If you ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up, chances are, managing a prison wouldn’t be their first answer. And yet there’s something oddly gripping about Prison Architect, about trying to create an impenetrable fortress where the naughty boys of the world have to go and think about what they’ve done for a few decades. As light-hearted as it seems at first, this is one of those games that every now and then holds a mirror up to your face and makes you think, as you compromise your values and ideals for the greater good.
Off the Bus
The goal of Prison Architect is to design and build your own fully-functioning prison, covering everything from cell size and layout to guard patrols, completing grants for government funding, utilities, food quality, reform programs, executions, preventing escape attempts and dealing with disasters.
To help you come to grips with the mechanics, Prison Architect has a five-mission campaign, with a surprisingly affecting story against the otherwise cartoonish backdrop. The missions take you through the execution of a repentant killer, a cheesy but brutal mob drama, a tense hostage situation and helping a mistreated prisoner gain parole and see his family again. The cutscenes are complemented with graphic-novel-style Polaroids, bringing to life key moments in the scene – such as a gory double murder or a tense round of Russian Roulette.
While immersive, the campaign does sometimes skimp on instructions. For the first twenty minutes or so, I didn’t realise that only guards could open jail doors, which is one of the fundamentals of Prison Architect. Another lesson I had to learn the hard way was that you can’t have two electrical generators on the same power grid, as they’ll instantly short each other out. Obvious to an electrician, perhaps, but since it never happened to me in all my years of SimCity, I had no idea what was going on.
In Sandbox Mode, you’ll start with just an empty plot of land and a little cash to get started. You’ll rely heavily on grants to get your prison up and running, and continue expanding later into the game. These are a great idea, as they not only function as missions to give you guidance and rewards, but they also pay some funding in advance to get things moving. This means you’re never completely stuck for options, unless you’ve picked up grants too advanced for you to complete at the time. Make no mistake, you can go bankrupt if you’re not careful, but with a bank loan and maybe a little downsizing of staff or services, you can usually get out of the red without too much trouble.
One of the best ways to fine-tune your prison is the Regime page. From here you have complete control over what your prisoners are allowed to do at any hour of the day. If you want to institute an eight-hour work day with only one meal and the rest of their time spent showering or locked in their cells, you can. If you want to stuff them with three meals a day and give plenty of free time and yard time, you can do that too. You can even create separate regimes for different prisoner types, which is a great way to stagger things like meal times so your canteen doesn’t have to feed hundreds of hungry and angry mouths all at once.
Punishment or Reform
The main choice you’ll have to make when designing your prison is whether to focus on punishing inmates for their crimes, or rehabilitating them for their release. Whether you want to commit heinous human rights violations by cramming them into tiny cells and denying toilet access, or provide all of the creature comforts of the outside world on the taxpayer’s dollar, it’s entirely up to you, though not without consequence. Heavily punishing prisoners will subdue them in the short term, but generally poor conditions will lead to violence. Giving prisoners every chance to rehabilitate definitely has some positive results, but there will always be those prisoners who take advantage of your hospitality to get their hands on contraband such as drugs or weapons.
Both punishment and reform are effective ways to reduce the reoffending rate, which is one of the stats that determines whether you get to keep your job. You can pursue a mix of punishment and reform as desired, but the two are often at odds. For example, providing classes to give inmates job skills will help those enrolled reform their wicked ways. However, anyone not enrolled or assigned a job in this time will just take it as free time, which makes you look soft.
The path to reformation is expensive and not always effective, yet feels very rewarding. You can help inmates overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol, and curb their violent tendencies. You can offer general and more advanced education to help them find work when they get out. If you’ve built a chapel, you can offer spiritual guidance sessions to give them peace and repent for their crimes. Best of all, there’s the option for parole hearings so you can see all your hard work pay off as a reformed soul is allowed back out into the world (but make sure to post a guard in case the prisoner doesn’t get the answer he wants).
Whether playing as friendly rehabilitator or totalitarian dictator, you need to keep an eye on your prisoners’ needs. You can see a summary of these once you hire a psychologist, but individual inmates will show what they need most urgently with speech bubbles over their heads. Needs include the basics such as food, sleep, hygiene and bladder, and extend to recreation, family, spirituality, literacy, clean clothes and more. It can be hard to please everyone while still turning a profit; for example, bigger cells with their own showers, desks, TVs and so on will make prisoners happy, but seriously limit how many inmates you can pack into your prison. Exactly how much you want to cater to the whims of these convicted felons really depends on your own stance on crime, but be warned: disregard them for too long and they will start to cause trouble.
Prison Architect doesn’t have any difficulty settings; instead, you choose how hard you want to make your task by the type of inmates you accept on the bus every day. Minimum security prisoners are the easiest to manage, not causing a fuss except when nearly all of their needs go unmet, but bring in the least money. As you move up to regular and max security inmates, you’ll earn a lot more but will have to work much harder to control contraband and tighten security.
You can also assign other security types to inmates as needed. SuperMax is reserved for anyone too dangerous to be allowed out into the general population, while protective custody is for any snitches or former cops whose lives are in danger just by being in prison. And if you really want to get your hands dirty, you can build a Death Row wing to accept condemned prisoners, though be warned: these men have nothing to lose.
No matter how you choose to play, security is your top priority. Your prison’s rating suffers for every inmate to escape or die, so it’s good that you have so many tools available to keep these men safely locked up. You can deploy guards to specific areas of your prison, and organise patrols of guards and dogs to detect any underground tunnels digging toward freedom. CCTV cameras let you keep an eye on rooms without needing guards inside, and metal detectors keep prisoners from walking around with weapons and other contraband.
You can even turn some prisoners in solitary confinement into confidential informants, letting you know which cells and inmates are holding contraband – but act on too much of this intel too fast and you’ll blow their cover, putting their lives at risk. A shakedown every now and then to check every hiding place in the prison is a great way to confiscate all contraband while asserting your authority, but prisoners that haven’t broken the rules don’t appreciate being searched, so this can potentially lead to worse problems down the line.
Random Events and Disasters
Sandbox Mode features an impressive variety of events and disasters that can randomly strike at any moment, provided you have more than 50 prisoners. These include a sudden intake of up to 40 prisoners (frustrating if you’re trying to progress slowly), kitchen and power station fires, burst water pipes, fence or wall collapses (requiring quick management to prevent escapes), workshop injuries, a contagious virus and mass assassinations of several prisoners about to give testimony in court. The mayor and your prisoners will also make demands from time to time, such as taking away all TVs or reducing the number of work hours in the prison regime. Refusing the mayor results in heavy fines, while refusing your prisoners can lead to unrest.
While disastrous for your prison’s rating, riots can be terrific fun to quell. You have four kinds of units that all have a role to play in retaking your prison. Riot police are stronger and better equipped guards, beating any rioting inmates into submission. You also have armed responders, who can rapidly clear an area with their high-powered shotguns, but should be used only when absolutely necessary to keep deaths to a minimum. Firemen and paramedics are your support units; the former hosing down burning buildings to limit property damage and give your other units a safe path inside, and the latter healing any wounded units.
Escape Mode turns Prison Architect on its head, letting you experience your prison from the other side of the bars. You’ll quickly discover that all your efforts to inmate-proof your prison have made you your own worst enemy. Right away my workshop and infirmary were ruled out as sources of contraband thanks to the metal detectors I’d put on the doors. Fortunately, I never thought to secure the kitchen, so my fittingly-named prisoner Bailey had access to all the spoons, forks and knives he desired.
The first thing you need to do in Escape Mode is build up your reputation, and this means being a jerk. For every fight you start and every person you kill or knock out in the process, you gain reputation points to spend on combat traits to make you tougher, more lethal, better at inciting riots, and so on. Bailey wasted no time in getting into trouble, clobbering inmates in the shower and spiking the bacon trays with bleach. In no time he was upgraded to maximum security, which would have limited his movement had I designated areas for each prisoner type in my design.
Your basic goal is to dig a tunnel to freedom, but if security is lax enough you can escape just by walking out the door when it opens to let new prisoners in. Digging a tunnel is slow work, and you’ll go through all manner of tools before you make any significant progress. Also, once you start your tunnel, try to keep a low profile. Too many times Bailey caused a ruckus for the reputation gain, only to be taken to solitary and later assigned to a different cell, negating all that digging.
While an interesting puzzle to unravel, Escape Mode falls a little flat in places. Non-violent and non-digging contraband such as mobile phones, drugs and alcohol seem to have no use in Escape Mode, which is a real shame. It would be great to trade with other prisoners for what you need, such as an alcoholic kitchen worker slipping you digging tools in exchange for smuggled booze. Also, maybe it’s because my prison was predominantly minimum-security prisoners, but I never had anyone pick a fight with me.
Overall, Prison Architect is a very well put together and through provoking game, which improves massively once you throw in Escape Mode. The game already has a strong community for sharing and challenging each other’s prison designs, so there’s always new prisons to bust out of if you run short of ideas.
Addictive and memorable
A sometimes hilarious, sometimes haunting twist on the construction/management genre.