No, don't run screaming from the jaws of free-to-play tie-ins, they're your friends! Okay, that's a lie, but Marvel Puzzle Quest is different. It's almost exactly what it says on the genetically-modified tin: a take on the classic match-3 formula with Marvel's endless stream of heroes, villains and miscellaneous others injected for framing and plot. By all rights, mathematics and universal laws it should be at best a cash-grab and at worst a soulless husk of un-fun. Somehow, it's neither.
I first discovered the game when my favourite Magic: The Gathering streamer, Michael Jacob, would play it between rounds last year. It was perfect for this, each mission taking no more than a few minutes and the half hour downtime where he was playing Magic allowing his characters to heal.
Characters? Heal? Allow me to explain. In MPQ you control a team of superheroes you've gathered, picking three of them to fight against NPC opponents in a series of missions. Your selection controls everything - how much damage each type of tile will do, what powers you can use once you've gathered AP from matching those tiles, how much health you have. They tag in based on which would do the most damage with your match, and then your opponent takes a turn, allowing them to be hit. Damage is healed out of battle simply by waiting, though it can be done instantly with a health pack, which are also refilled by waiting. Naturally, they can also be bought with the in-game currencies.
"Oh!" you're thinking, "So you get to play but then you're useless for hours/days unless you hand over the moolah." But you're wrong, you fool! The wait times are minimal and the amount given to you freely is large. Every day you'll have a fully healed team and five medpacks, more than enough to play for a couple of hours. An hour's wait will mostly refill all of this - it's incredibly leniant.
Most importantly, the core of it is a great game. There's so many options to choose from in how to build your team, all influenced by which covers you are randomly assigned and those given to every player. You might happen upon a particularly rare character which superpowers a certain area of your team, but this won't be half as strong as coming up with a synergised force. Setting up to loop abilities--using ones that destroy blocks and gain more AP to spend on other powers--is one option. Other characters can cause blocks on the board to give you benefits, meaning you don't want to match them if you can avoid it.
And because only the one character can govern how much damage certain blocks will do (i.e. the one who will do the most), it's not simply a matter of jamming in all your highest level supes. You want a balance so you're maximising damage when hitting non-optimal matches, using all the different types of AP generated and regularly rotating characters to spread out incoming damage. For a free game it's incredibly deep, fun and never feels like it's fishing for my wallet. It's also remarkably well written: funny, light-hearted with a serious edge to the dramatic events unfolding. You know, like a comic book?
What reminded me of its existence and got me hooked again was the announcement that an anniversary week was currently running. There's double rewards and half costs on a bunch of in-game stuff, making it rather a good time to start. You can play it on Steam and also various mobile devices, I'm told.