Warning: Long Post Ahead.
I'm currently in the beginning stages of doing a very small print-run of a card game; I wanted to have some very nice copies for friends and family as gifts, and also to get a feel for the costs and benefits of a small-time setup versus professionally printed, and partially just to see if I can do it. When it's all said and done, I should have between 100-200 copies. I thought some of what I've learned might be of help to others here.
After reading up on some of the possibilities over at Lee's Veritas Games site ( http://www.veritasgames.net/cgi-bin/design.cgi ), and pricing them out compared to printing at home with my inkjet, cutting them and Xyron laminating them, I decided to go with the option of having postcards printed and then cutting out the cards with an Ellison Die Cutting machine.
First, the postcards. I got samples from both http://gotprint.com and http://overnightprints.com, and I liked the cards from Overnight Prints the best with the matte finish, while the glossy options for both looked way too shiny. It was thick 14pt card stock, similar to what is in the Adlung card games or Clocktowers from Jolly Roger Games. I also got samples of business cards, since Overnight Prints had the option of rounding the corners for you, and hey, I'd be willing to shrink my cards down by 0.25" if it meant not having to cut anything out. The rounded edges looked nice, but the sample cards were all of slightly different sizes, and they say that things can shift by a small tolerance between each business card you print, and since the cards would need to be shuffled and exactly the same size, this didn't look like a good option. I chose the postcards.
As for which postcards, Lee mentions on his site that you want to print two different playing cards on one 4x6 postcard, or four different playing cards on a 5x7. For 100 copies, it was $40 for the 4x6 and $65 for the 5.5x8.5 option, saving $15. They currently have a "Free Shipping" deal if your order is over $75, which means the Overnight is out the window, but they still show up UPS in about a week. I had a friend who printed business cards with them in the past, and she said the colors were a little different that what was on her screen, the brown turned into a pale green. A bit wary, I sent off about half of the cards I need, and my colors came through just fine, and they were centered front-to-back as good as I can tell, the quality was very good. With this setup, there's no proofing of what they will print, you check to make sure things look right on your computer when you upload the appropriately-sized JPGs (300dpi), but supposedly they have a money-back guarantee if you don't like what you get. I haven't had problems yet, so I can't vouch for customer service. If you want to get the tuckbox for the cards printed at the same time, to use the 5.5x8.5 postcard option the maximum depth to your box is .666", if you use the cool tuckbox generator to make your boxes ( http://www.cpforbes.net/tuckbox/tuckbox.cgi ). This should be just enough for me to include the cards and the rules.
Now for the cutting. I've heard mentioned on bgdf by fastlearner and darkehorse of using an Ellison Die Cutting machine for making playing cards, with the Playing Card die http://ellison.com/shop/?p=product_detail&itemnum=12636 being very close to bridge-sized cards (2.25" x 3.5"). This was about $30 with shipping, and it looks very nice, with exactly 0.25" between the two cards, good for making my template in Illustrator. I found that our local library had the machine, so we reserved some time and headed out Saturday for some die-press fun. First we cut the 5.5x8.5 postcards in half, easier to handle that way. But getting everything lined up for cutting proved to be a trick, and my wife came up with some crafty solutions.
We made a three-layer template out of standard cardboard, similar thickness to a cereal box, and matte-board, usually used for making pictures, to hold the postcard in place. First, we placed the die on the corner of the cardboard and traced around the two inner sides of the die. Here we attached an L-shaped piece of matte-board with double-sided tape, so we could always place the die in the same spot each time; the matte-board was thick enough to make a good resistance to the rubber bottom of the die. We then used the die in that spot to punch out two holes for the playing cards. Taking off the die, we placed the postcard underneath the cardboard until we could see the cards with proper spacing on the borders. We flipped the cardboard and traced the postcard, and then cut this out so we could put the postcard in the same spot each time. Finally, we found we needed a third layer, two small tabs (one on the top, one on the side, about 1/4 inch so they would't be in the way of the cutting) to hold in the postcard with a small amount of double-sided tape, else we couldn't line it up and hold it in place as we put the die on top. This worked out the best, and eventually we made two templates to speed up the production line, so we could have one being loaded with the new postcard while the other was being cut and the playing cards removed.
On another site about making your own Tarot deck ( http://www.wopc.co.uk/otc/production.html ) they talk about someone's experience using the Ellison Die. The whole page has some good info for bgdfers, here's the relevant section for die-cutting:
The Die cutter makes a very consistent edge, but has the flaw of somewhat crimping in the edge of the card on the face side. (I cut with the backside to the die to make sure the backs are unmarked.) The cards still look good and shuffle well, so I'm just commenting and not complaining.
I also found the consistent edge, slightly rougher than I'd have liked but both cards were exactly the same size. The crimping was there too, bigger than I thought, so there's a little 1/16 inch rim around your card. I was able to fix this by smoothing them out with the back of a wooden spoon, a trick I picked up while doing blockprints a few years ago, and now the edges are barely noticable and the cards look much better, although it does take a bit of time. Also, the black on the rubber part of the die seemed to flake off just a bit, getting little black particles everywhere, which means the cards need to be dusted off before you can use them. We were able to get the pattern down such that we could make a cut in less than every 30 seconds, so 4 cards a minute, 240 per hour.
So, is this for you? I don't know. We'll be heading back to the library this weekend to finish our first batch of punching, then getting the rest of the cards printed and starting up again in May when they arrive. If you want to make about 100-200 copies, have a lot of duplicate cards in your deck, and are on a budget, this might work for you, it's the cheapest but takes a lot of labor to make the finished product. Would I do it again? Maybe, we'll see how I feel when I actually finish this project. The extra cost of going to a professional publisher might be worth it.
I'll have more info about the game when we wrap up the cutting, and if I think of anything else that comes up I'll add to this post, hope this was helpful to others thinking about doing the same thing someday.