Xylotar Review, A trick-taking game where you don’t get to look at your own hand!

Welcome to Xylotar, a fascinating and fun modern trick taking game where you never get to look at your own cards.

This game also has the distinction of having the most ridiculous theme and background story I have ever seen in a game.

Disclosure: Thanks to Bezier Games for providing us with a review copy of this modern trick-taker. Links below may be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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What is Xylotar?

The rather silly cover for the trick-taking card game Xylotar

While Xylotar may have the most ridiculous theme we’ve ever seen (more about that later), it’s one of the best modern trick-taking games that we’ve played, one that innovates by not letting you look at your own cards. 

Xylotar was designed by Christopher Wray and is coming soon from Bezier Games. This is a two to five player trick-taking game that plays in well under an hour. It’s short enough that we are finding that most times it hits the table it gets played a couple times in a row.

In Xylotar you play three hands of trick taking where you will be bidding for tricks but don’t ever get to look at your own cards (though you do have an idea of each cards approximate value).

This modern trick taking card games comes in a small card box and features sixty-five skinnier than usual cards. The odd card size is because each players hand gets laid out in front of them, and even with the tall thin cards this can take up quite a bit of space.

The cards come in eight different coloured suits. Each suit has a different total number of cards in it with the lowest card in each suit being zero. The smallest suit, Pink, is numbered 0 to 4 with the largest suit, Red, ranging from 0 to 11. Each number only appears once in each suit.

A look at the different suits in the card game Xylotar

Suits are also differentiated by music notes which makes the game more accessible to players with colour based vision issues.

The game also comes with a high note card for each player and a set of very clear instructions (which feature the most ridiculous back story you will ever read).

How to play Xylotar

When you get a hand in Xylotar you sort it from lowest to highest, then you give it to your opponent!

Start a game of Xylotar by dealing the cards evenly between all players. Players then take the cards dealt to them and sort them from lowest to highest. If they have multiple cards of the same value they get to decide what order they want those cards in.

Once the cards are sorted, a high note card is placed at the back of the stack and the entire stack is then passed to the next player. Yes, in Xylotar you get to look at the contents of one of your opponent’s hands!

Next each player takes the stack they were given and lays the cards out, face down, left to right in front of them. The high note card should be on the far left with each subsequent card placed beside the last one placed.

At this point no one gets to look at anything but that backs of their cards and the backs of their opponents cards, which are now all placed on the table in open view.

Now this doesn’t mean everyone is blind, the card backs show the suit of each card and it’s potential values which when combined with what order the cards are in, gives everyone an approximate value for every card.

A sample starting "hand" in Xylotar

The player to the left of the dealer starts the hand by playing any card but their highest (the one next to the high note card) into the center of the table. Then everyone else follows by playing a card into the trick with standard trick taking rules applying.

This includes following suit if you can, and if you can’t follow suit you can play off suit. The highest card wins the trick unless someone plays trump and then the highest trump wins the trick. In Xylotar, Red is always trump and is the suit with the most numbers in it.

The winner of the trick gets the next lead and the hand ends when everyone has played all of their cards. 

The red 6 takes the trick in this hand of Xylotar

To make things interesting, as if not seeing your own cards wasn’t enough, at some point during each hand players will make a bid for how many tricks they will take. They do this after playing a card into any trick.

To bid you pick two cards in your current tableau that are adjacent to each other and look at them. You pick one to go back into your tableau in the place it came from and another to be your bid, which is placed below your hand.

Bidding is the only chance anyone gets in Xylotar to look at their own cards, and deciding when to bid and what to do with the information you learn when bidding is a big part of the game.

Once everyone has played all of their cards, the hand ends. At this point each player scores one point per trick they collected and they also score a bonus point if they hit their bid. There’s no penalty for missing your bid in Xylotar.

The lead then shifts to the player with the least points and you play another two rounds. At the end of three rounds the player with the most points wins. 

Trying to decide what to bid in Xylotar is one of the hardest decisions in the game.

When playing Xylotar with three players you take out the red and orange cards, and yellow becomes the trump suit.

For a two player game you set up two ghost players. The human players organize the cards for their opponent and the ghost hand on their left.

Unlike the regular game when playing with two your bid is set at the start of each hand by flipping over your center card.

The ghost players, play between the two humans and always play their cards low to high based on the suit lead, and will play their lowest card if they can’t follow the lead. If either ghost player manages to hit their bid neither player scores points for any tricks that hand, but still score your bid if you hit it. If both ghosts hit their bid at the end of a hand the humans score no points.

In every variant the player with the highest score at the end of three rounds wins, and is declared to have found the perfect balance of 80s synthesiser rock and modern carimba melodies and is now ready to bring the this mash up of xylophone and keytar to the mass market.  

Xylotar is a fantastic modern trick-taker even if it’s theme is quite ridiculous.

What you get with the trick-taking card game Xylotar

We first discovered Xylotar at the 2024 GAMA Expo which we attended as Hosted Media. If you were on the exhibit hall floor you couldn’t miss it because someone at Bezier Games actually made a true to scale, technically playable, instrument. One with lots of LED lights. Their rep could often be found at their booth playing and or posing with it. 

Yet even seeing this ridiculous mash up of xylophone and keytar in real life did nothing to prepare me for the most ridiculous theme in board gaming. You ready for this?

Okay, it goes like this — A polar bear named Bobby Mc Coldsnap went to a concert in 1985 which made him want to become a keytarist. Figuring out his claws were too big for the instrument he worked with a local craftsman Keifer Basset to create the Xylotar. After delivering the first prototype Kifer went missing and the authorities blamed Bobby, because he was a polar bear.

Bobby is now hiding in northern Canada playing 80s tunes whenever the Aurora Borealis is brightest. The players have discovered the lost Xylotar schematics but don’t quite understand them and each is striving to be the first to bring this instrument to the world!

A comparison of a Xyltoar card on top of a standard playing card.

Note that’s a condensed, shorter version of the very ridiculous story found in the Xylotar rule book.

I will say one thing, the story is definitely memorable and I bring it up whenever I’m talking about the game or whenever anyone mentions games with unique themes, so as a marketing tool I think Bezier nailed it.

Forgetting the silly theme, I think the more important thing about Xylotar is that it is a very interesting, and I would even say innovative, trick taker. We play a lot of trick-taking games around here, including a growing number of modern hobby game trick takers, each trying to do their own twist, and nothing else we’ve tried is quite like Xylotar.

The big thing with Xylotar is the amount of hidden information. However one thing I’m not sure I was able to make clear in the above overview of play earlier is just how much information you actually do have.

In this hand I know that everything from the card on the left down is a three or less! 
It's going to be an interesting round.

This isn’t like Hanabi where you go into each hand totally blind. You can get a lot of information just from how your cards lay out in front of you. This is especially true if you have a suite without many numbers high up on your track. Like if you have a dark blue card in your eighth spot, you know every card to the right of it has to be a five or less.

Xylotar is all about making educated guesses based on how the cards are laid out and what you learn as you play cards from your hand into tricks. As the game progresses it becomes easier and easier to know for certain what values at least some of your cards have.

There is also a lot of information you can gain by looking at other peoples tableaus. Looking at your opponent’s cards can be as important or possibly even more important than looking at your own. You are also going to want to watch and keep track of what the other players are playing.

Part way through a game of Xuylotar. The bid for this player for this round is 3

This deduction aspect gives Xylotar a real puzzle feel that I don’t recall experiencing in any other trick taker. This also makes the game a card counters dream.

Another part of the appeal of Xylotar to me is the brilliant bidding system. Deciding when to bid is a big decision and the fact that bidding gives you a sneak peek at two of your cards is huge. This becomes another part of the puzzle to solve.

I also like the scoring system here. I like how everyone gets points for every trick. Even when you don’t hit your bid you still get something, and in some cases you could end up scoring even more points for tricks than you would get with a low matched bid.

One thing we found put people off about Xylotar is the odd card size and design. I will admit, I found it odd myself but grew to like it the more I played. The size of the notes, the colours (which follow the standard rainbow order) and even the note shapes have all helped me be able to see the information I needed while playing.

Xylotar can be quite the table hog. Which is odd for a card game

As this is a game where looking at your opponents cards is part of playing well, having a design you can easily read from across the table is important. It’s also worth noting that knowledge of actual music notes isn’t required. It didn’t matter that I’ve never in my life learned what a sharp ½ note looks like even though it’s the symbol on the green cards. All that matters is I can tell that suite is different from the others.

Another thing I appreciate in Xylotar is the fact that it’s only three rounds. Many cards games fall into the trap of having a rule like every player deals once, or you play until a set point total. Rules like that can make some fast playing card games go on a bit too long, and I’m pretty sure that’s what would happen here. As it stands I think the game ends right when it’s most interesting and doesn’t overstay its welcome. 

There is one big problem we’ve had with Xylotar, that I have to mention, and that’s how much space it takes up. You are using the entire deck of cards each game and that entire deck has to be placed face up in the table, one row of card per player. Even though they used skinnier than usual cards this still takes up a lot of space.

Even playing your cards in two rows, each players tableau takes up a lot of space in Xylotar

At a rectangular table with two players per side, we’ve had to have players stagger their cards, with one player’s cards above or below another’s. Due to the fact that everyone needs to see all of the information on all players’ cards, you can’t really overlap or stack anything.

Overall I was sucked in by my first play of Xylotar and I haven’t looked back. I really dig the way this game plays and the way it makes me think. I love that feeling of accomplishment when I’m able to hit my bid and I enjoy being surprised when I play a card expecting it to have one value and being way off.

I enjoy the challenge of seeing a pink card (0-4 value) come up far too close to my high note card and trying to figure out how I can get some points out of that. I live for that feeling of joy when I can take five tricks in a row at the end of the round much to my opponent’s surprise. On the other hand I also enjoy being outplayed, and that feeling of hoping someone doesn’t steal a trick I need when I know they have none of the suit I led and they have one trump left. 

Playing Xylotar. This player needs to win four tricks to hit their bid.

My wife, Deanna, noted that Xylotar really scratches an itch for her. She likes how easy it is to teach but did note that the way you stack the cards to hand them off is confusing at first. She also called this one her favourite trick-takers of all time.

While doing the podcast version of this review Sean noted that he felt that Xylotar is not being served well by its theme. He called it a solid puzzle of a trick-taker that will certainly engage people who love this sort of game, but in order to do so, they need to get past the silliness it presents upfront.

If you dig trick taking games, especially ones where you bid for how many tricks you are going to take, I think you are going to love Xylotar, as long as you have a table that’s big enough to play it. 

Be aware of that puzzle aspect though, the level of deduction, card counting and reading other players, that is required may not be for every trick-taking fan, especially casual players. This is a trick-taker where you can see what suits everyone has in play, and can make an educated guess as to whether each card is high or low. That makes for a pretty unique game, versus classic trick takers.

Playing Xylotar at a local cafe. It's a good thing they have long tables.

Now what this does mean is that this game could very well appeal to players who usually avoid trick-taking card games. If you enjoy board games that present a puzzle to be solved I think you will dig Xylotar, despite being a game where you can’t even see your own cards, you are presented with a lot of information that lets you make logical decisions. 

For everyone else, I suggest you give this game a shot if you can. At under $15 it could be worth taking a chance on or maybe your FLGS will do a demo night.

(On that note, If anyone in Windsor wants to give Xylotar a shot, just let me know and I’ll happily bring it out to one of our events). 

That’s all I have to say about Xylotar. Now that you know what that haunting synth-carbimba music you sometimes here when the northern lights are most bright is, it’s time for you to tell us what game you’ve played that you think has the most ridiculous theme ever. 

Leave a comment below or better yet jump on The Tabletop Bellhop Discord and start up a conversation there!

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