I’ve always enjoyed enjoy tycoon-style management games like Theme Park, Theme Hospital, Tycoon Transport, and Roller Coaster Tycoon. I’ve been playing alpha 20 of Prison Architect recently, and it has the same planning, building and managing aspects that I love in these games.
You start with an empty plot of land, and as the title suggests you have to design, build, and manage a prison. There is a short tutorial, but you will learn most of the game by playing and experimenting. The game features grants that you can access to help you fund your prison, and I’m not sure if it was intended, but the grants are actually pretty effective at helping you learn how to build a good prison by giving you checklists with requirements to complete. For example, there is a basic detention centre grant which requires you to build a holding cell, shower, kitchen, canteen, shower, yard, and to hire two cooks and two guards. Most grants give you funds up front upon accepting the grant, and another amount once you have completed the checklist.
One of the nice features of Prison Architect is that instead of just instantly plopping down rooms and objects, you have to wait for them to be built and installed by your workmen. It is sometimes better to build as much as you can before starting to take in inmates, since you will have to keep a lot of gates around the prison locked once inmates arrive (for obvious reasons). Prison guards can open locked gates for your staff, but this can take a few moments if you don’t have enough guards in your prison, or if they are otherwise occupied. Another great feature is that you can plan areas before issuing orders to build, which helps avoid building foundations that are not quite the right size for what you had in mind. It’s nice to be able to plan out large sections of your prison in between managing the prison and while waiting for the required funds to commence building.
The game gives you a lot of freedom in how you design your prison. Some rooms require certain items in order to be functional, but apart from that, you are free to do as you please. I’ve seen people build prisons which are basically just one big building, with very little outdoor areas. I usually prefer to build two walls that run around the entire plot, and then build multiple buildings inside. I’ve experimented with different layouts and there are many ways to build a functional prison. It takes a bit of trail and error, and chances are you might struggle with prisoners fighting, rioting, trying to escape, and vandalizing the prison. I love how the game makes you think about how to prevent prisoners from misbehaving. There are many systems you can implement to help prevent prisoners from engaging unwanted activities such as installing metal detectors in key areas that prisoners have to pass through, for example when exiting the canteen (to ensure that they don’t try to smuggle out knifes, forks, or spoons). Likewise, you can assign armed guards to areas where fights or riots are likely to break out, and dog patrols on busy paths to help search for contraband.
There is a lot to like about this game, and there is a lot of depth and complexity to it. Unfortunately, given it’s alpha state, there are a few issues as well. I haven’t played this game that much, but I’m getting the feeling that after a while you might run out of things to do. I’ve built and sold two prisons now, and I’m currently using the money I made to build a large high security prison. Considering that these prisoners are the worst of the worst, they are surprisingly well behaved. Granted, I have learned how to keep them happy and under control, but I would find it more exiting if the game threw a curve ball at me every once in a while, like a prisoner trying to execute an elaborate escape plan. I do still have to put some more hours into the game to understand to what extent this is an issue, because perhaps I just haven’t tried to build large enough prisons yet, which might offer more of a challenge.
The more immediate and glaring issue is that the game still lacks a lot of polish, and while it has a nice interface, in certain areas it is clear that they haven’t thought through everything. Also, there are some really annoying bugs directly influencing gameplay, such as CCTV cameras that stop panning from side to side for no reason. It can be quite frustrating if you’ve built a large prison with lots of cameras, and you have to dismantle and reconnect all of them. This is one of the fundamental problems with early access on Steam, since players have no idea how long it might take before the game is finally finished.
A little while ago there was a sale going on where you could buy Prison Architect for 10 USD on Steam, which was 66% less than the normal price. I did a short post on this and mentioned that the game was worth the money twice over. Even though I meant it as a figure of speech, it turns out it was a pretty good indication of what I consider to be a fair price to pay for this game. Honestly, and this is only my opinion, while I would gladly pay 10 USD or even 20 USD for this version of Prison Architect, I don’t think this game is currently worth 30 USD. It is not quite in mainstream price territory yet, but it is expensive for an indie game, especially one that isn’t even close to being finished yet. If you don’t own this game already, I can only really recommend buying it now if you love spending countless hours playing these kinds of games and have been waiting for years for another good one to come along. Otherwise, rather wait until it is finished before buying it, unless you can get it at a reduced price on another sale.