Hail Hydra Board Game Review: How Social Deduction Games Are Evolving


Defeat enemies and protect the city in Hail Hydra -- but be aware that some of your heroes have been turned into Hydra agents. Hail Hydra is a social deduction game similar to Doppleganger, in which players are battling an unknown enemy, don't necessarily know who that enemy is, and must instead use their wits and their skills in order to limit their risk. Unlike Doppleganger, it's tilted more heavily towards the side of the double agents -- and is nigh impossible to beat for the side of "good."

Hail Hydra Board Game Details

Players: 5 to 8

Game Time: 45 Minutes

Age: 14+

Genre: Social Deduction

How is Hail Hydra Played?

In Hail Hydra, every player selects a character, including fan favorites such as Spiderman to Black Panther. Characters have a special one use ability, and the game handily points out some strategies as to when to use these powers. Players are also given an affiliation: they may be loyal to Shield or they may be Hydra agents. Hydra agents know who the other Hydra agents are; Shield agents know nothing.

Hail Hydra Board Game
Play Quake, Captain America, Shield Hulk, and a number of other characters.

The game is played out in a sequence of battles, ending with the Red Skull. Each battle, an enemy comes out and must have a certain amount of damage done to it before it is defeated. If a round passes without the enemy being killed, the enemy does damage to the city. Players are able to do damage to the enemy by playing cards. Loyal party members can play a card that has a positive number of HP on it. Hydra party members can play a card that has a negative number of HP on it to negate this damage.

Cards are played face down. Players can say whether they have played good or bad cards, but cannot say anything else. They can also play anywhere from 1 to 3 cards at a time, but if they are being taken along, they must play at least one card. 

To remove players from a mission, they must be knocked out. A vote of majority has to happen for a player to be knocked out. At any time, Hydra agents can reveal themselves. If they are on a mission, they immediately do a significant amount of damage to the city. If they aren't, they do a minor amount of damage to the city. 

The Good: Constant Banter and Social Interaction

It's difficult to exclude someone from the game -- you need to be very certain they're a Hydra agent and you also need to convince everyone else that they're a Hydra agent. That means that everyone's playing cards during most rounds, and everyone is able to choose when they want to use their ability, or when they want to reveal themselves as a Hydra agent.

Hail Hydra

For those who hate bluffing, this game is exceptionally good: you don't need to. If people are onto you, you can just flip your card over, expose yourself, and still help your team. Further, the game is balanced towards the Hydra agents quite significantly; it's very hard for Shield to win. And since the game happens in a sequence of battles (such as Doppleganger), there's always something interesting occurring. There are different tactics and strategies your group can use, and you feel as though you're an actual team. 

The Bad: What's Going On With Social Deduction Games?

Remember when I said that it's hard for Shield to win? It may be just this side of impossible. If the Hydra agents are remotely competent, Shield cannot get any purchase. There isn't any real way to determine who is a Hydra agent except for some really incidental ones (some players have an ability to look at a card being played, but people can also always say they're playing a bad card because that's all they have). There are nearly an equal number of Hydra and Shield agents, and Hydra agents also have the advantage of knowing each other.

Further, once Hydra agents are exposed, they still have abilities to use, they can still hurt the other players, and they can still hurt the city. There are many ways in which the game is balanced towards Hydra. 

It's also a very pure class social deduction game, in the sense that it relies almost solely on the way people act rather than the facts that are given. This is something I've noticed as social deduction games have started to evolve. 

In the first generation of social deduction games (Werewolf, Avalon), players were given detailed facts in order to determine who might be evil. Games were designed around the premise of figuring out who was evil and excluding them, based on these clues. 

In the second generation of social deduction games (Secret Hitler), players leaned more into the social and argumentative aspects of the game. Clues were still given, but more table talk and discussion occurred, and the way people acted was actively factored in. 

In the third generation of social deduction games (Donner Dinner Party), players weren't given any real idea of who was evil or not, but instead the games leaned heavily towards cross talk, table talk, arguments, and bluffing. The way players acted became the primary method of derivation. 

Now there's a fourth generation of social deduction game (Doppleganger, Hail Hydra): games that rely primarily on player behavior to derive who is or isn't evil, while also making it so that deriving who is evil isn't necessarily the goal -- the goal is instead just survival.

That's not to say that the third or fourth generations don't provide information. The information provided is social information: players need to derive who is guilty and innocent based on social cues exclusively. And that's where it really falls apart, because people are very bad at picking up social cues. Unless you've played with people very frequently, you don't really know how they act when guilty. All you can do is make random and arbitrary guesses.

I've said before that I think these types of social deduction games reaffirm a flawed way of thinking. They key into a mob mentality and make people worse at logic, and that's a problem to me, because I feel that games (in addition to being fun) are also designed to make us better people. They're designed to make us more creative and inventive, they're designed to improve our capacity for abstract and strategic thought.

Hail Hydra box

One thing I commonly hear when playing this time of game is, "I think you're guilty because you're quiet." Of course, some players are just quiet, but sometimes they are guilty. This reaffirms a belief that "guilty people are quiet" and the player will continue to play this way for the rest of their gaming career, because in their mind every time they are right is a "success." The game has made the player a worse person.

So I don't like these types of games, but I do think Hail Hydra is a good game based on its own merits. Its lack of balance actually makes it more intriguing to play, as it's understood that it's likely that Hydra will win, and it increases replay value to have a true challenge.

Hail Hydra Board Game Review
  • PRO: A highly interactive social deduction game that keeps players strategizing throughout. 
  • CON: If you're a fan of balance, this isn't the game for you; it's heavily skewed towards the Hydra side.