Completing his journey through Tolkien’s trilogy, artist Jackson Robinson’s 52-card playing deck designed around The Return of the King allows fans to play Hold ‘Em with their favorite kings of Middle-earth. Robinson chats with us about finding fresh new ways to be creative with the most successful and standardized tabletop game of all time.

These officially licensed playing cards feature original artwork designed by Robinson, based on and inspired by the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like adaptations in other media, he has full access to every word in The Lord of the Rings books to draw original inspiration from. The first deck in the LOTR series, based on Fellowship of the Rings, became one of his most successful crowdfunds ever, with over 8,000 fans taking it over 3,000% its funding goal in 2022. A year later, The Two Towers similarly exploded in popularity. For this third set, a beautiful new wood box and display case for the whole trilogy of card packs has been created.

The Road Less Traveled and following a new career path

How does one start making official The Lord of the Rings cards? This all started with an idea and an artist’s hand. “I lived in Los Angeles for a few years and was an art director for a game studio, trying to get into that kind of Hollywood world via toy packaging. King Wild Project, my playing card thing, really kind of happened by accident. I had never thought about doing playing cards before in my life, and I did a playing card Kickstarter that was a deck of cards that looked like money, that was called the Federal 52. This was in 2013, and it kind of just blew up and fell in my lap. My wife and I were like, uh, what’s up with this? And so, it was literally, I’m gonna do this playing card thing until it breaks. I ended up quitting my full-time job to get started, and it hasn’t broke yet. My story kind of went in a different direction from where I thought I wanted to go, but I’m kind of glad that it did because I was able to kind of go on a path that there’s not very many people on right now. Even though the playing card world has kind of exploded over the past 10 years, it’s still a very small world, and a very small niche, and I get the freedom to kind of do what I want with it. The excitement is getting able to do what I want, in terms of being able to make the Lord of the Rings characters!”

Robinson’s company Kings Wild Project has since worked with Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN, Frank Frazetta’s estate, and created original playing card decks around other fun themes like the Founding Fathers and Arthurian legends. “Illuminated manuscripts is a big influence for me. A lot of my decks are based on classic literature so anytime I do a classic literature deck, I try to pair up the card style with a kind of art style that could have been around the same time period. So I did a deck of cards called the Arthurian, which is the King Arthur legend, and it’s in the style of the Book of the Kells.”

Even the lettering and fonts are all original, including The Lord of the Rings title on the card box. “All the artwork, from every letter to every line, that’s all artwork that I do myself. I do have an incredible crew of about four people that work for me that have been with me the past few years. They’re a great crew, but the artwork is all stuff that I do.”

More than just 52 card decks

Robinson is partnering with Shire Post Mint for buttons and a black walnut box adornment. “Something that’s brand new that we haven’t done before is for people that play poker, blackjack or whatever, they have this dealer button or card cover. It’s basically something that you put over your cards to signify to the dealer that you don’t want to take a hit or you don’t want any more cards, or it also signifies that this person’s the dealer as that dealer button travels. We call it the dealer medallion and it weighs close to half a pound.”

Another option in this kickstarter is a tabletop puzzle. “We’ve done a jigsaw puzzle for each deck. We have a Fellowship puzzle, The Two Towers puzzle, and now the Return of the King puzzle. Because this is the third deck in the series, there’s a lot of things that are kind of like the best-of, all-star thing. It doesn’t just have the Return of the King characters on the puzzle, it has all of the cards from all three decks. Plus our jigsaw puzzles are two sided, so there’s usually a photo of the playing cards spread out over a table to assemble.”

Because these cards are made with the book license from Middle-earth Enterprises, there was a bit of a challenge to avoid hewing too close to the popular movies. “If Legolas starts to look like Orlando Bloom a little bit, we need to bring it back. Or looking at that little description of the eye ringed in flame, I was just kind of pulling on what the text said. Apart from the big eye on the top of the tower or that iconic helmet from the movies, it felt like I can’t put spikes on anything that’s gonna go straight up or it’s gonna look like the movies. So, that was fun, but it was also nerve-wracking.”

For the first time, we can reveal these officially licensed Middle-earth National Park patches designed by Robinson.

Telling a story through materials

It’s not just character designs that are considered. There are gorgeous borders, pips, filigree, and ornate details everywhere, on every card. “Going back to the storytelling aspect of it, that’s something that I’ve tried to do. Going beyond not just portraying the character, but also trying to tell a kind of a meaningful story throughout. In the Fellowship of the Ring deck, the borders were all themed based on a season. Spring, Winter, Summer, Fall. The Two Towers borders were based on elements like fire, water, wind, and earth. Now, with Return of the King, they’re all based on metals. Mithril, which is the spade border; Iron, that’s the clubs; Gold, the hearts. It builds on the cohesiveness of it actually being a functional deck of playing cards where the spades are all this kind of red background with this ironwork, and the diamonds are all this to help to tell a story, but it gives more layers of storytelling.”

The Lord of the Rings cards come in standard printing and foil printing, which also includes gilding of the side edges of the card. Check out everything and discover more details here.

Watch the hour long interview with Jackson Robinson on his The Lord of the Rings cards below:

TORn’s good friend Donato Giancola is no stranger to the realms of Middle-earth. His book Middle-earth: Journeys in Myth and Legend is filled with incredible art inspired by Tolkien, and at 2022’s exhibition of his work at the Huntsville Museum of Art, his giant ‘Beacons of Gondor’ painting took centre stage.

He now brings us word that he has completed his latest large-scale painting. This time the title is ‘Bridge of Khazad-dûm’. Here’s a video of the work:

If you’d love to have such a masterpiece hanging on your wall, the good news is that prints are available – in limited numbers! Find out how you can get your hands on a print – and other Middle-earth goodies – here. And feast your eyes on ‘Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ in all its glory:

‘Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ by Donato Giancola

Today in Annecy attending press were treated to glimpses of the upcoming film The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim. TORn didn’t have anyone present there, but the good folks at Warner Bros. were kind enough to share with us some of the first movie images being revealed; and we had a chance to sit down again, before Annecy, with producer Philippa Boyens, to chat some more about this hotly anticipated movie – and other returns to Middle-earth, coming in the future.

Feast your eyes on the images! And enjoy the conversation between Boyens and staffer greendragon.

GD: Hi Philippa, thanks for taking this time – and it’s very, very exciting to see some images. We all just can’t wait to see it and are excited for what’s going to be revealed at Annecy –  and these three images that we have to look at. So, I have a million questions but can we plunge straight into the images?

PB: Absolutely.

HÉRA voiced by GAIA WISE in New Line Cinema’s and Warner Bros. Animation’s epic anime adventure “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE WAR OF THE ROHIRRIM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

GD: Great. I’m looking at the first one that was sent to me, which presumably is Hera, our heroine. And the first thing I have to ask you – and I don’t know if you’re going to be able to answer this question: is that Herugrim that we see in her hand there? Is that the 500-year-old heirloom of Rohan that ends up with Theoden?

PB: Well, given some of the concept artists that were involved in this film, I would say that’s probably a pretty good guess. You know the attention to detail that those guys go into. So people like Daniel Falconer and, of course, John Howe, Alan Lee, you know. And then the brilliant Japanese concept artists, not just animators but concept artists as well, have worked on this. We’ve just been spoiled, honestly, absolutely spoiled.

GD: I can well imagine! Talk to me a little bit about this character Hera, because I’ve been fascinated by some of the things I’ve read that you’ve said in other interviews, about her being inspired somewhat by the Lady of the Mercians, Aethelflaed. And your talk of that reminded me also of Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, who was known as Lady of the English. So we’ve got these early medieval women who did not end up ruling, but who kept the country together in these powerful, strong ways. And clearly in this image, Hera is being very fierce. It looks like her sword is touching someone’s shoulder that we’re just seeing in the edge of the picture. Tell me a little bit about this strong female character that I’m very excited to see.

PB: Yes, she is a strong female character; but what I really love about her, she’s a very real female character – which I think is a strength of what Professor Tolkien did with the Rohirrim, and we’ve drawn on that. Eowyn was drawn so beautifully. I mean, you know, of course, with Galadriel and Arwen, you’re dealing with immortals, you’re dealing with the quality of, I was going to say the fae, but I won’t say that, but that otherworldly quality that is inherent in the elves. With Eowyn, I always felt that she was drawn in a very real way. And so we’ve kind of tried to continue in that tradition.

She’s not named in the books and we do point that out – I won’t tell you how! – but I do think it’s interesting that often women remain unnamed. There’s an unnamed daughter in Beowulf, for example. That was immediately intriguing; but what i do say is i don’t feel in any way that Professor Tolkien was slighting that character in not naming her. I  think he hadn’t gotten around to telling that part of the story; and i do believe that if he had told that part of the story, given that he was a Mercian of sorts himself, how could he not perhaps have drawn on alfred the great’s daughter? And so she felt authentic. Although, having said that, I know he also said that the Rohirrim were not pure Anglo-Saxon derivatives, you know, there’s a lot of other facets to them – including his own imagination that he drew upon.

But I’m so glad you mentioned Matilda, because I think in the same vein, you’re absolutely right, that somehow they had the facility to hold their people together without necessarily having the title of ruler. They were leaders because they showed leadership and courage when it was needed. It’s resilience, you know, often time and time again, they show something special and save their people. , I think that that was one of the things that drew us to her.

And we wanted to make sure that she was as authentically human as she could be. So she’s not without doubts. She’s not without fears. She is constrained by the strictures of the society in which she’s been brought up. She’s beloved by her father – we know that from the very beginning of the storytelling. This is what we’ve come up with, you know; because we have known brothers. We have Haleth and Hama. And we can imagine who they are. And so when it came to Hera, we thought it would be interesting that just as Théoden had that relationship with Éowyn, that kind of the interesting thing following that thread through with Helm. First he loses Haleth, he loses Hama, he loses all his sons.

And although Hera is, you know, growing up – we killed off the mother, by the way, because she’s not named either. So we imagined her growing up, raised by a warrior king, alongside two brothers who, you know, there would be a genuinely tomboyishness to her nature, that she was allowed to have a bit of a free reign when she was younger. But when it comes down to it, especially now that she’s getting older, she comes face to face with the fact that, you know what, there are strictures in this society and there are roles for women in this society that her father still expects her to fulfill.

So, sure, he let her have a bit of a free reign and she was a bit of a wild child growing up,but never once did Helm think she would do anything other than that. and fulfill her duties and so it’s really interesting that that is part of his journey of his character to sort of suddenly discover that his daughter is stronger than he knew, which is really interesting. I love the relationship between those two characters that we’ve managed to find in there.

HALETH Voiced by BENJAMIN WAINWRIGHT and HAMA voiced by YAZDAN QAFOURI in New Line Cinema’s and Warner Bros. Animation’s epic anime adventure “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE WAR OF THE ROHIRRIM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

GD: And great actors voicing those two characters. [Brian Cox and Gaia Wise]

PB: Oh, my God, wonderful. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else genuinely could have played Hera, but Gaia Wise, she was perfect. She has all of the elements that you want. She’s got so much life in her, and she has that tomboyishness to her, but she also has a kind of, she’s full of curiosity. She’s very intelligent. She’s got a great sense of humor, and so she’s quick, and she’s got a ready laugh, and I can imagine a little bit of wildness about her, but she’s got a heart. You know, that was the thing that got her – she’s got a huge heart.

She fell off her bike. (I hope she doesn’t mind me telling you this!) She got, because she was biking to the ADR session to do some recording, and she actually came off. She got knocked off her bike. She had a big graze on her leg, and I was appalled. I was like, oh, my God, we’ve got to do something. It was absolutely determined to just keep going because I think she was focused. Of course. She was in the zone. She felt, no, look, it’s going to be fine. I’m not, you know, nothing’s broken. And she just got straight into it, and I was just looking at her thinking. Oh my God, you are Hera. The warrior.

GD: I’m looking at the third image we saw, of Wulf outside. He certainly looks like a Dunlending, with the dark hair. I’m looking at that sort of darkness. And you were just saying before about how the Rohirrim are people, they are humans and they have a reality to them and a human quality that, of course, we don’t get in the immortals, the Maiar, the Elves. This is a tale of men.

WULF voiced by LUKE PASQUALINO New Line Cinema’s and Warner Bros. Animation’s epic anime adventure “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE WAR OF THE ROHIRRIM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

PB: What’s fascinating is the choices that Wulf makes. There is a moment, I think, where he could have, you know, conquering Edoras, if he’d settled down and become a good and wise ruling king, none of this history would have been spoken of. You know, it would have been a challenge by one lord to a lord whose time had potentially passed.

And, given the culture, (which, again, we set up very early on), this is a people who, although he is a king, they are subservient to Gondor, that in itself creates certain levels of tensions; and that although he is a king, he rules by consent, not by right. And so Wulf, if he’d made the right choices, it would have been a different story.

He doesn’t. He makes other choices, and they’re very interesting choices – and where those choices come from is really fascinating. He’s one of my favourite characters ever that we’ve ever created. He and Hera are so strong. They’re wonderful.

And, of course, Brian Cox is just brilliant as Helm. I have to say, no surprise! Unsurprisingly brilliant, which is fantastic for us and for the fans. I think they’re just going to love him.

GD: So with Annecy coming up – which is very exciting… Of course, we’re all reeling with excitement of the news of the ‘Hunt for Gollum’ movie. And I see that Andy Serkis is going to be there to host a panel with you, at Annecy. I noticed looking back on last year’s Annecy that in an interview there, you said that this movie and this story, this animated film, would be ‘a good way back into’ the world of Middle-earth. Did you have an inkling then that this (The War of the Rohirrim) was, to quote Gandalf, the falling of small stones that would start an avalanche? Did you think there was going to be more coming?

PB: Yes, I did. I did. I myself personally felt up for it. It was one of those things where you go back to something that, I mean, you know, you can lose yourself sometimes in making a film. And you kind of lose, you know, I’ve always found that the books were my comfort read. They were the thing that I always had that I could fall into. And in a way, doing the films destroyed that to a certain level.  

What was interesting is going back into this and going back into a part of the story that was so fresh to me. And I think it’s going to be fresh to the audience and yet familiar, which is also brilliant. It re-energized me. I don’t know what it was, but it made me think, you know what – I do love telling stories within this world. It feels like a natural fit.  

And I love the passion of the fans. I genuinely mean that, absolutely. You can tell all the members of the Torn community of TheOneRing that they’re always sitting on my shoulder.  

GD: But in a good way! 

PB: In the best possible way. Because, you know, you’ve got to have such respect for the passion that’s involved there. And I think it’s entirely appropriate and we should be held to a really high standard. And I think Kenji Kamiyama has not only met that standard, he’s smashed it. He had the bar and then he smashed his way through it and set it somewhere even higher. So it’s fantastic. Can’t wait for you guys to see it.  

GD: We can’t wait to see it. It’s so exciting. You know, this year, is 25 years old. It’s our silver anniversary! Who would have thought we would be not only still going, but here having the chance to talk to you about new projects. It’s the gift that keeps on giving! Our staffer Demosthenes [who chatted with PB before] asked me to just casually ask you, are we going to see Saruman?

PB: [laughs] I can neither confirm nor deny that! I really can’t. I think he’s, I have to tell you, he’s very acute and perceptive – and some of the things that he was supposing were very much on the money in terms of when he saw the mumaks and things like that. And I thought that was really interesting. But that one I’m not giving him. Tell him I’m sorry! 

GD: I’ll tell him! Well, it’s so great to talk, Philippa. Have a great time in Annecy, and I hope we can connect again; and we just can’t wait for everything that’s coming up.   Thank you so much.

PB: I’m always happy to talk to you guys, absolutely.

Huge thanks to Philippa Boyens, and to Warner Bros. for affording us this exclusive interview. A closer look at these first images is coming soon!