Decipher, Inc. was a multimedia game company established in 1983 by Warren Holland. Originally focused on board and party games, they shifted towards Collectible Card Games in the wake of the release of Magic: the Gathering and for a time were able to rival that game through the adaptation of existing media into card form. Their first foray into CCGs was an adaptation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, followed by Star Wars, Austin Powers, and of course Lord of the Rings.
Decipher's focus on translating existing media into card form gave them a marketing edge compared to more original IPs, and their expertise in creating game mechanics that embodied the source material so well was the foundation of much of their success. Ultimately, the company's sales declined and led to a death spiral, which lost them the resources to continue licensing the media that was their lifeblood. Although the company avoided bankruptcy and has not officially ceased to exist, it is a ghost of its former self and has not produced any new products since 2008.
For a more detailed history of Decipher's products, see their Wikipedia article here.
Lord of the Rings
In August 2000, Decipher announced the acquisition of the rights to create a card game based on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films which would begin release in December of 2001 (see episode 46 of the Radio Free Decipher podcast). In early 2001 Decipher acquired FANtastic Media, a company which had been created in 1986 to form the officially licensed Star Trek Fan Club, and had gone on to create the Star Wars Fan Club as well. An official Lord of the Rings Fan Club was created, with a Fan Club Official Movie Magazine to mirror the ongoing Star Trek Communicator publication.
After a year's worth of design and development, the first set The Fellowship of the Ring was released to universal acclaim in November 2001, one month before the film of the same name. Decipher continued releasing sets every 4 months, settling into a pattern of one base set released a month before the movie it was attached to and 2 follow-up expansion sets.
In 2004, the company had to shift its focus in how further expansions were to be handled, as there were no further films to continue adapting. The 11th set, Shadows, thus ended up a sort of soft-reboot that altered various mechanics and conventions that were tied to the films, including the site path and the divisions of Shadow cultures.
Sets continued to be released until the game's ending in 2007, although various factors conspired to the game's decline beginning around 2005 (see below).
Trouble and Decline
Although Decipher was at one point second only to Wizards of the Coast (sales of Star Wars CCG rivaled that of Magic: the Gathering from time to time), a number of unlucky events and risks that failed to pay off ultimately resulted in a death spiral that ended not with a bang but a whimper.
In late 2001, Decipher's contract for Star Wars was up for renewal and Wizards of the Coast (then-recently acquired by Hasbro, who had an existing relationship with Lucasfilm to lean on) swiped the IP from underneath them, forcing Decipher to cease production on their most successful game to date. Warren Holland announced this loss on the Radio Free Decipher podcast and online; in the end, this resulted in the formation of the Star Wars CCG Players Committee, which has persisted to this day.
With the acquisition of FANtastic Media, Decipher also attempted to pivot from exclusively producing card games into fan-community-management, and they tried to establish themselves as a FanHQ capable of setting up centralized fan communities as a selling point. Although the longevity of the Star Trek Fan Club was a reasonable success story to attempt to emulate, social media was just beginning to form and would be the death knell of the initiative.
In 2004 Decipher tried to reuse their plans for a Star Wars second edition by creating the WARS TCG, streamlining the rules and inventing their own IP, which was new ground for them. WARS however struggled to attract players, underlining that much of the appeal of the SWCCG had been the Star Wars content rather than the game engine itself, and WARS as a product failed to get off the ground. The similarity of the names no doubt hurt its SEO and drowned any new player's attempt to search for the product online, making Decipher victims of their own previous success.
Due to a mix of factors (including reassigning talent away from LOTR to work on WARS), the Shadows set which was a soft reboot for LOTR was unpopular with fans, and the LOTR-TCG began its long and steady decline.
Other Decipher CCGs released during this time in 2004-2005 (for .hack and Beyblade, both attempts to recreate the success of Pokemon and Digimon in targeting younger audiences) met a similarly troubled start and quick end. The RPG lines for both LOTR and Star Trek were also canceled around then for failing to perform.
Additionally the rise of social media meant that fans were perfectly capable of self-gathering, and the days of Star Trek huddling around a fan magazine were long gone. The Lord of the Rings Fan Club Official Movie Magazine struggled to remain profitable, which can be seen by the reduction in content and the increase in ads over the course of the publication's lifetime. In 2005 both it and the Star Trek Communicator (which had been in print in one form or another since 1979) were canceled, and the FanHQ aspects of the company appear to have withered.
Rick Eddleman, former CFO of Decipher (and brother-in-law to founder Warren Holland), worked for Decipher from 1993-2001, and was later discovered to have embezzled somewhere north of $9 million from the company, which Holland claimed was somewhere around 8% of their total revenue during that time. In 2001 $120,000 of this was discovered, and he resigned as a result. A civil suit was filed against him, and during the process of that case documents were produced that proved the full amount around 2005-2006.
This lead to a criminal case which Holland was heavily involved with, which ended in Eddleman being convicted and sentenced to six years of jail time.
Holland put together a tell-all document detailing the fraud which is archived on the Wayback Machine here. The embezzlement is implied to be why some licenses were lost--since the lines of credit which were supposed to be dedicated to that purpose turned out to be abused by Eddleman and were thus unavailable funds.
While the embezzlement is often pointed to by fans (and Holland himself) as the reason for the company's failure, all of the funds were taken before Eddleman's resignation in 2001. While this no doubt had continuing ripple effects in the years afterwards (especially as Holland got involved in the civil and later criminal court cases), once discovered it could not be the root cause of the failures of the various products Decipher did bring to market, and could only have been a force multiplier.
Holland eventually did manage to keep the company from bankruptcy by mortgaging his own home, assistance from his parents, and he and other high-level employees agreeing to low or no pay for several years. As a result, Decipher retains the rights to the various systems that they developed.
End of an Era
Taking the ex-CFO to court may have satisfied justice, but it did not help the company in the meantime. With a flagging LOTR-TCG and a few unsuccessful other IP launches, Decipher had to lay off much of their staff. This began a death spiral, as fewer staff meant being unable to meet promised deadlines, which led to delays releasing sets, which cooled fan's desire to keep purchasing product (and distributor's desire to allocate space for it), which led to less revenue, which led to needing to lay off more staff, which compounded the problem.
The Hunters was released months later than announced, and The Wraith Collection was hastily released as a "set" to buy more time after further delays. This eventually culminated in the last two full sets for the LOTR-TCG (Rise of Saruman and Treachery & Deceit) being outlined, developed, typeset, and art-designed by a single lone employee, and the final promotional set (Age's End) was kicked out the door and printed right up until the very day that Decipher's license expired.
Following the loss of all other revenue streams, a product called Fight Klub was launched which attempted to be a "who would win in a fight" sort of multiversal card game, using an MLM-like distribution model. This also failed, and appears to have been the last physical product Decipher has produced to date.
Their website continues to insist that Decipher will be back, starting with a relaunch of their very first product, How To Host A Murder, which would certainly be poetic. The dates change every so often, and occasional hosting hiccups are restored, showing that someone is at least keeping the site from completely failing, but nothing has meaningfully changed about the announcement since 2013.
Various fan groups have stepped up to continue where Decipher left off, running tournaments, hosting community sites, and maintaining cards through errata and/or the release of virtual cards. Decipher themselves established the Star Wars Players Committee in 2002, which has continued uninterrupted as the longest-lived of the various fan groups. They successfully negotiated the terms of their rights with Disney after Lucasfilm was acquired in 2012.
Finally the Player's Council for the Lord of the Rings TCG established itself during the pandemic surge of 2020 as the latest of a few past failed attempts to do the same, and if you're reading this article on this site, that means it is still operating.