*** Unique Playing Cards from Noir Arts ***
The name Noir Arts already indicates that this publisher of playing cards appreciates art, which is confirmed by their tag line: "We are Arts! Unique playing card designs". Based in Ukraine, the people involved with Noir Arts have been producing beautiful playing cards for the local Ukrainian market under the label Noir Playing Card Company (NPCC) already since 2005. Noir Arts was officially formed in 2014, when they expanded to begin producing playing cards for the worldwide community. Under the leadership of Roman Kotiv, they began by designing their own decks, and soon began cooperating with talented independent artists and design studios from around the world. Noir is French for "black", and so quite a number of their decks are more dark in theme, but you will also find more playful decks in their portfolio as well. They have a diverse portfolio of custom playing cards with varied styles, but what they all have in common is that they are artistic.
In addition to creating an impressive range of playing cards under their own design, Noir Arts offers a printing and fulfilment service under their original name NPCC, to create and print custom decks of playing cards for other designers and creators. In this series of reviews, I have been showcasing some of the custom playing cards Noir Arts has produced, to give an overview of their work and style, and a glimpse of the artistic talent that is evident from their portfolio. This is the final installment of this series, and so I will wrap up these reviews by offering some lengthy concluding comments about their card quality and handling, plus a more detailed comparison with other publishers. But first, a brief overview on other decks and services that Noir Arts has.
*** OTHER DECKS & SERVICES ***
More Specialty Decks
The previous reviews don't make up an exhaustive list of decks that have been produced by Noir Arts. A few other projects they have been involved in to varying degrees include the following:
The Chess and Chess Limited Edition decks (2014) have cards inspired by the game of chess. This project began with drawings by George Sikes and Eric Siddall, and features cards that can actually be used to play chess, when used with a custom game board.
The Demon and the Demon Limited Edition decks (2014) picture demons from the underworld, with artwork by Egor Klyuchnyk. For this project, Noir Arts partnered with Anomaly World Studio. This was one of the very first Kickstarter projects successfully funded and produced by Noir Arts.
The Defunctorum Nox and Defunctorum Dies decks (2015) were a pair of black/Night and white/Day decks, with a style typical of dark art. Published as an add-on to the original project was a Defunctorum Cruor Edition (= Bloody), and while this deck is more macabre, the addition of extra colours makes this arguably the most stunning of the three.
The Asylum, Back to the Asylum and Asylum Inmate decks (2015) are designed to have court cards that look like they were made by asylum inmates. Many will find the blood stains and the graphic nature of some of these cards quite disturbing. This series of decks was originally created by Serbian artist Milan Colovic, and after an initial campaign for Asylum that was run by Ed Nash's Altius Management failed to deliver and even ended up in legal hot water, Milan was finally able to make the project a reality with the help of NPCC.
The HorRoar! deck (2017) is a newly released horror-themed deck which was produced in collaboration with Ace Collectable Cards. It brings together vampires, werewolves, ghosts and witches on cards which have a black background with touches of moonlight. With jet black cards, the use of vivid red and white for the pips and backgrounds of the characters ensures a look that confront you with the shocking unpleasantries of the horror genre, so this is certainly not a deck for everyone.
Noir Arts is continuing to add to their portfolio on a regular basis, an example being the Matra Collection, which is a series of three decks dedicated to Hindu deities.
In addition to the higher quality poker-sized playing cards featured above, NPCC also produces locally branded souvenir decks for the Ukrainian market. These are typically bridge sized decks, and their content means that they will mainly be of interest to locals. They are also budget quality style decks, with no embossed paper-stock, so they won't handle or last like a premium deck of cards - but this is also reflected in a much cheaper cost.
You can see some examples here, here and here, although do realize that many of these decks are branded with the names of the client companies they produced these for.
I managed to check out one of these many decks, entitled Forts and Castles of Western Ukraine (Фортецi та замки захiдноi Украiни), which was a 54 card deck similar to what is shown here.
The card-backs of this particular deck have a busy design with a medley of crests, but the card faces look absolutely beautiful, with water-colour style images of various forts and castles from throughout parts of Ukraine.
The face cards and the Aces are marked with the Ukrainian letters that correspond to the rank names, with К for the King, Д for the Queen, В for the Jack, and T for the Ace.
One particularly nice thing about these souvenir decks is that even the number cards have their own full sized artwork, so every single card in the deck is colourful and entirely customized - making it beautiful to look through.
As mentioned already, the card quality of these souvenir decks is cheap - while they have very clean edges, the cards feel quite thin, smooth, and paper-like. These characteristics are of course fairly standard for a souvenir style deck, and since they come at a very low price-point, it's not reasonable to expect anything different anyway. All things considered, these are attractive products, and well done.
As well as produce their own decks, Noir Arts offers a fulfilment/printing service for people wanting to make their own decks under their label NPCC, and this will especially prove to be of interest to many creators of playing cards. NPCC advertises themselves as providing "all-in-one solution from design to final product". Not only can they assist artists and creators in bringing their designs to print, but they can also take care of the complete fulfilment side of things, including packaging and delivery.
From the all the decks I've covered in the previous reviews in this series, there's no doubt that Noir Arts has a wide range of skills when it comes to special features on cards, which includes all the usual glamour options like custom seals, embossing, foil (130 colours & patterns), and metallic inks. They also can provide the kind of add-ons common in many crowd-funded projects, such as wooden dice, boxes, metal coins, poker chips, certificates, and more.
So how much do they charge for printing an order of their higher quality custom playing cards? A friend of mine recently had a quote for printing a deck, and it turns out that this can depend on a very large number of factors. These include the card design (colours, number of inks, colour of metallic inks, difficulty of embossing pattern), tuck features (card-stock, shape of custom seal, number and colour of foils), and the quantity being produced. Fulfilment is a separate cost and NPCC uses and recommends registered airmail with tracking worldwide; obviously shipping costs and exchange rates can also fluctuate. Even so, the final cost of production and fulfilment should in most cases end up well under $10 a deck.
Often designers and creators turn by default to industry leaders like United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), or the cards produced in Taiwan by Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC). Make Playing Cards (MPC) is another popular choice, especially for producing decks of playing cards in lower quantities. It's good to know that there are other alternatives to consider, and undoubtedly this will be of real interest to many designers.
*** CONCLUSIONS ***
Unique: Many of the Noir Arts decks of playing cards feature a very unique art-style that you won't find in many other places. I especially liked the playful Geist deck, which is a good example of this. The dark art style of some of their decks will be disturbing to some, but it is certainly unique, and creative in its own way. But the level of innovation goes far beyond the style of the artwork - the tuck boxes are also very unique and stylish, and make the Noir Arts decks stand out from the average deck of custom playing cards.
Dark: Quite a number of the Noir Arts decks feature dark themes, with skeletons and blood featured in several of these decks. Perhaps isn't surprising given that "Noir" means black, and that they appear to have a fondness for the dark art genre. This is especially evident in the Light Versus Darkness series from Nicolai Aaroe, and in other decks like Memento Mori and the Bone/Ebon series. Some people (including me) will find some of the playing cards they produce rather unsettling and unsavoury. Fortunately it's a simple matter to avoid those decks if you are so inclined. Just be sure to do your research and know what you're getting in advance, rather than make a purchase only to get an unfortunate surprise when you open the deck.
Non-dark: Fortunately not all the Noir Arts decks are in the dark art genre, and they have also produced plenty of decks that are bright and cheerful as well. The Geistreiz deck is a good example of a vibrant deck that has its own distinctive style, and where the bright red/pink and blue colours ensure that it feels energetic and playful. Similar comments could be made about decks like the Carnaval de Muertos deck, which is very lively and cheerful - despite its darker subject material. And there are plenty of decks in the Noir Arts range that wouldn't be considered dark or bright, but are simply attractive decks in their own right, like the Chernobyl Memorial decks, and even the Animagique ones.
European flavour: Noir Arts is based in Europe, and many of these decks have a real European style and feel about them. Even though the designers of the artwork featured in these decks are sourced from around the world, there is a very definite flavour that fits with the Noir Arts vision and style, and it's hard to imagine some of these decks being produced in America! I find that refreshing and appealing. It can only be good to have more competition in the world of custom playing cards, both in terms of the creators as well as the producers. If the playing card industry was limited to contributors from a certain demographic or culture, it would eventually feel somewhat stale, so having creations from other parts of the world injects different flavours and influences and ensures welcome variety.
European source: These decks are produced in Ukraine, which for many of us may seem somewhat of an unexpected source for custom playing cards. I have no idea about the standards of manufacturing in Eastern Europe, and can only judge by the goods themselves, which generally speaking are quite satisfactory. The decks were all individually shrinkwrapped, and came packed in a cardboard box - my only complaint here is that in my experience the shipping of the package from Ukraine took a long time.
Partners: In producing decks, Noir Arts partners with a variety of artists whose talent they have sourced from around the world. Some of their decks have similar themes and styles since they are by the same artist, like the ones by Nicolai Aaroe from Denmark. Others like their Carnaval De Muertos and Mantra decks have been designed in house by Ukrainian artists. But a range of different artists from around the globe is represented in their portfolio.
Tuck boxes: One thing that really impressed me from the outset is the high quality of Noir Arts' remarkable tuck boxes. From pictures I'd seen online before seeing their decks in person, I was expecting something merely average, so I was quite blown away by how good they looked in reality. They make significant use of foil and embossing, but it isn't just pure bling - it's also very stylish and well-crafted. To my surprise, these were among some of the nicest tuck boxes I'd ever seen! The seals are also heavily customized, and these are often oversized and feature unique shapes and styles that fit with the overall themes of the decks. My favourite is probably the luxuriously gold foiled and jet black Dominus Obscura tuck box, but the matching Indictus tuck boxes are also terrific. The Memento Mori tuck boxes are very lavish, and the design of the new Midgard decks also looks very classy. The limited edition of the Chernobyl deck has a faux rust look which is especially eye-catching. Many of the tuck boxes feature full interior printing - in some cases with luxurious foil! Certainly it has to be said that the quality and looks of the Noir Arts tuck boxes is outstanding, and makes an immediate impression of luxury and quality, which in many cases even exceeds that of some of their bigger name competitors. Whatever you think about NPCC, they certainly do make killer tuck boxes!
Printing/Fulfilment service: The fact that Noir Arts offers a printing/fulfilment service for crowd-funding project creators will be welcome news for designers of custom playing cards looking to get their projects into the hands of the public, as an alternative resource to consider besides the usual big players in the industry. It depends of course on what you are looking for. While not the best choice for card magic or card flourishing, I think the quality is quite satisfactory for those making a custom deck just for collectors or for playing card games. And unlike LPCC/EPPC, which have 54 card decks as a standard, the NPCC decks typically contain 56 cards (like USPCC decks), so having two extra cards adds extra possibilities for designers.
Reputation: An important question for consumers in the custom playing card industry will be what the Noir Arts cards are like. From comments I've seen in forums and elsewhere, NPCC's reputation hasn't always been exactly stellar. They haven't usually been considered an industry leader alongside bigger names like USPCC, or even Taiwanese printers like LPCC and EPCC. From what I can gather, this reputation is largely a result of their earlier products, which don't measure up to the quality of what they have been producing in the last couple of years. I'd be the first to admit that their older decks aren't of a standard that most readers here would be happy with - they don't always fan or spread evenly, and can be a little clumpy or sticky; some early decks didn't even have embossed card-stock. However it's not fair to judge Noir Arts' current output based only on their initial offerings, especially if they have made efforts to improve. It takes a long time to earn a good reputation, and the only thing NPCC can do is produce quality playing cards today, and hope that new customers and consumers will give them a chance to prove themselves with their current level of quality.
Improvement: I've had opportunity to look at a very wide range of decks produced by NPCC, and it has to be admitted that the quality of their decks from 2015 and earlier is inferior to their later decks. The Chess decks from 2014, for example, weren't even embossed, and while the GeistReiz decks from 2015 had embossed card-stock, they don't handle quite as smoothly as the newer decks. But with decks produced in 2016 and onwards, starting with the Chivalry decks, NPCC seems to have started to sort themselves out. All the decks from 2016 and 2017 that I've used were more satisfactory, and close to the quality of decks I've seen from MPC. It seems to me that they really started hitting their stride in 2016, and it's from that point on that the tuck boxes and card quality really seems to be of a standard that we'd expect as a bare minimum in the custom playing card industry, making them a legitimate contributor in the marketplace.
Card Quality: For the cards themselves, Noir Arts uses only high quality cardstock - German black-core linen 310gsm card-stock, which is also the top pick used by Make Playing Cards (link). A couple of their earlier decks (Animagique, Asylum, Branle) have a very different and almost plastic-coated feel, because Noir Arts was briefly experimenting with a different German card-stock that wasn't quite the same level of quality. But all the decks I've seen from recent years feature quality paper card-stock. Card connoisseurs will know the importance of embossing and coating, in order to ensure smooth handling and shuffling, and Noir Arts has told me that they continue to work on improving the formula they use for coating their cards, to ensure the optimum amount of slip and durability. They also aren't afraid to innovate, and in the case of their amazing Branle Tesoro deck, they've even used double foil for the backs of the cards, as well as on the tuck box, besides an inlaid synthetic gemstone on the inside. The cards are all embossed with an air cushion style finish. Many of the card backs have thin borders, but the printing registration is consistently even - even better than USPCC decks in my opinion, which can sometimes be off center - so the backs like very nice. Quite a few of the decks use metallic inks, which adds to the visual appeal. Overall the card quality seems quite decent, and the printing is good.
Card handling: The first thing that immediately strikes you when you hold a deck of Noir Arts playing cards in your hands is how smooth the edges are - even smoother than decks produced by LPCC/EPCC, which I didn't think was even possible! It's the smoothest I've ever felt in a deck. At first I wondered if they were laser cut, but apparently that is not the case. A straight laser cut would mean that the edges aren't bevelled and that the cards can't be weaved together in a faro shuffle, but the Noir Arts decks do have a modern cut and it is certainly possible to do a faro shuffle without too much difficulty; especially when worn in a little. If you're an experienced card flourisher, you'll immediately notice some differences in how they handle compared with USPCC or LPCC/EPCC produced decks, because they have a different feel and response. The cards have a real snap and spring, and feel firm, with a stiffness somewhat similar to the Diamond/Master finishes from LPCC/EPCC. And like decks from LPCC/EPCC, the cards seem slightly clingy, which means that there is a slightly higher degree of friction between them. I didn't find them as clumpy initially as some people have reported, but the higher degree of friction is certainly evident, and they're not as smooth as other high end decks. I suspect this is a combination of two factors: embossing and coating. My impression is that the coating they use doesn't match the quality of the coating used by USPCC and LPCC/EPCC, and this means that their performance isn't as good. This does has some advantages, because it makes them especially excellent for doing cuts and moves involving packets of cards, which stay together well, and it also makes doing very clean double lifts easier. While they fan and spread reasonably evenly out of the box, it's not anywhere as slick as other high end decks, and it does deteriorate over time.
Card durability: One concern I've heard about from others is that NPCC cards aren't durable, and that the handling deteriorates over time. To be fair, the quality of their decks has improved over the years, as they've worked at upgrading their printing processes, so newer decks will perform better than older decks. But are the newer decks satisfactory? While the paper stock is good, it seems to me that the finish needs more work, and the combination of embossing and coating doesn't quite live up to the high standard necessary for card flourishing or card magic. Some people have reported some clumping happening when handling the cards initially, but this wasn't my experience. I did find that while they performed fairly good out the box, a bit of breaking in did make faros and fans work even better. But after a few hours of use, fans and spread were no longer as consistent, unlike what you see with USPCC or LPCC/EPCC decks. The cards do quite a bit of spring and snap, which normally indicates that they should go the distance, so the paper stock certainly will last, but with heavy use, you can expect to see some clumping and sticking of cards. They certainly outperform cheap department store decks, so I wouldn't consider it poor quality, and it certainly fine for playing card games, and standard shuffling and handling. But they don't quite live up to the exacting standards required by cardistry or magic, where consistency and durability are essential.
How do they compare? The big question for a lot of people will be how NPCC produced decks compare with the bigger and well-known names in the playing card industry, especially USPCC, LPCC/EPCC, and MPC. Are they a legitimate option to consider besides the usual contenders? Using the common letter grades of common academic grading systems, I'd personally ranks USPCC and LPCC/EPCC as A-grade publishers, and MPC as a B-grade publisher. Not everyone would agree, but in my own opinion (link) I think LPCC/EPCC ranks slightly ahead of USPCC both in terms of card quality and because of their level of innovation and the quality of their tuck boxes, so in the final analysis I'd consider LPCC/EPCC an A+ grade and USPCC an A grade. The fact that USPCC decks don't always have consistent registration where borders can sometimes be slightly wider/narrower than the opposite side also accounts for making them my second choice. But on the whole, project creators who use either source are unlikely to be disappointed. MPC decks on the other hand don't handle quite as smoothly or evenly, and the general consensus of most creators/collectors is that they aren't quite as good, which is why I'd consider them a B-grade. I'd rate Noir Arts decks about the same as MPC - they just don't handle as consistently or sweetly as USPCC/LPCC decks. Like MPC decks, Noir Arts decks aren't a reliable choice for cardistry or card magic. For the average person, they'll be quite satisfactory, and they'll outperform the typical "cheap" deck, hence the B-grade rating, but it's not top of the line. However, Noir Arts produces absolutely stellar tuck boxes, and in my book that means they deserve a higher rating than MPC, so I'd upgrade my final rating for NPCC to a B+. So in order, in my final analysis I'd rank these publishers as follows: A-grade: LPCC/EPCC (A+) and USPCC (A); B-grade: NPCC (B+) and MPC (B).
Who are they for? If you're getting these decks mostly as a collector, and because you like the tuck box, then I don't think you'll be disappointed. For use in card games they also should be fine. They'll not make the grade for most magicians, since they don't handle as sweetly as a USPCC or LPCC/EPCC deck, and because you can't count on consistent fans/spreads with heavy use. Card flourishers will likely find NPCC decks inadequate, unless all you do are packet style cuts. In short, I don't think the Noir Arts name should automatically make people stay away, because it depends on what the intended purpose of a deck is. If it's an artistic deck for collectors, and the cards aren't likely to see much use, then I think Noir Arts would make a good choice - their skills in making superlative tuck boxes especially recommends them. NPCC would not be my first choice for a deck designed firstly with card flourishing in mind, and even for card magic, but if it's a collector's type deck or even a creative or artistic deck designed to be used for playing card games, their quality should be just fine. A fair assessment requires us to remember their roots, which is evident from their name: Noir Arts. They are good at doing what was originally the genesis of their company, namely art. If I'm hoping for a "real looker" that looks luxurious and impressive on the shelf, or in a card game, seeing the Noir Arts name associated with that would be an assurance of quality.
Where to get? You can purchase Noir Arts decks from their webshop here.
So is Noir Arts (NPCC) for you? I came across Noir Arts and NPCC quite by accident, when exploring aspects the world of playing cards, but I'm very pleased that I did. They have produced some stunning decks of their own, using the artistic talents of creators internationally. In addition they provide what seems to be a good printing service for their many customers around their world. Knowing that this is a source that can be used to produce playing cards and fulfil crowd-funded projects will mean that many designers of custom cards will want to take note of this option they might otherwise not know about. As for the overall quality and handling of the cards, their quality is improving, although it doesn't match the best in the business like USPCC and LPCC/EPCC just yet, but is on par with second-tier publishers like MPC. The Noir Arts tuck boxes, however, are typically much more exquisite and impressive than MPC, and are first-rate.
While not geared towards producing playing cards that will satisfy the highest quality and exacting standards demanded by cardistry or card magic, Noir Arts is certainly focused on creating decks with a more artistic look, which they present in very impressive and high quality tuck boxes. Their playing cards cards have an air-cushion style finish and are of a quality that works well for playing card games or for collectors who admire an artistic style of deck. If that's what you're looking for, then do check them, their range, and their services out!
Want to learn more? Noir Arts: http://www.noir-arts.com
For reference, here are links to the entire series of seven articles:
Dark art and more from Europe's artistic Noir Arts playing cards (NPCC)
Part 1: Playful decks - Geistreiz, and Carnaval De Muertos Playing Cards
Part 2: Light/Darkness decks - Indictus, and Dominus Playing Cards
Part 3: Design Imperator decks - Chivalry, and Midgard Playing Cards
Part 4: History/Culture decks - Branle, and Nipponia Playing Cards
Part 5: Dark Art decks - Memento Mori, and Bone/Ebon Playing Cards
Part 6: Memorable decks - Chernobyl Memorial, and Animagique Playing Cards
Part 7: Wrap-up - Other Decks, and Final Conclusions