Friday, 25 October 2013

Artscow review: custom card decks for Longstreet and Blood & Sand

Card-driven games as not to everyone's taste and while some people loathe them, I love them. I sometimes think this dislike of card-based rules is something of a knee-jerk reaction as there are as many ways to use cards in a game as there are rules out there. For example, cards are at the heart of Sam Mustafa's Longstreet ACW rules, governing turn sequence, activations and impacting the effect of the units' actions while they play an entirely different role in Real Time Wargames' Blood & Sand colonial Sudan rules where they determine game length and the arrival of Mahdist units. Games from the Toofatlardies or Piquet stables again use cards in a very different manner.

While I like card-driven games because I find they usually give a good feel for the uncertainty of battlefield friction, the one thing I dislike is figuring out the effect of that Queen of Spades by looking it up in the rules. Or cutting up loads of cards from a PDF printout. Enter Hong Kong-based Artscow (a similar service is provided by Printer Studio in the US), an online company that allows you to print your own images on everything from mugs, key chains and blankets to... cards. These 54 card decks come in different flavours:
  1. Playing Cards (Mini) are the least useful as they are small regular playing cards where you can only upload an image for the back;
  2. Playing Cards 54 (Mini) are the same but you can choose an image for the back and one for each front face, with or without poker symbols;
  3. Playing Cards Single Design are the same as 1. above but in standard size
  4. Playing Cards 54 Designs are the same as 2. above but in standard size
  5. Multi-purpose Cards (Rectangle) are standard size cards that allow you to choose a different image for the front and back of each and every card (which is useful for combining different decks in one order).
Artscow has a Silverlight-driven card designer which is pretty intuitive although it could do with better instructions and their forum isn't all that much help. On the plus side, you can define text and image boxes for (relatively) precise and consistent placement and the former allows you to use vector-based text. On the minus side, it lacks one vital tool which is "clone card layout" and what this means is that each card's layout has to be defined individually which can be a chore. In addition, the preview mode is relatively inaccurate (trust the designer rather than the preview) and it is not easy to see exactly how your cards will come out if you include objects near the edge. On the other hand, it does allow you to save your deck under a different name so if you have a layout you are happy with you can easily use it again with different text and images. As an example, since I will be providing all the cards for my games, I have two nearly identical decks of Longstreet action cards with one difference: the dice pips indicating the morale value are red in one deck and black in the other making them easy to separate if they are mixed up.

Another major advantage is that you can share your designs with other people (something you can't do with Printer Studio) who can then have them printed as is, change images, texts or fonts or use them as templates for their own cards (unlike places such as Shapeways, you don't get any commission from people having your shared sets printed). There are quite a few decks for wargame rules from stables such as Piquet or the Toofatlardies although you'll have better luck finding them with Google or by trawling the relevant mailing lists and forums than using Artscow search function. You can find some by going through the Artscow user gallery but you need to brace yourself for endless numbers of babies and wedding cards and gadgets...

As something of a test, I made a couple of decks for Longstreet and Blood & Sand. The Longstreet deck (see photos above) is simply the basic actions deck that Sam Mustafa has made available for free as a PDF download. While I have ordered the full official deck, the reason I paid for something I could get for free is that two basic decks are needed for a game (the campaign, terrain and personalities cards from the official deck are sufficient for two players) and I'd rather have both players using similar decks than one using the official deck and the other a PDF printout (I also prefer the mini card size to reduce clutter). Since I was making a deck for my own use, I was also able to change the layout and symbols slightly to something I preferred while using artwork that I find more inspiring but which is copyrighted (one of the reasons I won't be sharing this deck, so don't even ask). These cards were entirely designed with the Artscow designer and the more complex have five image and three text boxes. The Blood & Sand deck is much simpler with only the Court cards needing one image and two text boxes while the other cards were simply filled with images that are in the public domain images (where I live anyway).

So what do you get for your money? Well, you get half-decent cards in a rather light cardstock (think double-sided photo paper). Colours are not totally consistent across the deck and there are some cutting issues with some slight shifting which makes it difficult to get very consistent positioning near the edges (the two "rebel yell" cards above should have come out exactly the same but the shift is very noticeable). There are better quality alternative out there (such as Printer Studio, see below) but I find the quality of Artscow sufficient for cards that probably won't see as much use as your well-worn lucky Poker deck. And it certainly beats cutting out cards with a ruler and a cutter.

One of the best things about Artscow cards is the price which ranges from $7.99 to $13.99 for the decks described above before any special offers. These prices are not exactly cheap but Artscow has a policy of sending coupons very often with special offers that include free worldwide shipping and discounts of 20 to 40% (and once in a very long while up to 50%). So you can get a good deal if you are not in a hurry, save the designs you want to buy and wait for an interesting special offer. As an example, these decks sat in my account for a while but, in the end, came to less than $5 each with free shipping across the world.

Some useful links:


  1. Very interesting. Some of the members of the Two Hour Wargames forum have made some nice cards for the All Things Zombie game. I wonder if I should put my Age of Blood Fate deck on Artscow?

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