Have You Played… Prison Architect?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Prison Architect delivers all the satisfaction of a traditional Bullfrog-style management game. You place walls, lay pipes and wires, and soon slip into a zen state familiar to anyone who played Theme Park. What makes the game special is the simulation of the game’s people, which reminds you over and over that you’re not building Disneyland.

In short: those people have needs. Not just needs like eating, sleeping and showering, but emotional needs. They get depressed, frustrated, angry and those dark moods make them more likely to lash out, attack someone and start a riot. Build a visitor room and let them see their family however and they’ll feel better, relax, and behave.

This isn’t to say that the game solely supports a liberal idea of prisons though. It’s also possible to build a brutalist nightmare, in which your charges are kept in solitary confinement at almost all times. This instead keeps the prisoners in a state where their will is suppressed such that they feel unable to rebel or to act violently.

It’s possible to build prisons along either of these paths, or a mixture of the two. What’s less possible is to build a prison that outright dehumanises the people under your control. However you feel about the subject matter – and it’s undoubtedly grim – it’s a much more human game than anything Bullfrog ever made.


  1. Someoldguy says:

    I have avoided this one because the idea of building a prison with regular outbreaks of brutality does not appeal, as opposed to Theme park where at worst you have regular outbreaks of vomiting because you tuned your ride up too high. You do make it sound tempting to just have a go and make a reforming prison.

    • Lumière says:

      I thought the same before buying this game, 1 year ago, I don’t think this is a subject to play with. But the game take it more serious than the cartoonish graphics make it appear. If anything, it is more a critic to the prisional system, that treats people just like another financial income, but it shows the contradiction in this, when you have to deal with the human needs of this people that the system wants you to treat just like numbers. Give it a go, it’s deeper than it seens.

      • WoodGuyThreepBrush says:

        I second this motion. PA certainly doesn’t take it’s context lightly, and is in fact a very mature, and thought provocative game which manages to discuss and challenge some typically rock solid view points of the player.

        Give it a go, you won’t regret it

    • Crafter says:

      Same here.

      I love RimWorld (closest game I can think of gameplay wise) and I got PA in a bundle.
      I tried to give it a shot, but designing a prison just feels depressing.

      Pretty awkward considering the average action game makes you do way worse things.

  2. rodan32 says:

    Yes; I think have more than 200 hours in this game, but I don’t want to check. It’s brilliant. It’s probably the most well-balanced, interesting, compelling management game I’ve ever played. Yeah, it’s fiddly and there’s a little learning curve (especially if you want to go nuts with automated gates or whatever), but everything balances so well.

    And the little stories that emerge; fun stuff. When your best snitch gets killed, or working through the death row process (as grim as it sounds), or even the little visitation scenes; it’s kind of stunning how such a simple game can be so evocative with such (seeming) simplicity. It’s a masterpiece.

  3. dontnormally says:

    Still eagerly awaiting their next non-prison game. Hopefully the boatloads of cash that fill every square inch of their office space will help them.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      They’ve released Scanner Sombre since then.
      It’s quite short, but it does have a genuinely novel mechanic with the scanner as a way of seeing the world. I enjoyed it.

  4. Samudaya says:

    I’ve played the start. The tutorial is some kind of story mission. One old crime boss commands some -slur for homosexual men- to be killed. Then I went online to find that Prison Architect doesn’t have any simulation for prison sex. STDs, condoms, sexual assault, harassment and other real life prison issues are missing from the game.

    • baud001 says:

      Not sure if serious.jpg

      From what I’ve heard from ex-con, there aren’t a lot of sexual assault and harassement in prison. Sex exists but it seems to be mostly consensual.

      Still putting some in the game might cause a bump in the esrb rating or even get it thrown out of Steam, so (in addition to being a serious matter) I can understand a dev not doing it.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I enjoy it, even if I don’t have the right kind of mind for the game. I can’t do these absurdly complex things I see on the workshop, I just have a few separate buildings with a yard in the middle so prisoners can wander around doing whatever.

    It ends up more like a university that you can’t leave, I think.

  6. gorte says:

    Oh boy have I played it. I bought PA the first day when the beta program started, I played the heck out of most of the monthly releases, and at some point when it moved to Steam I’ve played few hundred hours there too.

    Prison Architect is just somehow the perfect mix of tycoon games and Dwarf Fortress-likes for me, there’s enough detail to make weird things happen but not enough that you’d need to micromanage things constantly.

  7. TrenchFoot says:

    I’ll just add use the Gulag mod for a different flavor.

  8. MajorLag says:

    I did, for about half an hour I think. The tutorial wasn’t very good and the part after that failed to engage me in any way, which I found odd since I’d played so much Dwarf Fortress over the years.

  9. Taerdin says:

    I wish I understood how to play this game