The Contraband deck tells a subtle story in card design

I've been collecting playing cards since I was a kid. After amassing enough to choke Godzilla, I have a thing or two to say about the ones that stand out to me. 

aces of spades_

When I used to open a pack of cards, the first one I was drawn to was the Ace of Spades. It was always the low-hanging fruit of awesomeness in a new deck, but as time went on, my tastes changed. There's so much more going on on the backs of playing cards, the court cards, and on the box itself.

A London based designer, Joe White, took a full year to jam as much symbolism into his Contraband deck as possible. It's so stuffed with content that it feels like it's a treasure map to nowhere—and I think that's the point.

You're supposed to create the journey yourself.

If you look closely, you'll find skulls, pirate symbols, the eye of Horus, hanging keys, the holy grail, Eve's apple and the gates of heaven.  I thought these things were thrown in willy-nilly at first, but when I took the time to break things down, I saw a unified story.


The box is covered with delicate embossing, foil stamping and interwoven designs. An "X", which literally marks the spot in the center of the box, spawns a cacophony of imagery.


On the X itself, we have the Latin phrasing Carpe Noctem – seize the night, and Carpe Diem — seize the day. I put a lot of thought against this and here's what I've come up with – There's an elite group within the deck called the court cards. They're the most powerful, and all others bow before them. The Latin phrases throughout the deck are the collected mantra for the court cards, and they've set their plans in motion long ago: they make their fortunes off the backs of the working class who toil day and night by moving Contraband through their intertwined global network.

The artwork is symbolic of the iron grip the wealthy have over the world. The contraband weapons are poised to be used for war at a moment's notice, while the world is chained in submission.

I'm not a conspiracy guy or anything – that's just the narrative I see in the deck.

At the bottom of the box we have another Latin phrase:

Cerca TrovaSeek and you shall find.


The phrase seems empowering at first glance, and besides being a biblical reference, it has interesting wartime history that changes the meaning altogether.

The phrase was painted in Vasari's 1554 fresco, The Battle of Marciano.


It's an awesome piece that depicts an important battle fought by the troops of the Duke Cosimo I de Medici against the city of Siena—the Duke was victorious and gained control over Tuscany because of it.

When you look very closely you can see the phrase Cerca Trova as clear as day on the green banners carried by the soldiers of Siena.


This depiction of the battle is, however, revisionist history. The reality was that Siena soldiers actually flew their flags with a verse from Dante:


He goes in search of freedom, which is so dear,

As he who gives his life for it would know.


Siena fought for its freedom, but instead found defeat and history was rewritten by the victorious Duke. He had this painting commissioned after the battle and the message was changed to Cerca Trova – seek and you shall find.

They searched for freedom and the Duke made sure they found it only in their deaths.

That, in itself, is interesting. But consider this: when the box that holds the cards is opened, a skull is revealed on the inner flap. It's the only one depicted in the entire package.


When you close the box, the skull is tucked (or buried) under the very phrase that actually refers to death. Could that skull represent the soldiers form Siena?

Probably not! But, moving right along…

The aces in the Contraband deck take the cake as far as denseness and complexity goes.

There's so much layered art and detail that it's difficult to make out what they're trying to be or say. The printing is too small for the amount of content that wants to come across and each of the aces needs a companion poster to help with that.


But that won't stop me from appreciating or analyzing what I can see.

The latin phrase audaces fortuna luvat can be found on the white banner of the Ace of Spades, which translates to fortune favors the bold.


Below is the Goddess of luck, Fortuna.  She most closely represents this latin phrase in Greek Mythology.


When it comes to this deck, Fortuna is important because of her connection with Roman Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

On the battlefield, he believed in the influence of the goddess Fortuna and because of that was a consummate risk-taker. He became famous for wearing disguises and living among the enemy – and this brings me to what I think is the most interesting thing about the Contraband deck.

A few of the characters are either having an identity crisis or are masters of disguise.  As you will see, there is cross-pollination among the suits.

Here are the four jacks of the deck. Each one is well designed and in keeping with the contraband weapons theme.


Sure, there are no "two-eyed" jacks (as there are in most of the other decks I've studied) but there is something else going on here, and it all stems from the King of Hearts.


It's a subtle thing, but once it's brought to your attention, it's all that you'll ever see: this King of Hearts is not suicidal.

Normally, the King of Hearts is depicted with a sharp instrument plunged through his head or into his neck.

Go ahead. Check out a few of your favorite decks of cards.

suicide-kingYou'll find that the king is usually trying to off himself with a sword, one way or another. It's possible that yours isn't as obvious and graphic as my example, but you'll see what I mean.

It's almost as if when the time came to create the portrait of these guys, the models were too busy to pose with the correct costumes or props.

This brings me to the King of Spades.


We're catching a glimpse of this king just before he plunges his knife into his sternum. He has adopted the classic "Suicide King" role as his own, and he seems to be pissed about it.  

The King of Hearts, however, doesn't look pissed or scared at all. He's looks pretty contented, actually. Almost too content.

When you compare the King of Hearts with the other kings of the group, an un-ignorable inconsistency jumps out. The King of Hearts is definitely a fraud!

all kings 2

The King of Clubs, Spades and Diamonds are classically gnarled, old and bearded, while our King of Hearts is different.

To put it clearly, The King of Hearts has the head of a jack.

Again, I invite you to look at your favorite decks of cards and compare the kings.   You'll definitely find that their heads all look very similar.

My final theory

The current King of Hearts is actually the Jack of Hearts in disguise. He waited for the King of Hearts to off himself and before anyone else could find out, he stepped in and has successfully become the king. For the past year or so, he's been going around the court pretending to be two men at once to keep the ruse going. From the look of things, he gets the best of both worlds.

The King of Spades, has been trying to get into the Queen of Heart's pants for a very, very long time and now realizes he can't compete with the new and improved King of Hearts. For this reason he's chosen to off himself.


It's a sad tale, for sure, and I'd like to think there's a lesson here somewhere. For now, I have three potentials:

  • Even those with a lot of Contraband wealth still have sadness in their lives – enjoy what you've got.
  • Never trust a beardless King. He's probably just an un-mustachioed Jack anyway. 
  • Everyone wants to bang the Queen of Hearts.

Those lessons are as good any I guess.

When I design my own deck of cards, the Contraband deck will certainly bring a lot of inspiration for its convoluted tale – again, right or wrong, I don't care.  

At $7.95 for this deck, this is about as entertaining as it gets – in my head anyway.