The Ubiquity, Quality, & Variety of Print-on-Demand

UPDATE: Thanks to all the designers who helped suggest, inform, and appreciate this article. Since the initial posting, we have slightly revised the results table wording to be more clear. If you are considering hiring a PoD service based on the info found in this article, please read and carefully consider all the content to find which vendor is right for your project needs.

When my wife and I started designing board games nearly 10 years ago, thinking it’d turn into anything more
than a hobby was a bit of a pipe dream. This was a full two years before Kickstarter was even a thing, so really
the only option we saw was finding representation or going directly to a publisher, which was a very
intimidating prospect. Like many early designs, our prototypes were a hand-made affair…lots of inkjet-printed
cardstock, spray adhesive, and craft store components. But our “finished” versions weren’t much different. It
would be another five years before we were introduced to a whole new world of prototyping.




Print-on-Demand services are available in many industries. Essentially, they provide a way for creatives to sell
and distribute their works directly to consumers, one at a time, without having to maintain stock. The added
benefit for board game designers is they provide a way to produce relatively inexpensive yet high quality
prototypes for testing and reviewing, which are critical stages of development before attempting to self-publish.


Like any field related to technology, the information and services available change (and improve) rapidly. Over
just the last year we’ve seen several new companies enter the print-on-demand space, as well as established
companies improve their products dramatically. Because of this, we thought it’d be a worthwhile endeavor to
order some components of our latest game to compare the quality, cost, and turn-around time from several
different companies…essentially, comparison shopping to find our preferred vendor(s).


We also saw the value in this comparison for our designer friends, so we decided to host a playing card “taste
test”, to let a larger community help determine the best of the best in a non-biased, apples-to-apples comparison
(but not of Apples to Apples®). We enlisted the keen eyes and fingertips of designers at the DunDraCon
Protospiel and the Gamer’s Grind Playtesting Group to shuffle, flick, snap, slide, and examine cut & color for
poker size card decks from the following print-on-demand sources:


…as well as some additional non-scored features from each vendor:

  • printing cost – for a 54 card deck
  • shipping – including method, cost, and packaging
  • turn-around time – from order to receipt of product
  • other components – availability of boxes, rule books, and other bits


Below is a grid showing the average scores in each category, with 1 being the lowest score and 5 the highest.
We’ll summarize at the end with more detailed descriptions of the top scorers and reasons for selecting different



The cards from Printer’s Studio narrowly edged out DriveThruCards in total score, having the best overall
feel even though they had the largest color shift from the original art. When considering all of the review
criteria as well as the other considerations when working with these vendors, we’ve come up with the following
recommendations based on your prototype needs as a designer.

Best Price & Quality
Easily goes to DriveThruCards. If you’re willing to put up with the headache inducing publisher backend of
the website, you’ll get great looking cards quickly and at the cheapest total price in the roundup.

Best Quality & Ease of Use
This one goes to Printer’s Studio. Their deck setup is bested only by The Game Crafter, but their card quality,
particularly in snappiness and cut, bests the competition. If you’re making a basic card game and want the highest quality review copies, look around for their frequent coupons and get a good deal at Printer’s Studio.

Best Selection, Ease of Use, & Decent Quality
If you need to assemble anything more complex than a basic card game, The Game Crafter has you covered.
In fact, if you’re producing art assets for any of these vendors, start by using The Game Crafter templates…you’ll
end up with art that will fit easiest into any other vendor’s pipeline. They also provide just about any other
component you could imagine needing for your game, including tons of plastic and wooden bits to choose from.
Their quality, though currently not the top of the list, in continually increasing…and you should always make
sure UV finish is selected for your game (adding linen finish is up to your personal preference). Their standard
production and shipping time frame can be slow, but if you can afford rush processing, you can get stuff really
fast. Overall, TGC is the easiest to work with, has the widest selection, dedication to quality and selection
improvement, and best per-component pricing.

As more vendors come on the market, and as we develop games with additional components, we’ll continue to
bring our “taste test” methodology to area cons and events, so keep an eye out!

UPDATE 05/10/16

We have since ordered new batches of cards for Rocket Squad. The most notable improvement was in ordering a different stock of card from Print & Play Games. While we had previously ordered the “high end” black core cards, we were unsatisfied with the feel and cut quality of those cards. The second time around we ordered the more affordable “linen” stock, and though it is possible to see through the cards with a bright light source behind them, the texture, cut quality, and snappiness of the cards is much better. As long as you don’t need super opaque stock, and given the fact that Print & Play can typically turn around an order in 48 hours (or faster with a rush order), we highly recommend their linen product for feel, quality, and price, especially for prototypes.

11 thoughts on “The Ubiquity, Quality, & Variety of Print-on-Demand

  • Thanks for these detailed comparisons.

    It is great to have everything summarized in one place.

    Would you consider adding a new table to your update from 5/10/2016 to show revised scores for the Ad Magic Print & Play linen stock?

    Also do the 54 cards decks quoted come in a blank tuck box for the prices shown or would that be extra?

    Best regards

    Colum Higgins

    • Hi Colum. We will definitely be updating the tabled results…we’re just waiting for a few more vendors to come in before making any more changes.
      It depends on the vendor how the cards are delivered to you. Some provide clear plastic boxes, others plain white tuckboxes, and other simple ziplock baggies. For the most part, each vendor can provide you an option based on your preference and cost.

  • I’d be curious about your methodology on this test. The paper that we use at The Game Crafter is identical to Drive Thru, so I’m trying to understand how “weight” or “snap” could be any different between the two.

    • Hi JT. Thanks for checking in. The test was set up with 5 different identical looking decks, labeled 1 through 5. Everyone who participated examined each for the qualities listed in the test grid. All values were averaged across participants to come up with the final numbers.
      Obviously, a lot of this stuff is pretty subjective, and not everyone agrees on each aspect. We are huge Game Crafter fans and use you a lot, so we had to make sure we stayed impartial. The “weight” of the cards seems comparable between TGC and DTC (perhaps due to the paper). I can only imagine the “snappiness” difference come from the coating applied after printing? I’m not familiar enough with the process to deduce the difference, only to say that it is noticeable to us and the other participants. I think though the biggest difference was in cut quality. While cut consistency was the main issue with Print and Play black core (making shuffling a bad experience…though much improved with their linen cards), the actual edge of TGC cards had the most ink breakage along the edge…particularly noticeable on our dark cards. We have a large batch of prototypes showing up from you guys in the next day or so (with lighter ink colors), so I’ll be very interested to see how they compare. I know the quality of your products seems to have noticeable improvements every time we order something. As I mentioned, we’ll be updating these PoD comparisons over time as we gather new data.

  • Thanks for the reply. I guess we’d have to chalk it up to subjectiveness on the weight and snap.

    How big was your sample size? We’ve done a similar test between us and DTC with a sample size of just over 100 and gotten nearly identical results as you’d expect. It didn’t used to be that way until we went to our professional black core paper and UV coating.

    As to cut quality, I can see that with dark edges. The big difference there is that DTC uses ink and we use toner. Therefore theirs will have less edge chip with dark edges. Though we’re always working on improving as you said.

    Thanks for the article.

    PS. I should also mention that we do have a cheaper shipping option than the one you mentioned. The one you have listed is Priority Mail, which is the fastest but not cheapest. For decks of cards we also offer first class mail, which will bring the price down to $3 or $4 depending upon where you are located in the US.

    • Awesome! Thanks JT for the clarifications. Our sample size was smaller than yours, so subjectivity certainly played a part…though we also had a good deal of discussion after the fact to suss out any outlier opinions. I’ll update the results to reflect the additional cheaper shipping option you mentioned.

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