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Many of us are looking forward to spending time amongst friends and family this coming winter, and with that arrives the promise of a new pastime potential: playing cards.Handout

If there’s an inanimate object that best defines the past two years, it’s the puzzle. For one thing, the pandemic has introduced an unprecedented level of chaos, akin to what happens when you first dump out hundreds of puzzle pieces. Then, there has been the need to occupy endless hours, especially ones spent solo, which for many was sated with the completion of all manner of puzzles, be they minimalist or eclectic in aesthetic.

Now, many of us are looking forward to spending time amongst friends and family this coming winter, and with that arrives the promise of a new pastime potential: playing cards. I’m not talking about your classic Bicycle deck – although they’re certainly nostalgic and retain a sense of classic graphic design. There’s a host of new card decks on the market – from tony offerings by luxury fashion brands to the pop culture-themed fare from the card-focused brand Theory 11 – set to delight serious players and idle time passing types alike.

Art of Play is a company run out of California founded by Dan and Dave Buck. The twin brothers are touted as pioneers of cardistry, the art of creating all manner of fanciful motions and formations of cards, and the company boasts an eye-catching selection featuring designs done by artists including Philadelphia-based Armando Veve. His Cabinetarium deck took around two years to complete, says Dan Buck, and each card features “a unique illustration [from Veve’s] imaginative curiosity.”

Noting that Art of Play’s customers include serious gamers, magicians and collectors, Buck says that the brand’s San Diego storefront allows the card playing-curious to come in and see which of the many decks pique their visual preference. “It’s really fun for people to come in and just stare at our giant wall,” Buck says. “To find what fits them, what goes with their home decor, what goes with their style. There’s all these choices, and we try to have a deck for everyone.” For those who’ve built up a reserve of card decks, Art of Play also sells an ornate, display-worthy DIY drawer that holds up to nine packs.

As part of Art of Play’s endeavour to bring a creative twist to your next stretch of leisure time, the brand recently collaborated with the Toronto-based design studio Humble Raja on its newest deck, called Forbidden Forest. The designs represent fantastical takes on figures found in South Asian mythology, and it’s the second card deck created by Humble Raja.

The first, Kings of India, explores notable royalty from India’s Maurya, Gupta, Chola and Mughal dynasties. Studio founders Reena and Bhavesh Mistry, who grew up in Toronto, have South Asian ancestral roots. But as Reena admits, their knowledge about the area’s history was lacking.

“Our parents infused a lot of South Asian culture into our lives, but a lot of it was family traditions,” she says. “We didn’t really know much about more practical things like the history of India. [Creating] the Kings of India deck was a sort of way of teaching ourselves about a part of our education that we felt was missing in the West.”

In this way, Humble Raja’s card decks serve as symbols of reconnection to the region’s rich past. “It’s a very nice medium for categorizing information,” Reena says. “And [for] telling a visual story in a way that’s not necessarily a straight-up book, [but] not as loose as a series of illustrations.”

The Forbidden Forest card deck was launched as a Kickstarter campaign this fall, with product set to appear soon in Humble Raja’s online store. The project raised more than $50,000 in a month – a testament to the appeal of purposeful play. Speaking of which, Reena offers up these two beloved suggestions for your next gathering: Choka (a trick-taking game) and Golf (the eight-card version is a family favourite).

Kickstarter has proven to be fertile ground for card makers’ ideas. Product designer Rob Hallifax’s Cartesian Cards just completed a campaign for its novel One Deck Game Cards – a deck that can be used for rousing games of chess, backgammon, dominoes and more. The success of its campaign – at time of writing, funds were at more than $125,000 – likely didn’t come as much surprise to Hallifax given a previous campaign for his first deck design featuring an array of cocktail recipes handily eclipsed its goal.

Perhaps this is because Hallifax launched his card brand in 2020 after leaving a day job in the tech world, satisfying an ambition to do his own thing and motivated by a personal passion for cards, not to mention addressing new quarantine-induced behaviours and interests such as mixing cocktails at home.

The One Deck Game Cards also speak to our evolving needs, from expanding what kinds of activities we can do with whom to the fact they’re easily packable for travel. But mostly, this and other unique decks fulfill that all-important in-person unity we’ve been craving for many months.

“There’s a contrast to the digital domain, and playing [games] on phones and computers,” Hallifax says of the pleasure in sitting around a table, holding playing cards in one’s hands. “It’s quite nice to bring an analog product into the physical world that can bring people together.”

Try your hand

Whether looking to gift a gamer in your life, hoping to encourage a little visually enhanced social activity or simply seeking to spend quality solitary time, consider one of these dynamic decks.

Graphic content

This retro-tinged set includes a case made from Demetra, an animal-free material that comes from largely plant-based components, is truly out of the ordinary. Geometric G playing card set, $385 at Gucci.

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Feature comforts

Showcasing the outstanding craftwork of women from the Black community of Gee’s Bend, Ala., this set doubles your playing pleasure with two card decks. Quilts of Gee’s Bend play cards, $24.95 at Winnipeg Art Gallery.

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Bottoms up

With a custom design by art director and graphic designer Niels van Gijn, each card divulges a recipe and glassware recommendation for classic tipples. Cocktail Cards, £13.50 ($22.95) for one deck through cartesiancards.com.

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