DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Troika is coming. That could be the headline today in Portugal. Inspectors are arriving from the so-called Troika of creditors, the European union, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. They gave Portugal a financial bailout two years ago, and are back today to assess the country's economic progress, which does not look all that good.

Unemployment and poverty are both on the rise, but the Portuguese people have somehow found a way to make light of their predicament by playing cards. Lauren Frayer sent us this postcard from Lisbon.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Late summer in Lisbon, sardine festival's winding down, old men play dominoes over cold glasses of vino verde and commiserate about the economy. Portugal is struggling to pay back its bailout loans from Europe. People's taxes, in some cases, have doubled. Record numbers of Portuguese have lost their jobs, and some are using their newfound free time to play cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

FRAYER: Locals huddle around the cafe table here playing a new card game that's all the rage. It's called Vem ai a Troika, here comes the Troika, sort of a satirical cross between monopoly and Old Maid.

CARLOS MESQUITA: Basically, the Troika card ends the game.

FRAYER: It's like the Old Maid. You lose if you have the Troika.

MESQUITA: You lose. Well, you don't necessarily lose, here. You just - it's a way to finish the game, and then you just count your points to see who won.

FRAYER: You win points - says Carlos Mesquita, who invented the game - by stashing away savings in imaginary Swiss bank accounts, rigging elections and avoiding the dreaded Troika.

MESQUITA: For some time, I thought about the power struggles that you have in any society. And usually that involves people, power, money, votes. So that's it. So we decided that we would try and develop from there.

FRAYER: Mesquita is an engineer in self-proclaimed hardcore gamer - cards and board games, that is. He and some friends invented this game last year after Portugal's $100 billion bailout. They have to do crowdfunding to pay for the first 3,000 decks of cards, which sold out in a month. They've got a new edition on store shelves this week timed to coincide with the Troika's visit to Lisbon.

Like all the cards in the deck, the Troika card is a caricature, in this case of inspectors from the European Union, European Central Bank and IMF, cartoon characters of middle-aged white guys in black suits with briefcases.

FILIPE PRETO: In a way, there's the guys that bring the money, but also bring the torture we're living, and we're playing with certain fears of living without money. That's the first fear of the game, because it's the first fear of the living people, the real ones.

FRAYER: That's Filipe Preto, a graphic designer who also helped invent the game. He sees it as a creative way to get Portuguese people talking about why their economy collapsed and what changes might be necessary.

PRETO: You can play with serious things, but it happens that by playing and by thinking with humor, you can really make people reflect about the problems and maybe, why not, act differently the next day.

FRAYER: Portugal's economy is still shrinking, but exports are up, a possible good sign. The Troika has now landed here in Lisbon, but it's still unclear how that game will end. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer.

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