As odd as it may sound, Skyrates is a game about human-like animals flying biplanes between floating continents. Think Star Fox meets The Kingdom of Zeal from Chrono Trigger. You're a young pilot out to make an impact — or at least get rich — by trading, performing missions, and fighting pirates. Here's the catch: flying between islands takes at least an hour of real-world time. The game was designed by a group of then-CMU grad-students to explore sporadic play, something you check like e-mail a few times a day. The result is not only interesting, its good enough to thread its way into your life.
The game's interface is a wee-bit more complicated than we usually review here, but once you get your head around the concepts, you'll have no problem. There is an over-world map with several floating lands marked on it. You can see the one you're currently docked at as well as a fuel radius highlighting areas you can fly to. While docked you can trade goods, equip your plane with upgrades and utilities like fuel and ammo, and receive missions at the tavern. Trading is an easy and safe way to move up in the world, just buy whatever is most plentiful (marked with a large, blueish bar) and fly it to a place where it is scarce (marked by a short, reddish bar).
Along the way you can choose to engage pirates. Fighting them is a fun dogfight mini-game where you control the tilt and velocity of the plane with [WASD] keys and fire with the [spacebar]. Slowing down allows you to turn faster, so you end up trying to pull some slick maneuvers and get on top of your enemy. Just remember, if you intend on playing this game like you do most games, you're going to spend a lot of time looking at a screen not unlike the one at the top of this page.
Analysis: The production values are strong, the polish is on, and the game is a clever twist on real-time deferred dynamics. What I mean by that is, for example, the way tech points in Virtual Villagers accumulate over time based on your computer's clock, even when the game or the computer itself is off. You can design a whole game around things that takes a lot of real-time to change, and I think its a great approach. Quintessentially casual.
With this game, I can think of a Travian-esque business model the fine folks behind it should consider: you can subscribe to get a "sky map" of jet streams that accelerate travel, or you can buy with real money some quantities of special jet fuel that makes travel almost instantaneous. In other words, monetizing impatience. There's also a lot of potential with player-created groups such as trade guilds, protectorate factions, religions — lots of interesting macro-dynamics that would make this worth coming back to, beyond the accumulation of wealth and upgrading your ship. Little things like e-mail alerts when you come into port, these could make a big difference in how this game can be integrated into someone's life. It's basically a dressed-down, casual, time-based version of Elite, and that's excellent.
It's a lot more fun than flying in the real world, and you'll probably get there sooner.
Cheers to Sean and Johnicholas for suggesting this one! =)