You need appropriate playing cards to play period card games. Modern decks, with their corner indices, two headed court cards, and modern design, are unsatisfactory. Luckily it is fairly easy to find period card decks. Some artisans in the SCA already produce them in small quantities, and many reproductions of period card decks are available through some mail-order companies.
To assist the reader in acquiring period card decks, here is a short review of a number of decks that are available commercially. Some are available through SCA merchants. Most of the decks described below are available through U.S. Games Systems (179 Ludlow Street, Stamford CT 06902. "Best of Cards" Catalog $2.00). The Tarot decks, in particular, can sometimes be found among the morass of Ryder-Waite and other divinatory decks at game or hobby stores. All prices listed for decks below are based upon the U.S. Games Systems catalog, and may change.
Many of the commercial decks I review below are reproductions based on surviving decks from post-1600. Playing card designs became static in the 16th century, and went through long periods without significant changes thereafter, so reproductions of post-1600 card decks are often similar (or identical, in some cases) to decks that were used in the 16th century.
In addition to the commercial decks, some few SCA artisans make period-design card decks. I make a French-suited deck and a German-suited one. Mistress Niccola Sebastiani, of Myrkfaelyn in the East Realm, makes a beautiful German-suited deck. These decks (hers and both of mine) are hand printed on thick paper; mine are colored by stencils. If any artisans reading this want advice or assistance in creating their own deck, I would be more than willing to help.
Excellent reproduction of 18th century cards
These cards are available at Colonial Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Va). They are a beautiful reproduction of the standard English and Rouen pattern that dates back to the middle or late 16th century. They are also packaged in a manner very close to that used in the 16th century.
Reproduction of a deck attributed to Jehan Personne of Lyon in 1493
A good deck, somewhat spoiled by the addition of modern corner indices.
Reproduction of a deck by Jean Volay of Thiers around 1640
A good deck, based upon designs that go back to the early 16th century, somewhat spoiled by the addition of modern corner indices.
Reproduction of a deck attributed to Vincent Goyrand of Paris around 1600
A good deck, again somewhat spoiled by the addition of modern corner indices.
Reproduction of 18th century Bordeaux deck of Jean Grossard
The original designs are close to period, but the deck is slightly spoiled by the addition of modern corner indices.
Modern, but some decks are acceptable
It is hard, but sometimes possible to find modern decks of German suited playing cards. Most of these decks have both corner indices and double-headed court cards, however. If you can, find a deck with full-figure court cards and stylized iconography and costumes.
Modern, but most decks are acceptable
There are a number of modern decks of Spanish playing cards that are suitable for use. The Naipes Experience Co. (Richmond, Va--sorry, but I have no further address) produces one such deck. These decks have unobtrusive corner indices and full-figure court cards.
Excellent reproduction of 17th century Spanish cards
This deck is exactly suited for the games Primero, Tressette, and Ombre. It is a standard design traceable back to the 16th century, and appropriate for anywhere south of the Alps at that time. Sadly, I have heard that the manufacturer is no longer producing this deck. If you can find one, buy it.
Reproduction of an early 17th century Tarot deck from Paris
Another excellent Tarot deck, reproducing the oldest complete Tarot deck. The original dates back to around the 1620s.
Reproduction of 18th century Tarot deck
This is a fine deck, related to the Tarot de Marseilles. The design is perfectly appropriate for period card playing.
Reproduction of Jacques Vieville's deck of around 1650
An excellent Tarot deck. Also perfectly appropriate for period card games.
A modern deck
The iconography on this deck derives directly from the Tarot de Marseilles, and is acceptable. If you can't find any reproduction decks (e.g. Tarot de Paris, Vieville Tarot) then this deck is fine. The Swiss 1JJ Tarot is also very common -- most "Tarot" displays at game or magic stores will have this deck. If you can get a good version of the Tarot de Marseilles, which is also common, choose that instead of the Swiss 1JJ Tarot.
Superb reproduction of a middle 15th century hand-painted Tarot deck
Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Four cards were recreated to replace missing cards in the original deck. This deck is attributed to the workshop of Bonifacio Bembo, around 1447.
Superb reproduction of another middle 15th century hand-painted Tarot deck
Also gorgeous. 19 cards were recreated to replace missing cards in the original deck. This deck has male and female Knights and Pages, giving it 86 cards instead of the normal 78. This one is also credited to Bonifacio Bembo, around 1445.
Reproduction of a 1770 Belgian Tarot deck
This deck seems to be a good approximation of one of the common patterns for France in the late 16th century.
There are many decks with this name. The Boechat/Heron deck is a reproduction from 1761.
Any deck with this name has the Tarot de Marseilles pattern, which dates back into period. The Boechat/Heron deck is the best one, reproducing a block-printed and stencilled deck. Fournier's "Marseilles Tarot" is perhaps the worst, being a redrawing and interpretation by a modern artist. Versions of this deck are very popular and easily found.
This deck is similar to several period decks, including the Vieville Tarot and Tarot de Marseilles. The Coins suit is called pentacles, and the Baton suit is called Wands, but it is (minimally) acceptable if you can't find anything else and are desperate.
Superb reproduction of a 1445 block-printed and hand-painted German deck
The variation in sizes of these cards is reproduced as well as the (simply beautiful) iconography, so they are not easy to play with. Further, there are no "number" cards in the normal sense--each suit portrays 12 different court positions or jobs, from King down to beggar. If I owned only one deck, this would be it.
Exact reproduction of Jost Amman's 1588 deck
Beautiful. If you find this deck, buy it. (Mine was a gift -- I don't know where it was purchased). A superb example of late German engraving.
Excellent reproduction of a 1465 odd copper-engraved deck
This deck is useless for playing card games, but has some really nice artwork. The suits are (in order): the Conditions of Man, Apollo and the Muses, Liberal Arts, Cosmic Principles, and Firmaments of the Universe.
Stunningly beautiful reproduction of the playing card deck in the Cloisters (New York City).
Absolutely gorgeous, a reproduction of one of the handful of surviving decks of playing cards from the 15th century. The original deck is hand painted; the reproduction is excellent. However, I'm not sure I could ever play cards with a deck that cost $125. I don't have a copy; I wish I did, but I'm not paying that much for it until I win the lottery.