What Are the Viceroys Playing Cards?

  • 52 poker-sized (2.5" x 3.5") playing cards
  • A print of unique artwork on every card
  • Double-ended back design
  • 305 μm card stock with linen finish
  • Custom tuck box
  • Printed by Cartamundi in Belgium

The Viceroys playing cards are my answer to the question: how could a deck of cards look if drawn in the Mamluk style but with the standard international suits?

The cards have the structure of a standard deck of playing cards, with suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades. The cards, though are all decorated with floral patterns and borders. There are also the usual court cards, Jack, Queen, and King, though these cards are unusual in that they do not show pictures of the royal figures, but follow the style of the Mamluk cards, being decorated only with patterns.

Mamluk style clubs

Clubs suit in the Mamluk style: The court cards have calligraphy and mottoes, but no faces

Mamluk style diamonds

Diamonds suit in the Mamluk style

The Inspiration Behind the Viceroys Playing Cards

One of the earliest surviving decks of historical playing cards is the so-called Mamluk deck of cards, held at the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul. These cards have an important place in the history of playing cards. They were probably created around the 15th century, probably somewhere around Egypt, then under Mamluk rule.

The Mamluk cards are extravagantly decorated, and their appearance is quite spectacular. The patterns were drawn by hand, then coloured and gilded. The pips themselves are surrounded by elaborate floral designs to make a carpet effect. Each card is topped with decorative scrollwork, and finished with a patterned border.

The structure of the Mamluk deck (in its current form — it has been modified since its creation) seems to be similar to a modern deck of playing cards: with four suits, each consisting of ten number cards (1—10) and three court cards. The four suits are polo sticks, swords, coins, and "myriads" (drawn with the appearance of cups). So these suits are clearly related to the modern Spanish and Italian playing card suits as well as those of tarot cards. The court cards are called the King, the Viceroy, and the Second Viceroy.

Several of the cards (all the court cards plus some others) have blue panels with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic. These are typically poetic luck maxims. In addition, the court cards have further calligraphic inscriptions identifying them by name. There is a clear difference in iconography for the Kings also, as these cards all have a square / star geometric pattern underneath the suit symbol.

The New Design

All of the decorative elements on the Viceroys playing cards come from the Mamluk cards. The geometry and the way the cards are laid out is an important factor in the design of any deck of cards. And one of the main challenges of this project was to translate the geometry of the rather long and thin Mamluk designs to the more squat shape typical of modern playing cards. In laying out the suit symbols, the ideas for the "red" suits of hearts and diamonds come mainly from the Mamluk coins suit. The layout for the "black" suits of clubs and spades is based more on the Mamluk cups (myriads) suit. The other two Mamluk suits of polo sticks and swords have very long shapes that are quite unlike any of the standard suit symbols in appearance.

I wanted to distinguish the "red" and "black" suits by colour as is typical for standard playing cards. But I wanted also to retain the spectacular multicoloured look of the original cards. I chose to paint the "red" suits with a colour scheme featuring two shades of red as well as blues and yellow. For the "black" suits, these reds were swapped for two shades of green.

I chose to stick to the standard court cards of Jack, Queen, and King for each suit. The Kings in the Viceroys deck include the square / star pattern and special borders seen in the Mamluk cards. Special iconography for the other two court cards in the Mamluk deck is much less obvious. For the Jacks and Queens in the Viceroys deck, I either made the suit symbols more elaborately patterned, or added an extra pip-like object that is seen on some of the Mamluk cards, but probably there has only a decorative role.

Each of the court cards in the Viceroys deck has two calligraphic inscriptions (in English). The name of the card is written at the bottom. At the top, I have composed good-luck mottos similar in sentiment to those appearing on the Mamluk cards. Some of these are very close in idea to the Mamluk inscriptions, others less so.

I also added corner indices for increased playability, and a further outer border in either red or black. This outer border is not seen on the Mamluk cards, but similar borders can be found surrounding illuminated carpet pages in many Mamluk manuscripts.

Mamluk style hearts

Hearts suit in the Mamluk style

Mamluk style spades

Spades suit in the Mamluk style

The great majority of early playing cards had plain backs. But for the Viceroys playing card design, I have added a repeating geometric print pattern to the card backs. Such geometric patterns are a common feature of Mamluk art, and this pattern is based on a tiled expansion of the geometric design seen on all the King cards.

The cards are delivered in a custom tuck box.

card back and tuck box

The card back and tuck box

Bonus cards

Title cards or jokers


Each of the 52 cards in the Viceroys deck is unique. The patterns were drawn in ink. The colours were then done in watercolour over a trace of the pattern outline. And then the two layers were combined digitally.

Drawing in progress

Drawing in progress

Painting, finished and in progress

Painting, finished and in progress

The calligraphy was done in black ink on paper. Then this was digitally switched to white-on-blue, and the lettering was then overlayed digitally onto the card design.

What About the Name?

The historical Mamluk deck of cards is sometimes called "Kings and Viceroys" (or "Kings and Deputies" — the word "viceroy" means "deputy king"). The four suits each had three court cards: the King (malik in Arabic), a Viceroy (na'ib), and a Second Viceroy (na'ib thani). Anyone familiar with Spanish playing cards will know that the modern Spanish name for playing cards is naipes. This seems to be directly derived from the Arabic word for viceroy or deputy, clearly associated with playing cards. Although I have replaced the two Viceroy court cards with Jacks and Queens, the name lives on in the name of the deck as a whole.


You can order the Viceroys playing cards here.