Review: Prison Architect

By Nick Vigdahl 30 May 2017 1

Review: Prison Architect

Released 25 May 2017

Developer: Tag Games
Genre: Simulation
Available from:
Google Play
App Store
Reviewed on: iPad Pro

It's a big year for prison. At least as far as mobile gaming is concerned. A couple months ago The Escapists launched on mobile and put you in the shoes of a prisoner looking to break out of a bad spot. Now Prison Architect, a simulation game develop by Introversion Software and published by Paradox Interactive, is out and has you looking to keep convicts in.

Prison Architect has an impressive depth of options to build and customize your prison. You don’t just slap down cells here and showers there but first lay the foundations, zone an area for specific use, add walls doors and windows, and then place furniture or, you know, electric chairs. There's also infrastructure—mainly power and water—to consider. A prison is effectively a small city and Prison Architect certainly makes it seem that way. There's a ton to tinker with and it can get complicated until you ascend the learning curve.

In the sandbox-style architect mode your goal is efficiency; both in cost and layout. The consequences of getting it wrong are high. You’ll find yourself constantly changing your prison’s design for several reasons: newly identified needs, prison growth, because you just plain got it wrong before, or because it looks like a mess and you just can't take it anymore. Maybe that last one is mostly just me.


Your prison has many demands beyond just design and construction. There is a staff to manage, most critically guards whose patrols and CCTV monitoring must be micromanaged such that you can keep an eye on all the inmates. Failing to do so gives you little chance of getting the jump on problems before they escalate. Oh, and there will be plenty of problems: Fires, floods, fights, riots, plague (Ok, more like the flu), and the demands of politicians to name but a few.

Prison Architect applies pressure by forcing you to stay one or more steps ahead of these disasters. To do this you have to address the needs and wants of prisoners, staff, and others while earning enough money to keep everything running smoothly. The construction delay associated with changes makes it important to anticipate what you need and get started early. This can be much easier said than done, especially for novice players. The overall pressure diminishes the sandbox feel and keeps the game on rails, albeit relatively wide ones, which may turn off some.

The game also has a campaign mode called Prison Stories. It starts by stepping you through a tutorial before moving on to a series of vignettes designed to showcase life in prison. These stories address various aspects of the criminal justice system and while an interesting addition, they feel jarring and out of place when inserted into a simulation game. In one early event, you see the flashback of a death-row inmate's rather graphic premeditated murder of his wife and her lover. When returned to the present a priest and guard debate whether he deserved to die for his crime. These stories bring up real social questions, which is fine, but they feel awkwardly done and probably just belong in a different game.


Luckily, architect mode is the game's bread and butter and the real reason to play Prison Architect. Beneath the simulation some moral questions lurk here as well, though they are a bit less in your face and make sense within the context of the simulation. Your limited budget is at the heart of the issue. Do you decide to provide the bare bones to keep costs low, or add in some quality-of-life improvements to make inmate’s lives a little better? As a privately owned, for-profit prison, you make cash by taking in more inmates. Do you cram as many in as you can to keep the cash flowing or stick to what you can conservatively manage? How do riots, fights, escape attempts, and other poor behavior change your outlook on your charges and the way you approach your job? These are all questions that face you early on and throughout the game. As Prison Architect advances an additional question surfaces: Should prisons seek to reform inmates or simply incarcerate them? If reform is your answer you can apply for grants to earn more needed cash and do things like treat addiction and educate and train your inmates in useful skills. If you opt out of all of these things you’ll need to prepare to handle a much sullener population. How you approach these questions will have a large effect on how your game of Prison Architect plays out.

Prison Architect has a free-to-try payment model. You can play the first prison story, the tutorial, as well as build your own prison in architect mode up to a certain point. In-app-purchases unlock additional prison stories for $3 each and the full version of architect mode for $5. All the game's content can be unlocked for $15.

If you enjoy simulation games and the prison subject matter interests you, Prison Architect is certainly worth checking out. The depth of options and strength of the simulation will appeal to fans of the genre, though the constant "now this, now this" pressure can be a bit much. The game does a good job of capturing some of the moral questions around the for-profit penal system as well. Grab and it and see what you think, Prison Architect's awesome free-trial option leaves little risk in doing so. 

Prison Architect is a strong simulation game with a good depth of options and is free to try.

Review: Prison Architect

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