By – Steven Smith

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Management sims are a long standing staple of PC gaming. You might think the genre would be stale by now, but then new ideas and mechanics come along and make things fun again. Is Prison Architect just a simple rehash of old titles or does it bring something new to the player? This is the question I set out to answer when playing Introversion Softwares’ latest Alpha release. Prison Architect follows much of the same formulas that Management Sim fans know and love. Starting with a stipend of funds and a crew of workers to command, the player must design, build and run a fully functioning prison while staying within a budget. The map is over laid with a grid used for easy, consistent building and placement. Along the bottom of the screen are a selection of building and management options, ranging from Rooms and Utilities to Employees and Bureaucracy.

The game starts with a tutorial level which includes a fully built and operational prison, the only thing missing is an electric chair. You are now given step by step instructions about how to create buildings and manage power consumption. Interspersed with with this is a brief story concerning a death row inmate. It is a pretty compelling tale which helps to humanize the character, whom you are about to execute. While this is an interesting way to approach a tutorial it also felt a bit out of place. There is not really a story to this type of game and having to learn the mechanics during one can be distracting. Once completed you are given an empty field in which to start your own prison.

The first step is laying a foundation, simply select the Foundation icon, then click and drag a rectangle you deem large enough to house your ideal prison. This doesn’t actually create the foundation, instead it spawns a series of cargo trucks which deliver supplies that your workers use to start construction. I prefer this over the classic method where buildings are instantiated with a simple click of the mouse. It requires planning to ensure you have enough funds and the available manpower to get the job done on time. If a group of prisoners start running for the exits because you forgot to buy doors, it is not a matter of simply buying and placing them before they escape. You’d have to wait while doors are delivered and the work crew finishes it’s current project before they physically pick up and install each one. I actually had a number of inmates escape because they were moved to the exercise yard while the workers were still putting up fencing. So the key is to plan ahead.

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Once you have a basic foundation it is time to start building rooms and placing items. Clicking on the Rooms option from the menu will bring up a full list of all room types. Some options will not be immediately available, for example an Infirmary cannot be selected until a prison doctor has been hired. Hovering over the icon for a room type will bring up a list of it’s minimum requirements. It is not enough to simply designate an area to be a Holding Cell, it must be at least 5×5 grid spaces, fully enclosed and have both a toilet and a bench. Only when all requirements have been meet can your newly created room fulfill it’s own unique purpose.

I ran into issues early on when my prisoners were hungry but weren’t eating despite having a fully functioning kitchen. I had failed to realize that the Kitchen is just for food preparation and that I needed to also build a Canteen where the prisoners could sit and eat. Internal walls take up one grid square, which was an another lesson I had to learn the hard way. I was patting myself on the back for doing the math and adding a section of building exactly the right size for 30 Prison Cells of the required 2×3 size. I suddenly came to the horrible realization that there was not enough space for the walls. So while the game does do a good job of explaining most of the mechanics there is still a bit of a learning curve.

By far the hardest lessons are those that wind up costing you money. Having to tear down walls and a dozen Prison Cells because of a miscalculation costs time and money, both of which are precious in Prison Architect. In addition to your starting funds you receive small amounts of money every in game hour. You receive funds based on the number of prisoners your facility has incarcerated, the more inmates the better. Of course you also have to manage expenses such Guards, Cooks and your Warden. If running low on funds, you can look at getting a Loan or Grant.

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Both will give you a large boost in financial reserves but come with certain requirements. Loans need to be paid back and will therefore reduce your daily accrual. Grants come with specific tasks which must be completed with the money. For example there is a Health and Wellness Grant that requires you to build medical facilities and hire Doctors and a Psychiatrist. There is also a much larger Education Grant that is fulfilled when a certain number of inmates completes their GED. The real benefit of Grants is that you are given more than enough money to complete the construction requirements up front, and then a second block of funds is received when all requirements have been met. There is also the option to adjust how much gets spent on your prisoners. You can save money by feeding them lower quality food, which works great right up to the point where the inmates riot.

You are responsible for the health and well being of all characters within the game. Tired workers will not build additions as quickly and injured guards are much less effective. Keeping your staff happy seems to be a simple matter of building a Break Room and having enough money for payroll. If the inmates are unhappy then riots and escape attempts begin to occur. The mechanics involved in managing prisoner morale is impressive, almost to the point of being overwhelming. You can affect the emotional state of prisoners in a positive way by adding Weight Benches in the yard, a Visitation area or even a Common Room with Phones, TV and a Pool Table. On the other hand you can take away all privileges and order a Shakedown, then watch as your guards search and ransack every room and cell looking for contraband items. This will have a very negative impact on the mental state of the inmates.

At any time you can select a single prisoner and pull up a dossier with lots of useful information. This includes the crimes for which they are incarcerated, the length of their sentence, how long they have been in prison, and their general mood. I saw a bubble appear over an inmates head and I zoomed in to see what it was. It looked like a fork and knife so I assumed this cute little oblong shape was hungry. I selected him to check and, sure enough, he wanted food. Since I had the prisoner profile open I decided to learn more about him. His name was Jim, he plead guilty to Arson and Murder, and the last Shakedown showed that he had tools and drugs hidden in his cell. Suddenly I was no longer concerned about building a larger kitchen and started looking for places to put Solitary Confinement.

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Each inmate also has a sort of score card that measures Punishment, Reform, Security and Health. If someone needs a bit of extra attention you can single them out and order a search of both them and their quarters, this would increase their Punishment rating. Reform would include putting a prisoner to work in either a Workshop or Laundry. Punishment and Reform seem to be diametrically opposed, the more a prisoner is punished the less they are reformed and vice versa. Security is a measurement of how well you have contained the convict. If he is kept in Solitary Confinement surrounded by Dogs and Armed Guards, then the security level will be pretty high.

Things like not having the perimeter fence completed or using the extra large pipe, roughly human sized in diameter, for shower drains would make the prisoners less secure. Health means not only physical and mental but nutrition and hygiene as well. When taken together these give a score for Estimated Re-Offending Chance for the selected inmate. After a while, once you start releasing prisoners for time served, the four factors will also combine to give you entire prison an overall score. I felt that having this level of control really added a lot of depth to what could have been “just another management sim”.

Being that the game is still in Alpha there were the expected bugs. Just about everything in the game has a brief description that appears if you hover your mouse over it, however there were a few instances where I would get something like “item_description_text”. So it is clear that not all labels have been completed. I also had a heck of a time with power and lighting. There were certain room of my prison that would never stay lit no matter how many lights I installed nor how much power was supplied. Oddly, I found that while one Power Station was enough to run my prison with no interruption, three Power Stations on the same facility kept shutting down due to being overloaded. From time to time one specific Toilet would stop working and I’d have to remove and replace it, which may be a feature of some kind but it just feels like something is broken in the game. None of these are really game breaking bugs, but they can be annoying. The Alpha Release seems to be fully playable otherwise.

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Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?

The level of micromanagement available might be intimidating to some players, but I thoroughly enjoyed my experience.  Prison Architect is perfect if you are looking for a sim with a deep level of depth and control.  There is also the overlying theme of the game, which is a bit darker than normally found in the genre.  In other management sims you get to run a city, restaurant or hospital, which are things that many people would enjoy doing.  Playing a game about running a prison led me to some odd emotional states.  Prison Architect is perfect if you are looking for a sim with a deep level of depth and control.  The Alpha release of Prison Architect is available now for $30.

Prison Architect Technical Summary:

Prison Architect Sum

  • Time played – 4 Hours

  • Widescreen Support – Yes

  • Resolution Played – 1680×1050

  • Windowed Mode – Yes

  • Control Scheme – Mouse and Keyboard

  • System Specification – Intel i7 870 @ 2.93GHz, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9800GT

  • Game Acquisition Method – Alpha Copy

  • DRM – None

  • Save Game Location – AppData\Local\Introversion\Prison Architect\save

  • Bugs/Crashes – Numerous minor bugs due to Alpha release, no crashes

  • Availability – Official Site, Steam, Humble Store
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  • trincetto

    Interesting review, although I would specify in the title that the review is for the game’s alpha, not the complete version. Before reading it I thought the game was already out and was disappointed to find out it was still in early access.
    I’ve been looking forward to Prison Architect and it sounds like it’s already pretty fun! I like deep simulations, especially when I can see every single person in the facility simulated (as in Startopia).
    I don’t really understand how the story in the game works, is there a full campaign or just bits of tales about the inmates appear while playing?

    • Steven S

      Sorry to get your hopes up, but the actual title as it appears here is Adams doing, so blame him!

      In it’s current state the game is fully playable. I always worry when I get any sort of pre-release game because I never know what level of readiness it has. Considering I have paid for full release games that are buggy beyond imagination, it was nice to see Prison Architect so polished.

      The story is only for the tutorial, after that you just build your prison. It is mostly told through dialogue boxes and photographs that overlay the screen. The main game just has the prisoner dossiers, like Mr. Sean Trish up above.

      • trincetto

        Don’t worry, I can wait some more for the full release and the review itself made clear that the game was still in alpha!
        Also, thank you for the clarification about the story.

  • Shawn

    Looking forward to this game when it’s released. One thing that has always bugged me about it is the choice of character design though. They look like Mii’s or something and don’t seem to fit the rest of the games aesthetic.

    • Steven S

      I had the same thoughts when I first looked at this game, but once I got in and started playing I stopped noticing it. There is was much going on that demanded my attention, I was greatful for such simplistic design. There is just enough detail that I can tell one character from another with just a quick glance, but not enough to distract from the important stuff. If you are zoomed out enough to play effectively yout will just see a group of vaugley human shapes moving around anyway.