by Iain Lowson

It has likely come to your attention as of late that Decipher Inc. has bagged a few of The Lord of the Rings games licenses, not to mention the fact that the company is also running the International The Lord of the Rings™ Official Movie Fan Club.

For those of you who don’t know, Decipher Inc. is known predominantly for its exceptionally popular and critically praised customizable card games (CCG) and trading card games (TCG).

Decipher is a company with a proven track record in excellent customer service, post-sales support, and tournament organization. They also have a strange tendency to ask their customers what they think and then – shock, horror – actually act on the information they receive. Very odd…

With the Fan Club up and running (and showing other licensed clubs how it should be done), the first release of The Lord of the Rings TCG selling out across the world, and the two incarnations of the roleplaying game imminent, it seemed high time we turned the spotlight on Decipher Inc. and had them answer a few pertinent questions.

First up was Karen Levy, Decipher’s public relations manager talking about The Lord of the Rings Fan Club.

Let’s talk about the Fan Club. What’s on offer there and, again, how can people sort themselves out with a membership?

Memberships in The Lord of the Rings Fan Club include a subscription to the bimonthly, “inside story” fan club magazine, a 10% discount at the fan club store, fan mail forwarding service, member portfolio with lithograph, and more!monthly, “inside story” fan club magazine, 10% discount at the fan club store, fan mail forwarding service, member portfolio with lithograph and more!

The cost for a one-year regular membership is $29.95 US, $38.95 Canadian, and $56.95 International: $49.95 US, $67.95 Canadian, and $103.95 International for two years; and $69.95 US, $96.95 Canadian, and $149.95 International for three years.

To join, fans can visit, or go to the official Lord of the Rings web site at and click on “Fan Club.” Fans can also join by calling 1-800-451-6381 (inside the United States only) or 303-856-2201 (from anywhere in the world) between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. MST.

The original charter membership program offered a rather unique chance for fans to really get involved, principally by putting their names on the Fellowship… DVD. How well did that work out, and can we expect to see similar offers in the future for both new and existing members?

The charter membership program was very successful. The fans were very excited about the DVD and about the exclusive lithographs.

We have a lot in store for all fan club members including exclusive merchandise. We are committed to keeping the club new and exciting, so fans have a lot to look forward to over the next three years.

Will there be CCG and RPG support featured in the Fan Club magazine?

The magazine is dedicated to the fans and is not intended as support for Decipher’s other LOTR licenses. There is a regular feature that highlights companies with LOTR licenses, and you will see Decipher products show up in that feature from time to time. But the magazine will cover other companies’ products as well. We will also offer advertising opportunities to companies with LOTR merchandise. As Decipher is one of these companies, you may see ads from us from time to time as well. Both of these features are an important part of our commitment to make sure the fans stay well connected to the property.

The fan club of a certain other major film license has a well-deserved, self-inflicted reputation for not offering fans beyond the shores of the US a particularly equal opportunity as regards merchandise, special offers and so on. This seems to be something that Decipher Inc. has taken on board with the LotR club, isn’t it? (And don’t you dare just say ‘Yes’!)

Yes. Just kidding – I couldn’t resist. Decipher is being very conscientious about the fact that this is an international fan club. And we are doing everything we can to make sure fans on every continent are happy with the service and benefits they receive.

Any future LotR Fan Club developments you’d like to talk about?

We have a lot in store for The Lord of the Rings Fan Club members. New Line and Peter Jackson have given us an incredible wealth of information and material to work with to make this the most innovative and member-oriented fan club yet. I don’t want to spoil our surprises, so I’ll leave it at that.

Next to step up to our virtual mic was Tom Lischke, The Lord of the Rings TCG Designer.

How long ago now was this license first mentioned in Decipher circles?

It was about three years ago. We primarily do licensed products, so everyone in the Trading Card Game Studio realized what an opportunity The Lord of the Rings was for us, and we hoped that we would get the rights to it. A number of us had played (or designed, for gosh sakes) the Iron Crown Enterprises MECCG, so we were very excited about getting an opportunity to work in Professor Tolkien’s world.

How long was the game in development after the license was snapped up?

One or two ideas were sketched on the drawing board at the beginning of this year, but we started the main work last March and April. In retrospect, this was just a bit later than we would have liked, but because we wanted to give people the best of both the book and the movies, it would have been hard to start earlier and get the proper feel for the film.

The game was in full development through the summer and into the fall. We demonstrated the bones of the game repeatedly to different groups at the various gaming conventions. With the hours that we were working, the only landmarks that I have from the summer were those trade shows. The rest is just a blur of Hobbits and Nazgûl.

Has the development team been involved in other Decipher products in the past, or were they all newbies?

All of us have worked on other properties. This was a big advantage, as we have a lot of experience in dealing with games based on other people’s worlds. There is a lot that has to be done right to bring books and movies to people in a game format. Our goal is to provide an experience that immerses players in the universe. The Lord of the Rings TCG benefits from the years we have spent designing other games.

Did the mechanics flow from player (and company) reaction to previous Decipher productsor was this always a stand-alone design?

We always felt that this one had to be stand-alone. We had to provide an experience that was like nothing players had seen before. Certainly the mechanics from our other games factored into the decisions we made, but we never sat back with a laundry list of our old mechanics and tried to figure out how to recycle them into a new game.

I would imagine New Line (and probably the Tolkien Estate) would have had their say over the development of the game. Peter Jackson and New Line have been very secretive over the look of the movie (let’s face it, everyone knows the plot), and that must also have had an influence over the way the card game has developed. Have there been occasions when design and game elements have had to be delayed or scrapped due to the fact that you couldn’t use an image, character, or location?

Well, New Line and the estate didn’t have any effect on the gameplay decisions that I could see. Of course, we worked to produce a product that would please them because it demonstrated our care and respect for the subject matter. I think we did that, and it made the review process go more smoothly (or so I am left to believe, as nobody ever came back to us requesting changes).

That being said, because we released a month and a half before the movie, Peter Jackson was concerned, understandably, that we not give away too much visually from the film. What that meant is that we held back a little bit on certain image groups in the Premiere set and will go into a lot more depth with them in Mines of Moria and Realms of the Elf-lords.

Having had a go myself, the game is beautifully simple, the cards well put together, and everything flows quite nicely. The rulebook is, however, hard work at times (especially to those of us who are fairly new to the whole CCG ‘scene’). Is there an ‘Idiots Guide’ available anywhere or planned? Has Decipher ever considered having people write the rulebooks who are not the designers and therefore might be able to put the rules in a friendlier context?

We are working on a sample game that will really hold people’s hands through their first game or two. It should really help people who are new to this genre of gaming.

As for the rulebook, we are always looking for ways to improve it. Problems come when trying to keep the book tight. Different people like the rules presented to them in different ways. Do you give the object of the game first, or the basics of the core mechanic, or the setup? Hard to say, and people all learn differently. My opinion is that the best approach is to offer multiple approaches, and let people chose the one that works best for them. The Internet makes this approach much more successful than it could have been in the past.

What’s your advice to new players; how should they approach the game, particularly once they’ve played a few games with a starter deck?

It really depends what they are in it for. If they are looking to just sit down and have a good time with friends and fellow fans, I think the game lends itself to buying some packs and slowly evolving your collections. If they are in it for the competition, there is nothing like a tournament to really stoke those fires. I learned more about playing TCGs in my first 10 or 15 tournament games than I did in months of casual play. At the same time, that level of competition isn’t for everyone. One thing that nobody should miss is trying out the multiplayer version of the game. It really is a hoot.

This is a game you are, as a player yourself, obviously well happy with.

What are your current favorite cards, combos, and so on?

My favorite card is Servant of the Secret Fire. What flexibility! Gandalf is pretty stout anyway. Between this and Mysterious Wizard, the Gandalf deck has eight powerful combat cards. Add Glamdring, and you have great combat abilities and the flexibility to kill some twilight pool.

On the Shadow side, Host of Thousands is another card that yields flexibility. Late in the game, a player can pick and choose between a number of different options.

The Star Wars and Star Trek CCGs have been accused of having become rather unwieldy since their initial releases, as expansion after expansion adds layers of difficulty and complexity to the games. Is this something that will be consciously avoided with the LotR TCG, or is it an inevitable aspect of a developing product line?

Well, we have gone out of our way to do a lot of things differently with The Lord of the Rings TCG. It is true that it is hard to both keep long-time players interested with new gameplay while also keeping the game accessible to new players, but there are plans in place that I am very excited about. Time will tell, but I am very optimistic, as we have heard the concerns that you are talking about, and are taking this into account.

Having asked that last question, what are the release plans for the CCG over the next six months to a year?

In March, we’ll see Mines of Moria, and Realms of the Elf-lords will follow in July. The league kits will release in January. This will be a chance for players to gain a real sense of community. Finally, we’ll be releasing The Two Towers in November 2002.

Looking specifically at the next release, ‘The Mines of Moria’, what will that bring to the game exactly? Which bits are you most excited by?

One word ¾ Balrog. Of course, the Watcher in the Water (and its various bits) will play an important role as well. There will be a focus on Dwarves, the Shire, and the Moria culture. We’ll be introducing a new keyword (tentatively labeled Twilight) for Nazgûl. They’ll help the set explore what happens when Frodo puts on the Ring.

For people unfamiliar with Decipher Inc.’s support services, what’s available for players of the Lord of the Rings CCG in the UK, and how do they make contact?

Decipher’s support is really international. Players in the UK can reach us via the Web site ( or by writing to Marcus Sheppard at Marcus, Decipher’s UK representative, and Joeri Hoste, our European representative, are valuable members of Decipher’s team and are available for questions and support.

There are certain little exclusives available for those who chose to get involved, either as tournament players or as local organizers, aren’t there?

Decipher has great tournament prize support as well as a product champion program for players who want to herald the game in their communities. For information about tournaments, players can contact Dan Bojanowski at For information about how to become a product champion, contact Kevin Reitzel at

The last word goes to Karen.

Are there particular individuals or groups in certain countries who deserve special mention for their heroic efforts?

It is hard to single out any one individual or group of individuals. So many people are responsible for the successful launches of The Lord of the Rings TCG and Fan Club and for the anticipated launch of the RPGs. We have to thank Peter Jackson and the wonderful folks at New Line as well as all of our retailers, and distributors, volunteers, and staff, and the great coverage all of the magazines and Web sites have given us. And of course we are thankful for the players who got excited about the property and took a chance on a new game. It has been a group effort, and we are very appreciative of everyone’s contributions.

About Iain Lowson

Iain Lowson is a freelance writer living and working in Scotland. He’s had work published in a whole bunch of UK magazines, including SFX, and the official Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Farscape magazines. Issue 45 of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Monthly featured Iain’s first ever published comic strip, and his second is at the lettering stage – he does the scripts not the art. He has enough trouble drawing breath, don’t ask him to do pictures!

At the moment, the majority of Iain’s work time is spent writing for the Official Star Wars Fact File. The majority of his spare time is spent planning what to write next for the Official Star Wars Fact File. The majority of his sleep time is spent dreaming about what he might write for the Official Star Wars Fact File. That usually involves a Gotal, two Kubaz, a tub of engine grease, and waking up screaming.