Build a Prison with Prison Architect

Theme Hospital was, and remains, one of my favourite simulation games. In your time with the game, you build and manage a hospital that has to deal with a variety of illnesses and have the facilities to do so. But Theme Hospital is not the only government-funded accommodation simulator on the block.

Prison Architect is a business management and simulation game currently in development by Introversion Software. Prison Architect is all about building and maintaining a high-security prison, implementing facilities such as visitation and labour, and reacting to the dynamic needs of your inmates. It’s still an alpha build but since it’s widely available through Steam, we’re going to take a look at it in this review.

Day One

When you launch Prison Architect, you’ll be given an empty plot of land, eight workmen and $10,000 in the bank. As you’d expect (yet unlike a game like Theme Hospital), the prison is entirely of your construction so before designating rooms or hiring more staff, you’ll need to actually mark out foundations and have the outer structure of the building formed.

Prison Architect is presented in a single, top-down view that allows for grid-based planning of your prison.

Prison Architect is presented in a single, top-down view that allows for grid-based planning of your prison.

Once your small army of workmen have built your outer design, you can begin to construct internal walls and place objects. These objects are almost everything that you’d expect from a prison, ranging from metal detectors to serving tables for the canteen. They don’t instantly spawn in, however. Instead, your workmen will collect them from a designated delivery area and then carry them into your prison – being held up by any security layers you’ve put in their way. This is a welcome change from the norm of construction simulators, as you can change your mind and cancel the placing of objects, or dismantle pre-built ones, and have them moved to storage to be used in the future at no further cost.

A Puppet Warden

In order for your prison to be run efficiently, you’ll need to hire staff such as guards, cooks, janitors and administrators. Some of these jobs need to be researched but the essential guards, cooks and workmen can be hired from the start. You’ll also need to hire some administrators, the first of which is a warden.

Employing prisoners in the workshop and laundry will help to reduce staffing costs and create assets for the prison to sell.

Employing prisoners in the workshop and laundry will help to reduce staffing costs and create assets for the prison to sell.

While you’ll need a warden in your prison, you’re the real warden in Prison Architect. You’ll need to tweak the prisoner’s regime to accommodate their changing needs and react to an influx of new inmates, choosing when to cut off supply or expand your personnel to meet them. When your inmates’ collective needs get higher than what you can handle, riots will occur and it’ll be your job to lock down areas of the prison and call in the emergency services to react. Being an alpha, not everything in your management arsenal works, though; riot guards, for example, can be called in but they’ll just stand around until you tell them to leave.

Alpha Inmates

Prison Architect is still very much in development, receiving near-monthly updates to the alpha build. Developers Introversion aren’t exactly secretive about the game’s development progress but it still feels more polished than I first imagined. There are bugs and you will notice them, but they aren’t enough to make Prison Architect feel more like a technical demo than something you can actually sink hours in. Sure, I needed to go into my save file and manually edit some abandoned vehicles out a few times, but I still managed to sink more than twenty hours into the game in less than a week.

Let your prisoners get unhappy and you'll have a riot on your hand.

Let your prisoners get unhappy and you’ll have a riot on your hand.

Financing, as a game mechanic, is a specific game mechanic that I oft took issue with during my time with the game. Once you’ve built the bare essentials of a working prison, you’ll want to expand but the only sustainable source of income is from prisoners and it can get boring to just wait for midnight for some more funds, especially when your prison isn’t constantly encountering rioting and other incidents. You can get extra money through grants, but there’s only four in the game and your money from these will still run out fast.

Prison Architect is certainly not a bug-free experience.

Prison Architect is certainly not a bug-free experience.

Of course, though, Prison Architect is still in development so hopefully further expansion and bug fixing is on the way.

Final Thoughts

Prison Architect is really fun and my Steam playtime suggests it’s ended up being a little more addicting than I had initially thought. The game is fairly easy to pick up but it takes a while to instinctively optimise your layout, staffing and regime. However, once you have the basics down you can play a lot more efficiently and expand a lot more rapidly.

Reviewing this game in an earlier alpha build would probably involve complaining about some of the missing essentials, but in my time with Alpha 11, I didn’t feel like anything vital was MIA. However, there’s definitely a lot of room for expansion and that’s something to look forward to in the months to come. It might be a while before Prison Architect gets out of alpha but, even today, it offers up an entertaining and relatively bug-free experience that will have you playing for hours.


Prison Architect is a prison construction and management simulator that has you build a maximum security prison and ensure it's safe running.