Microsoft unleashes 'Settlers of Catan' on the web

Microsoft has something of an extracurricular activity: When it's not releasing Office for iPad or updating Windows, it has a habit of helping other companies build websites. Its latest project is a web version of Settlers of Catan, the popular board game, which it co-developed with Bontom Games. As with previous Microsoft-backed sites, the appeal is that anyone, even Microsoft haters, can use it: The web version will run in any browser that supports HTML5 (in other words, not just IE). That's obviously a different approach from the existing Settlers of Catan apps for Android and iOS, which are of course reserved for people using those platforms.

The game's in beta for now, and Microsoft says more features and improvements are on the way. For now, the game can't set you up with computer opponents, nor will it pair with you some random online player. Instead, you'll have to find at least two other friends, who you can invite through either email or Facebook. (Obviously, since the game runs in any modern browser, it doesn't matter what device your friends are carrying.) Once you get a game going, you take turns asynchronously, with time limits to keep the game going. You can also opt into email notifications, so you'll know when someone's taken a turn. Throughout, you can talk to your opponents using built-in voice chat -- powered by Skype, of course.

Microsoft introduced other features too, including auto-trade and auto-roll -- again, to help keep things moving. Lastly the dice you'd normally use with the physical board game has been replaced with an on-screen button. Ultimately, the company says it plans to announce a complete rule set at GamesCon in August, including development cards, points and achievements, bringing the web game fully in line with the board game version. In the meantime, you can play the beta game here. Enjoy -- and do be patient if you encounter any performance hiccups. It's clear the site isn't fully polished yet.