Is the game up at Decipher? Lawsuits are mounting and fans restless

From: Inside Business – Hampton Roads

Will the empire strike back and undo the brilliance behind a privately held company that has a shrinking presence on Granby Street? Sounds like the perfect plot for a new card game.

Unfortunately, the future is murky for Decipher Inc., a Norfolk-based game card company. It found huge success with its Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars and How to Host a Murder games, but it has been plagued by personal and professional lawsuits during its tenure.

Even a group of disgruntled tournament winners, formerly loyal fans, is threatening to bring the house down.

Decipher, owned by Warren L. Holland Jr., has had three rounds of layoffs this year totaling at least 50 people, according to several former employees. They said the company’s health insurance has been canceled, too.

Holland sold his 10,000-square-foot building at 253 Granby St. about two weeks ago and is leasing office space next door. Dr. Sture Sigfred, a radiologist who owns about a half-dozen other buildings downtown, said he purchased the building.

There are pending cases brought by Decipher against its former chief financial officer, Rick Eddleman, that begin proceedings in January 2006, and a Kathy Eddleman, with a scheduled hearing for Aug. 26. Several other cases are listed in court records as well, including one in April that required Holland to pay Sentara Hospitals almost $2,700.

Despite repeated attempts, INSIDE BUSINESS was not able to reach Holland or any representatives of his company. The phone was not answered. One employee who was contacted changed her voice mail message one week later to say she no longer works for Decipher. Calls were referred to another employee, Becky Higgerson, who also did not return a phone call.

Randy Muir owns Wild Things, a Salem, Ore., store that sells Decipher’s card games. He said he has done some of the same conventions with Decipher for a decade.

“I have no real problems with them,” said Muir, even though Decipher owes him a reimbursement for products that he ordered and never received. “The product will not arrive. I will be reimbursed with a future product.”

Overall, he said the company isn’t as prompt or professional as it used to be.

“It’s not unexpected, given the layoffs,” Muir said. “A lot of this stuff is like writing on the wall. Other businesses like this have already gone down.”

Meanwhile, the fans are getting restless. John Hawkins, also from Salem, won $2,500 at a Las Vegas tournament in March, the Decipher Vegas Open, and has yet to be paid. The winnings of three other friends bring the amount to over $4,000.

“They are very evasive and don’t answer our phone calls,” Hawkins said. “They’ve treated us well in the past and poorly in the past. They seem to put profits ahead of customer concerns.”

Hawkins has assembled an even larger group, 16 players who are owed tournament money, to take legal action against Decipher. He said he has heard from friends and retailers who order Decipher’s products that the company has closed down two of its three Norfolk warehouses.

“They are shrinking their business to try to get down to a size that is manageable,” Hawkins said.

Chris DeNoma, also of Salem, said he and Hawkins have been playing Decipher games since they were teens.

“We’ve been playing card games since 1994,” DeNoma said. “It’s like a more complex game of chess.”

“We spent money flying down there and on hotel rooms,” he said, referring to the Las Vegas tournament. “It’s just odd that it’s being handled the way it is.”

Some of Decipher’s message boards are rife with fan complaints about unfulfilled orders and speculations on the company’s future. Players want to know if others are experiencing problems with fan dollars, which are credits awarded for purchases.

According to the Decipher Web site, it costs 99 cents a month to belong to the fan club. Others log on to the message boards with no complaints and simply to trade cards.

Decipher has also delayed the sell dates for some highly anticipated products, including Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games. A message posted on its Web site July 29 by “Dan Bojanowski, brand manager,” attributes the problems to production delays.


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