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*** Unique Playing Cards from Noir Arts ***

I appreciate things that are artistic, and you can tell already from the name of this outfit that these guys are really into art: Noir Arts. That's confirmed by their tag line: "We are Arts! Unique playing card designs". Noir Arts was officially formed in 2014, but their history goes back much further than this. Based in Ukraine, the people involved with Noir Arts have been producing beautiful playing cards for the local Ukrainian market already since 2005. I've seen pictures of some of the decks they produced during this phase, and while the majority of those decks were souvenir decks that will primarily have localized interest, they feature some beautiful designs and artwork.

Initially operating just under the label Noir Playing Card Company (NPCC), in 2014 they expanded to begin producing playing cards for the worldwide community. They began by designing their own decks, and soon began cooperating with talented independent artists and design studios. Presently they work not just with designers from Ukraine, but from all over the globe, and wherever they see talent that fits with their style. But always, the focus has remained on art. The result is a very strong portfolio of custom playing cards that represent diverse styles, but a very unique bent. They describe their vision as follows: "We strive to create each deck eye-catching, combining various features and styles, experimenting with new materials and techniques." Noir is French for "black", and so quite a number of their decks are more dark in theme. You'll find decks that reflect skull themes and horror, but equally royalty and humour. But what they all have in common is that they all are unquestionably unique and stylish.

The man behind Noir Arts is Roman Kotiv, and he and two partners are the team of three that is primarily responsible for making all of this happen. Roman is an engineer-constructor by trade, but has a love for collecting playing cards, and producing his own playing cards was a long-time dream come true. Since embarking on this road, he's learned an enormous amount along the way about how to produce premium playing cards. With the help of his partners and of more than a dozen workers who are involved in producing the actual cards in a printing factory, he's now producing a steady stream of quality playing cards.

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. While they continue to produce budget quality playing cards for the Ukrainian market with souvenir type decks branded with local company names, they have a division within NPCC that focuses on printing premium quality playing cards for the global market. Creators of custom playing cards are always looking for good sources to produce and fulfil their projects, so this will certainly be of interest to many designers - but only if they produce a quality product, and of course that's one of the things I'll be considering in this review. In this feature, I will showcase 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. I'll also come to some of my own conclusions, based on my personal experience with a wide range of their decks.



Geistreiz Playing Cards (2015)

I'll begin with one of my favourite decks in the entire Noir Arts portfolio, the Geistreiz Original version pictured here on the left in red, and later the Geistriz Classic version on the right in blue. Both of these have attractive tuck boxes with a smooth matt finish, with eye-catching and playful designs that immediately capture one's attention and interest.


The illustrations for this deck were created by Maike Venhofen and Stefan G. Halbuer. In a striking departure from many other decks in the Noir Arts portfolio that are darker in tone, this is more playful and fun deck, which yet retains a "noir" feel, accompanied with an incredibly unique style which I've never seen before.


The concept behind the Geistreiz deck was to focus on "unique characters with a modern touch, unique and interesting-looking. The main intention was to create a style of cards, never seen before." Judging by what you see here, I'm sure most people will agree that this aim was accomplished!


In addition to the unusual characters, each of the court cards (and especially the aces) all contain one added item of interest. Examples include a King with a tv-remote and a beer cup (King of Diamonds), or a glamorously looking Queen with long cigarette (Queen of Diamonds) or a glass of wine (Queen of Clubs). Here's a college of some of the cards:


The illustrations were hand-drawn and use a unique stipling technique in which small dots create shading and shadows.


Because the Geistreiz Original deck featured unusual pips, to enhance playability a Geistreiz Classic deck was also developed that had a more traditional layout and pips, while still retaining the unique artistic flavour and style of the original.

Here you can see the unusual suit icons used in the original deck, including the fact that each suit has its own colour.


A very energetic deck, the Geistreiz Playing Cards is a colourful and memorable creation that will be appreciated by those who have an eye for something different and lively, and with these decks, Noir Arts has made a very novel contribution to the custom playing card industry.

Carnaval De Muertos Playing Cards (2017)

The Carnaval De Muertos decks were produced earlier this year by Noir Arts with the help of nearly 1000 backers on Kickstarter. Two versions were made: the burgundy/yellow-themed Carnaval De Muertos Marigold deck and the white-green Carnaval De Muertos Alheli deck.


It's themed after the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a Mexican holiday tradition to celebrate the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties. Celebrations typically take place with street parties, parades, and vibrant clothes and festivities, with skeletons and skulls being common symbols, but depicted in a playful and colourful way.

All of these elements are captured in the lively court cards you see here, which are from the Marigold deck.


The card-backs of the Marigold deck have an intricately patterned design with vibrant colours, and the Jokers continue the playful theme which runs through the entire deck.


Even the number cards feature unusual pip designs and arrangements, and thin borders add a touch of style and class. However the indices remain easily recognizable for those who might want to use this creative deck for playing a card game.


The tuck cases of both decks are absolutely splendid, with the Marigold deck finished off with lavish red foil accents, while the companion Alheli deck is touched with magnificent gold accents. Photos really can't do justice to how amazing both of the tuck boxes look.

And the positive impressions only continue once you open the box, with both having interior printing that includes extensive foil - red foil in the case of the Marigold deck, blue foil in the case of the Alheli deck. You really need to see these boxes first-hand to see how impressive they are!


The companion deck to the burgundy/yellow Marigold is the white/green Alheli, which has a similar style to the Marigold deck but a different colour scheme. I was especially delighted to discover that although the Jokers in both decks have matching artwork, the court cards of the Alheli deck have completely new characters, for added variety.


The card backs of this deck - seen here with the Jokers - also feature an entirely different design.


Like the holiday that they celebrate, the Carnaval de Muertos decks are celebratory in nature, and take a light-hearted and playful look at what would normally be considered macabre subject matter. Noir Arts has done a fantastic job in bringing these wonderful decks to life in a very colourful and quality product, that is both fun and incredibly classy at the same time.



Unique: Many of these 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 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 style, and yet 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 are 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 shipping from Ukraine can take a long time, as I experienced.

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.

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 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.


The cards

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 and Asylum) seem to have a plastic style coating on the cards and have a very different feel. 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 the inlaid synthetic gem 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 decent.

Card handling: The first thing that immediately strikes you when you hold a deck 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. I wonder if they were laser cut, but a straight laser cut can mean that the edges aren't bevelled and that the cards can't be weaved together in a faro shuffle. However 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 certainly fine for playing card games. 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 an A, and MPC as a B. 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+ and USPCC an A; 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. 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 the best 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 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 to a B+. So in order, I'd rank them as follows: A+ LPCC/EPCC, A USPCC, B+ NPCC, B MPC.

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 an excellent printing service for their many customers around their world, and knowing that this is a source that can be used to produce premium quality playing cards will mean that many designers of custom cards will want to take note of this option they might otherwise not know about.

While not geared towards producing decks that will satisfy the purposes of cardistry or card magic, they are certainly geared towards a more artistic look, with quality tuck boxes, and cards that work well for collectors or playing card games. If that's what you're looking for, then do check them, their range, and their services out!


Want to learn more? Noir Arts:



BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
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