Professional Printing for Prototype Playing Cards

When I first started this blog, I took a look at some different ways to make cards for a game prototype. In that article, I gave professional printing pretty short shrift, deeming it too expensive and too slow to be practical. A few readers mentioned to me that there were places to get cards printed cheaper than I was estimating.

I’ve since had the opportunity to get cards printed by two popular print-on-demand services, so I wanted to compare and contrast these and one other printer, and look at their pros and cons, particularly from a prototyping perspective.

The General Benefits of Print Services

To be fair, there are some big benefits to having cards professionally printed for later prototypes. The fact that you get actual playing cards is a big one. In playtesting, I hate how shuffling and handling non-playing cards slows down a game and can break a game’s immersion. Any chance to use real cards helps the experience, in my opinion. Card sleeves come closest to the real thing, I think, but they tend to be very slippery, and make decks very thick and prone to falling over.

You also have no real work to do when you send designed files to a printer. With card sleeves, you need to print, cut and sleeve each card, a task that can take hours if you have 100+ cards. Even using index cards can requires a great deal of writing, especially if you’re putting multiple levels of information on each card.

I had a moment of enlightenment when I went to a local print center to get about 20 pages of card fronts and backs printed. It wound up costing me about $10, plus sleeves and cutting time. I got the same deck of cards printed for about $11, plus shipping. There was no cutting or sleeving, and the end result was a finished playing card, worlds apart from the thicker, slicker sleeved card.

The Game Crafter

The Game Crafter card
A card printed by The Game Crafter.

The first set of cards I received was from The Game Crafter, for a prototype of my blueprint/architecture game. I mostly needed a set of tiles printed (a whole other story) but decided to have the cards printed as well. The upload process is as simple as an in-browser service can be, and their templates make it a lot easier to prepare your files.

I hadn’t gotten a tuck box, so the deck arrived in a resealable plastic bag sized to hold a playing card deck. The cards had a somewhat glossy finish, which could be problematic in certain lighting, but the color and clarity were excellent, with no alignment or cutting issues. I had to ship the components out that day, so I didn’t get to play with them or test how they held up through multiple plays.

$1.56/18 cards (about $.09 per card)
Printed in increments of 18 cards


  • Low price

  • Pretty easy image upload system, with templates provided

  • Multiple size cards including poker, bridge, tarot, mini and micro cards

  • Offers box printing and rulebooks, plus a sales platform if you’re ready to publish


  • Production time varies between 5 to 10 business days depending on their workload, mine arrived a few days earlier than expected, but your mileage may vary

  • Smooth/glossy finish, no other stock options available

Printer Studio

Printer Studio cards
Cards printed by Printer Studio.

For my prototype of Eight Capers, I went through PrinterStudio, who I’ve seen a few designers mention both on Facebook and Reddit lately. They’re primarily a personalized gift site (photo books, calendars, etc.), but they also have the ability to print completely custom cards with your images and/or text. I’ve seen other sites that offer custom cards, but not without standard playing card iconography on them, so this option was a pleasant change of pace.

For the cards themselves, PrinterStudio offers a few different stocks, including a linen finish for about a $1 extra on a 90-card deck. Their design interface is on par with TGC’s, though you can’t upload more than 20-ish images at a time, which may slow things down depending on how many cards you’re printing. Otherwise, it’s a pretty painless process.

The cards arrived wrapped in cellophane. The printing was crisp and clear, with no alignment problems.

Ranges, depending on how many cards you need
$8.79 for 54 cards (about $.16 per card)
$11.64 for 90 cards (about $.13 per card)
$18.24 for 180 cards (about $.10 per card)

Printed in increments of 18 cards, minimum 54


  • Linen finish available for improved durability, along with a 100% plastic option

  • Decent upload system

  • Set production time (2-3 days, plus a week for 7 business days for standard shipping)


  • More expensive than TCG, especially at low quantities

  • No printed packaging options

  • Cases only available for 54-card decks


I haven’t used DriveThruCards for printing, but it’s been on my radar. It seems a little more cost-friendly to card-only games, but with some limitations as well. From what I understand, it’s file upload system is a little more difficult (you need to make a PDF of all card fronts and backs to upload, rather than being able to manage cards through their site). They do offer deckboxes in a couple sizes, for storing/transporting your prototype.

$.08 per card
Printed by-the-card, no minimums or set increments


  • Flexible printing/quantities

  • Lower cost

  • Sales platform available


  • No box/rulebook printing (not a huge issue when prototyping, but because their site is based around publishing games, it’s a little weird)

  • 1-2 week turnaround time

Wrapping Up

In the end, professional printing still isn’t the way to go when you’re starting a new game design or rapidly iterating – not so much because of the costs, but by the time you get a new edition of your game, you may already have changes to the design. However, if your card content is pretty solid, or you’re looking to playtest with people who may be distracted by a less-than-finished product, getting a deck of cards printed for your game is a more affordable solution than you might expect. And, to be honest, there’s nothing like seeing your rules and designs on a deck of real playing cards.

(Featured image via The Devil’s Work blog)

4 thoughts on “Professional Printing for Prototype Playing Cards

  1. Print and play productions, Andrew Tulson, also prints really good cards.

    Not being in the US is painful, it takes many, many days and a much higher price to get stuff shipped over to the uk.

    I once used moo.com to print my cards on business cards, quite a lot more expensive but quick turnaround. And I need smaller cards anyway.

  2. Pilatch uses thegamecrafter for prototypes as well, and I agree that they’re pretty good for prototyping. However, I hope to go with a company that specializes in production-quality playing cards for the finished product.

    For that, the two that I’ve communicated with are customplayingcards.com, and usplayingcard.com the major difference between the two is that the former will outsource your order to China if it gets very big. There is also the name recognition of the latter that is probably attractive.

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