Lego Marvel Super Heroes isn’t the only recent gaming release to smash together a variety of the comic company’s heroes and villains. Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign launched on iOS and Android this month, and it provides some clever match-three gameplay that’s worth a look.

The basics are simple. You create a team of three characters from your pool, and then battle your opponent in turn-based, match-three combat. Damage is inflicted both directly and indirectly. For instance, Iron Man might chip off a bit of health each time you match red tiles. As you collect those tiles, you also bank tiles of those colors, which can be used for special attacks. Sticking with Iron Man, he can spend some of those pooled red tiles to fire off a blast from his repulsor beam that inflicts hundreds of points of damage instead of the dozens that a standard match might.

Developer Demiurge Studios has done a great job of balancing the characters, so that there’s some actual strategy involved in building your team. Black Widow isn’t much of a damage dealer, but she can stun characters for several turns or steal tiles from the opposing team. This can be a game-changer, depending on who you’re fighting. Hawkeye’s bow lets him pick off specific tiles or eliminate entire rows. Again, it’s not an especially devastating attack, but when you’re facing off against an enemy who places tiles with countdown timers on them, he can be essential. I’ve had a great time examining some of the stranger characters that I’ve unlocked (Spider-Man’s Bag-Man variant comes to mind) and trying to find a spot for them on my team.

The game is structured in chapters, which unfold in web-like branching paths. Beat an opponent, and the next segment is revealed. You don’t have to move ahead – in fact, you’re actively encouraged to replay earlier sections to acquire each level’s bounty of comic-book covers (used to upgrade special abilities) and ISO-8 (used to increase a character’s level). I play a lot of match-three games on my iPad; they’re my go-to background activity when I’m watching shows I’m not heavily invested in. Maybe that’s why I’m not particularly bothered by the grind. 

That’s not to say that the game’s mindless. You need to be aware of your team members’ positions, in addition to their powers. When Iron Man destroys those red tiles I keep talking about, he pushes to the front of the line. When the players’ turn is up, he’s the one who takes the damage. He’s one of the tank-like characters, which means you want him there for at least the beginning of the game. Hawkeye or Black Widow can’t withstand nearly as much damage, and they can be felled in no time flat if they’re constantly pushed in harm’s way.

Marvel Puzzle Quest is particularly satisfying when your team is beefed up. At that point, you can fire off special ability after special ability after a few preliminary turns, chewing up just about anyone who stands in your way. You need to keep leveling up your heroes if you want to stand a chance in the game’s PvP, too. You can jump into these matches whenever you like, taking on player-cultivated teams. The AI handles the gameplay, but it uses the powers and skills that they’ve unlocked. D3 hosts regular weekly challenges with special rewards for top-ranked players, so it’s worth checking in on them. I won early access to Captain America, for example.

It’s a free-to-play release, which means there are a few spots where D3 Publisher puts its hand out. Most obviously, you get wounded as you battle. Your characters heal themselves gradually over time, but you can heal or revive them with health packs. Those also regenerate every few hours, though you can spend some cash to replenish your supply immediately. It was more of an annoyance when I first started the game, because the battles were more grueling and I limped away from many of them. Now, because I have replayed so many of the earlier sections, my heroes are stronger and I can take on those earlier matches with ease. That’s not to say the game doesn’t remain challenging; I’m just purposefully mining the easier portions to ensure I drain them for everything they’re worth. I’ll move to the later sections… later. You can also fork over in-game currency or cash for additional characters. They’re randomly distributed, which can be either enticing or infuriating, depending on how you look at it.

I’m not comfortable giving the game a score at this point – the title screen clearly marks it as a preview version, and gameplay elements are still being tweaked – but I recommend it to anyone who finds games like Puzzle & Dragons and the original Puzzle Quest irresistible.