You're right about HOA fees. In townhouse or apartment communities, it would include front yard maintenance, snow removal, possibly trash pick up, pool maintenance, etc.
In a single family home development, it usually includes pool maintenance (if the neighborhood has a pool), playground maintenance (if there is a playground), sometimes snow removal on sidewalks and/or side roads, etc. If there are trees along the sidewalks, the HOA also keeps them in shape. Some HOAs, like ours, organize neighborhood block parties with (food and refreshments and entertainment provided) around specific dates like July 4th, beginning of summer, Halloween, etc....mostly for the kids in the neighborhood. But unless the neighborhood has a lot of amenities, you don't get much for the HOA fees in a single family development.
The HOA fees are usually quarterly, so it would be $80 every three months or $320 a year. In my neighborhood, the fees are $75 quarterly. This is typical for our area -- but every area is different though.
Also, in our neighborhood, part of the fees cover the maintenance on a development wide generator system -- whenever the electric goes out in our city, ours never does, because the development's generator kicks in and keeps our electric on. We're in a pretty big neighborhood too. While we do have a neighborhood pool and playground, the generator alone makes it worth it to me to pay the HOA fee.
As for privacy fence, swing sets, etc., yes, the HOA management office would have to approve any permanent structure you put in your yard whether it's a fence, an awning over the deck, a deck itself, a permanent built in swing set, etc. Also, they have to approve the colors when or if you decide to change the siding or paint on the outside of your house. These kinds of rules can be very annoying.
If you're considering buying a home that has an HOA, you can request a copy of their book of rules and a break down of how the fees are used prior to making an offer or signing a contract. You might find out that the HOA fee covers something cool like the generator I mentioned above -- something that may make it worth it to you. You should also confirm whether the fees are monthly or quarterly, though again, I'd bet they were quarterly.
I certainly wouldn't rule out any house that you're looking at simply because it has an HOA fee -- because again, you might find out that it covers some things you feel are worth it.