likely originated between the 1600-1800s, and have a long history of use for gambling games, as well as many social games.

Hanafuda cards normally have twelve suits, each representing one month of the year and designated by a different flower. Each set of four cards for each month combines to make a panoramic image. Hanafuda cards are also typically very small and thick, but IndianWolf Studios came up with the idea of bringing Hanafuda to standard playing cards. Their first deck, the Hanami Edition Deck, features some especially beautiful panoramic artwork.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

This deck begins in January with Pine flowers under a blanket of winter snow. The first signs of spring are apparent in the images used for February, which showcases the blossoms of the Plum. This will eventually give way to warmer weather of summer, which sees the appearance of beautiful flowers like the bright yellow orange Peonies for June.

The uncut sheet gives an overview of the entire deck, in all its incredible breath-taking beauty.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

Each panoramic polyptych has its own visual appeal. As we get into the middle of spring, we see the Iris flower adorning the vista for the month of May. The month of August features The Suzuki Grass is easily one of my favourite panoramas, with a spectacular image set against the backdrop of a colourful moon-filled sky.

Since there are only 12 months in a year, a thirteenth set of four cards depicts koi, which are common symbols of prosperity and longevity in Asian culture.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

Despite being on poker-sized cards, this Hanafuda deck from IndianWolf Studies doesn't have the suits and values of a standard deck of playing cards, making it suitable only as an art-piece or for playing Hanafuda games. However the creators also published a companion Hanami Fusion deck at the same time. This has white instead of black borders, and includes the indices of a Western deck, thus enabling it to be used for regular card games as well.

● Sensu Edition (2019)

Following the success of their first project, IndianWolf Studios created another Hanafuda deck, entitled Sensu Edition Deck, with Sensu meaning "fan". Not only do fans give a lot of artistic possibilities, but they also have a rich and positive symbolism in Asian cultures.

The Sensu project also produced a pair of decks, the second one being a fusion deck that included standard indices, while the first deck again has black borders and focuses on the artwork.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

The cards from the Sensu decks have a less playful feel from the preceding deck, courtesy of more earthy colour tones and different style. Shown above is the month of May's Iris flower that we saw previously in the Hanami deck, but now depicted in a totally different way.

Each set of four cards still has a unified theme that focuses on the same flower, but the focus on an expansive panorama isn't quite as pronounced here as it was with the Hanami deck.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

Night Parade Edition (2020)

The third Hanafuda Fusion project from IndianWolf Studios was their Night Parade Deck. Like the previous decks, it's considered a Fusion deck because it doubles as a Hanafuda deck and as a standard deck of cards.

As with the Hanami and Sensu Editions, the artwork features 13 separate polyptychs, with each set of four cards combining to form a single panoramic image. These illustrations depict the yokai that enter the human world at night. In Japanese folklore this term covers a whole range of supernatural beings and strange phenomena, including monsters and spirits.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

Stories about these yokai describe them in the form of a night parade, which can range from an orderly procession traveling the roads, to an unruly horde that creates chaos.

Once again the creators have cleverly incorporated standard playing card indices, as well as icons that enable it to do double duty as a Hanafuda deck. The Night Parade deck also came with a bonus booklet with the rules for a shedding/climbing game called Orochi, which was specifically designed and created for this deck.

Hanafuda Playing Cards

Final Thoughts

In various ways the above decks of custom playing cards take the concept of a polyptych beyond what we've previously seen with art playing cards. As beautiful as those decks are, in the case of a fine art deck the goal of creating a single image that replicates a large masterpiece or painting is straight-forward. But what about if you step outside the box, and where this goal isn't quite so obvious, or is perhaps secondary?

The Escape Map deck is a good example of this, because the original deck required you to peel apart the layers of paper to access the different parts of the polyptych, and it had a functional purpose that went far beyond novelty or art. Like the original deck, the replica version readily available from Bicycle today has standard backs, so you can still use it for games if you really want.

But with some other decks with polyptychs, using them for game-play is simply out of the question. The distinctive features on the back of the cards effectively turns them into a marked deck, allowing you to identify what's on the face of the cards once you become familiar with the deck. That's the case with both the World Tour: China deck, and the Jaspas Deck: Favourite Day Edition. But these decks aren't designed to be used for card games in the first place anyway, but have been conceived as unique pieces of art or creativity. The China deck is a collector's deck that is all about novelty, where all the aesthetics serve the purpose of capturing aspects of a foreign culture. Most collectors don't play games with their favourite decks anyway, but prefer to preserve them in pristine condition, or enjoy them as artwork. Similarly, the Favourite Day Edition from Jaspas Deck is first and foremost a cardistry deck, where handling and performance take priority, as well as being a unique novelty item and keepsake that served as a reward for fans prepared to order it in blind faith.

With the Odyssey deck, the polyptych takes more of a back seat to the deck's first purpose of being a well-themed and beautiful custom deck that remains functional and can be enjoyed for card games. There are more decks on the way that also use the polyptych concept to create a map in much the same way as the Odyssey deck. A notable example is Stockholm17's upcoming The Eye of the Ocean, which incorporates the idea as part of a larger puzzle challenge.

While not producing a single giant polyptych, the 13 tetratychs on the three Hanafuda decks from IndianWolf Studios feature colourful and eye-catching scenes with a visual beauty that gives them instant appeal for different reasons. These decks draw on a rich artistic and cultural tradition that relies on floral motifs and symbolism. In addition, the Fusion versions of these decks cleverly blend Eastern and Western traditions by incorporating the indices that most of us are used to, thus enabling both Hanafuda games and other classic card games to be played on poker sized cards. All this makes these beautiful decks a unique and important contribution to the playing card industry.

All of these are highly collectible decks of custom playing cards, and their novel aspects make them real standouts in today's playing card market. With so many new playing cards being printed all the time, unique decks like these offer us something different to enjoy and appreciate. If you don't have any polyptych decks in your collection, consider picking one up. Even non-collectors cannot fail to be impressed with their creativity and beauty. Not that we have to justify our passion to others, but with decks like these on our hands, there's every chance we may find our family and friends growing in their appreciation for what we've enjoyed all along.

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.

Last update date: 08/11/21

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