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‘Prison Architect’ Alpha Impressions, Part 6–Alpha 13


Renowned independent developer Introversion continues to plug away at the alpha for its massive strategy sim Prison Architect, releasing updates on approximately a monthly basis. This feature takes an in-depth look at each new update to describe what it entails and how the new features affect the overall game. If you want to be a part of the alpha and have some input on the game’s development trajectory, visit Introversion’s website to purchase alpha access.

Alpha 13 represents a fantastic culmination of a number of different features. The biggest one this month is that prisoners can now attempt to escape from the prison by tunneling out through their toilet. They have to do this by using a spoon or other tool acquired from around the prison. From there, they will start digging underneath the prison grounds, making a bid for escape slowly but surely until they arrive at the outskirts of the prison walls, and emerge to dash for freedom.

This feature is huge in that it requires a complete rethinking of the prison layout. The infrastructure of the prison will likely have to change based on the inmates’ propensity for wanting to break free, and the placement of all the buildings will once again have to be carefully considered. Of course, there’s never really a wrong way to design the prison, but the best way will have to be discovered through careful planning and a bit of trial and error—and as always, finding that right formula is part of the game’s delight.

I’ve started a new prison with each Alpha, and a trend that I’ve always unconsciously followed is that I construct cells around the border of my prison, wrapping around the inside edge of the perimeter walls. This is a prohibitively foolish decision if my prisoners are unhappy, as they’ll easily be able to tunnel directly out of the prison, having to only travel a short distance to escape. It’s far more sensible now to station the cells closer to the middle of the prison, or at the very least put up extra walls to make tunneling as difficult as possible. The addition of the Perimeter, a very high, deep and expensive wall, is very good at impeding escapees, but the prohibitive cost of the wall will keep its usage and placement at a premium. You also cannot build utilities through a Perimeter wall, so there will be at least one weak point that will have to be considered.


Of course, this also contributes to the excellent give-and-take that is arguably one of Prison Architect’s best elements. One of the earlier features, Utilities, allows you to place electric lines and water pipes. The latter will have to be examined closely; while larger water pipes are vital to a certain point and convenient beyond that for getting water quickly through the prison, they are also exactly human-sized and perfect for a prisoner to pull a Shawshank Redemption and get quickly out of the prison. Do you make things easier on yourself by building plenty of large pipes, at the risk of giving prisoners an easy path underneath your prison? Do you spend money on the useful Perimeter walls, or use the boatload of money that would cost to try to improve the quality of life for your prisoners and reduce their desire to escape?

A scary part of the escaping mechanic is that you can’t automatically see the prisoners escaping (unless, of course, you’re Chris Delay and have the developer tools). At any given time, you might have your guards patrolling the grounds, and while prisoners might appear to be spending time in their cell on the UI, they might very well be tunneling their way out of the prison. If you feel like there might be some discord and dissatisfaction in the prison, you would do well to search the cells. If you do search a cell and someone is in the process of escaping, the tunnel will be revealed and you can take the appropriate steps to stop it. Apart from riots, this is probably one of the most exciting components of the game, as you scramble to catch the prisoners before they can tunnel out of the grounds to freedom.

Another way in which the escape mechanic feeds from various other systems is how the Needs system can affect escape attempts. Prisoners with a high Safety need (meaning he feels in danger) will want to get out of there, and is far more likely to want to try to escape. If the prison is a dangerous place, nonviolent, recently victimized or wrongfully incarcerated prisoners will be itching for an opportunity to flee. A high Freedom need can also lead to this behavior, with the kicker being that the need will skyrocket if the prisoner is excessively punished with Lockdown or Solitary. These punishments are meant to deter bad behavior, but how will you rethink your punishments if it could lead to escapes?


In the past, there were certain presets for how and when a prisoner would be searched and/or punished, based on certain conditions. The ability to control this can be unlocked through the Bureaucracy screen. This Policy report is laid out in a table, with specific “Incident” conditions (escape attempts, attacked staff, or found weapons), Search values (Him or Cell), and Punishment values (type of punishment and length of time). With this, you can assign individual punishments to specific types of behavior. Want to make sure that a prisoner spends 12 hours in solitary confinement if cigarettes are found on his person? That type of iron fist ruling is completely feasible with the Policy screen.

This all comes in addition to the standard bug fixes, which are making the game feel more and more like a true, polished retail release even while it still sits in alpha. Introversion is remarkably proactive with bugs, even to the point of removing certain smaller features if they broke with the new iteration of the game. With this trajectory, Introversion should have an extremely polished project by the end.

As a final note, Introversion will be doing an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit on Tuesday, September 3. They’ll be on Reddit at 5PM UK time, and will be answering as many questions as they can. So if you’ve got some extra questions about Prison Architect, visit Reddit tomorrow and ask the developers themselves!

As always, visit Introversion’s website to purchase the game, get in on the alpha and start playing immediately. Come back next month to find out what Alpha 14 holds!

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