One of the experiences that I've never had in Ars Magica is the one where you take several magi recently out of Gauntlet, give them a site with a few tethers and maybe a pre-feudal construction or two, a handful of Grogs, and let them carve a Covenant out of nigh-wilderness.
My understanding is that it's on the list of things that can kill a saga simply by being attempted, because the amount of stuff to do is overwhelming and there's not necessarily an obvious starting point.
So, what would you suggest as ways to help get things moving and keep them moving? A list of evident methods of gathering food (with a SG companion list for the complications that can ensue)? A table for creating curious locals checking out the newcomers? A list of Casting Tablets gifted to them by helpful sponsoring covenants along with the admonition to try not to botch, especially the rituals? A breakdown of how hard it was to move various building materials around in the 13th Century, and how rare certain things are (like good stone)? Fiefdom sheets for neighboring domains, with random charts for filling them out on the fly, if necessary?
They can, if you focus on every single thing and make it a big deal.
Well, don't focus on everything, assume some things progress as the troupe desires if they put some amount of work at progressing in others.
Why? How is this fun? Does the troupe want to do this or is it enough to handwave that it's dune if the requisite personnel are assigned?
Like a random encounter table? No, I would instead build encounters based on the story flaws of the PCs or the hooks of the Covenant.
Instead of casting tablets considering that a couple of favors are granted to the fledgling covenant. Some magi cast Conjuring the Mystic Tower, rather than using a Casting Tablet.
Instead of focusing on every element you think is necessary in founding a new covenant in a new area, focus instead on the stories that you want to tell (as the SG) combined with the stories that players say they want (story flaws) and what the troupe agrees upon for the nature of the saga (covenant's hooks). If you and the troupe get into a lot of minutiae, great, do that. If you think some stories will drag things to a halt and potentially kill a saga, then, of course, you should avoid telling those stories and just assume that they are done. Whether that assumption requires magi giving up some seasons to seeing to the completion of certain tasks, well that's a troupe discussion.
What we did was, we started the covenant, played around with finding a location, meeting the neighbours, set the stage. Then, we advanced the timeline 5 years, to set the stories in the now running covenant. Your Milage May Very, of course, but it worked great for us.
As SG I ran a game which started the Magi from pre-gauntlet through to the regular stories based around their covenant. They had to survey sites, do all the setup and building of structures, gain Order/tribunal buy-in, lobby for donations, find grogs, setup their allies and enemies. It took a very longtime. If the troupe were open to it I'd happily do it again in a similar way.
We agreed as a group that many of the aspects chosen from covenant design would be problematic to play out in detail. Instead the group chose specific parts of the establishment to play out in detail and left the rest to just happen. Interaction with the local rulers and peasants, finding a vis source, meeting their nemesis, a magical creature, a few important sites in their area, establishing an allied covenant were some of the things we played.
An issue we had was the pre-knowledge of what should happen/be resolved, so next time I'd have the outcomes very changeable according to their actions and not worry as much about sticking to the purchase points in the covenants book. As players we were too worried about the balance, and really that is moot once play starts. I wouldn't want to remove the sketch of what the covenant was planned as in total, but certainly allow far greater flexibility.
Secondly I'd force a review of the covenant in-play and ask the players speak frankly about their expectations - compare what they thought they'd have vs what they got. After that review there would then be stories or events to move the covenant to be more like their desires. My mistake was keeping too bound to the numbers, and not to the flavour we had around the table. I've done this after 10 sessions or so in character generation and it works well, so it seems like it might also work for the covenant.
Establishing a covenant from scratch is a massive undertaking. So... don't do it - because the characters wouldn't either.
I believe (and not everyone need agree) that a mage who passes Gauntlet and then starts to think about a Covenant is something like a soldier who doesn't prepare for combat until the day they meet the enemy. Once they realize they are going to fight, and soon, they begin to plan for it - and the earlier they think about it and start planning (within reason), the better.
Also, think about who in The Order would be interested in "one more covenant" - not just the newly gauntleted magi, I'd bet. Some covenants will want to help sponsor them so that senior covenant then has new allies in Tribunal, or just to see the Tribunal flourish. Some Parens want to see their apprentice thrive, and so will give gifts (generous or meager), or at least arrange "consideration" in return for something in the future - vis, service, votes, something. Some Houses would want their representatives to succeed and promote their House ideals as the Tribunal expands into unclaimed lands. All sorts of reasons for "established powers" to step forward and offer aid, of one form or another.
Now, let's combine those two things, from the perspective of a senior apprentice who is then looking out at 2 things: their gauntlet, and not having a covenant that will welcome them*, combined with perhaps unexpected but not unwelcome offers of aid. What do they do?
(* Some will live in their Parens' Covenant, some will have found an established Covenant to join, short or long-term, but yours is the story of those who need to start their own, for one reason or another. If this means that some/all are some years past Gaunltet and only now are looking to strike out on their own... if that works for you, no problem.)
Well, they, and/or their Parens, start networking, and preparing to form their own, way before the year of their Gauntlet. They start gathering the other magi, the resources, the personnel to support the covenant. They start looking for a location, perhaps by doing their own research, perhaps by asking Redcaps about rumours, perhaps by pure luck. In short, they get their ducks in a row long before they are put to the test, because they are not stupid, and they are not without allies, even if those allies are bought with promises (often sworn and witnessed by Redcaps and/or Quaesitores) of something in return in the future.
So rarely do the PC's start out "from square one, all alone and empty handed" - they may have debts to repay in the future, but the jumpstart on their foundation should be worth it.
Now - what is/not covered? Well, take the advice given by others above, and combine that with the Covenant build rules as you see fit for the best story - because what's important is not that the numbers come out exact, but that you tell a good story! Gloss over what is not exciting and interesting to the Troupe, focus on what is, and have fun. This may mean a long and frank conversation with the Players even before the magri are built, to plan what the Story will cover, and what will happen narratively* or purely "off camera".
(* Often, if several similar resources are needed, one or two adventures can establish a pattern, and the rest handwaved to go similarly.)
I agree, and one of the players in the game I mentioned had CtMT as a spell, and others had taken some other spells, including an Aegis and some wards. My point was the players were already thinking along the lines you've suggested because that was teh challenge we discussed as a group. We ran a version of the group template and game template so that expectations were similar.
The players knew in advance that they would be establishing a covenant, had played AM before, and the setting background has this as the default way a fledgling cov was formed. In our setting the Order/Tribunal would give or fund resources to establish new covenants so that the Order continued to grow. The Order did not fund established/older Magi. That meant that these Magi knew they were going to do it hard, but had the political support and guidance of a senior set of Magi as well (this was mostly their parens though).
Playing from the point of pre-gauntlet also meant that the players experienced in game one of the pivotal experiences that any Magus has; and then built from that point forward.
We have just set up our covenant in the new saga I'm running. The young magi finished their time wandering around Ireland and then, with very thoughtful reference the maps and consideration of the places they've been, they chose a site just over the border from Breifne by the sea. They decided what kind of income sources they wanted (they went for sponsoring a small fishing fleet and clearing some land for farming) and what they wanted the covenant to look like. They even arranged their buildings to leave space for the tower that they are going to raise.
I think we gave them 280 build points and we spent six seasons recruiting, planning, building, etc. At the end of that time, they had a covenant, servants, grogs, vis sources, etc. The lab texts and books we considered to be either on loan or gifts from their parens and/or former covenants, and they received gifts of vis and a few old enchanted items.
So for us, the important bits were the deciding where to put it, what to call it, and what it looked like. I wasn't particularly interested in running stories of recruiting grogs or the steward so we skipped the whole thing. That may be more a function of us intending this saga (or at least this run) to be fairly short-lived; there didn't seem time for that kind of story.
I don't think anyone at the table feels they've missed out on any in-game interviews for position of the captain of the guard, so from that perspective that was the right call for us. However, there is a lot of story potential in securing land, income, vis sources, etc. It just wasn't right for us this time around.
This is a subject you really need to make sure theentire Troupe undrstands and agrees upon before starting.
Most sagas I've played we started with founding a new covenant, but glossing over a lot of things and just deciding we had done them by and by. The weakness here IMHO is that once you've done this time and time again it may not be very exciting anymore suddenly. You again struggle to get a decent library, you again refine and perosnalize your lab, you're always pressed for time between chores for buolding the covenant, personal projects, building relationships with mundanes and magi alike, and various other stories.
A few times we've tried with an established covenant. But then you need to decide how things run, how and why the younger magi (if that's what you play) get a say in anything or get to do anything (the Archmagus is busy, again). A lot of things are easier of you aleady have resources and relations. But I've seen a lot of players black completely out because they need to remember a handful or NPC magi and a brief history of the covenant.
I really don't know what works best. I'm a patient man, and like my sagas to run quite a long time - game time and real world time both. I like it when I actually achieve something with my magus. And consequently I'm saddened when a saga ends prematurely (which in by book is more or less "if it ever ends"). And then start all over again, having to find a new magus concept, and do all the same things again.
Now I'd like to play close to published material, so covenants, some magi, politics etc. is well defined and known to all. However some players have difficulties reading such mateiral - lige the Guardians of the Forest book - and then you still get the barrier between those players who know stuff and those who don't. Those who know can assume their magi know about some particular thing (or ask the SG if their OoH Lore of 3 is sufficient to know this fact). But those players who don't know have characters who also don't know, and they may not know what to ask. I've experienced even that a short summary of a tribunal or covenant, even if given quite often, still goes in one ear and out the other.
But to return to the original question: If you want to micro manage all aspects, however small and mundane they may be, you can easily spend years in real time building a covenant from scratch.
Another way to go around "building a covenant from scratch" is to give them options. In my game, they did some preliminary research (local area lore, legends, rumors, hermes lore...) which gave them about 4-5 options. Then the group of magus/companions/grogs went to explore those area to find out which one was to their likings.
Each of these areas had pro and cons that could be fixed or not (weak aura for example cannot be fixed by junior magus).
So you can make that each of these area is an adventure in itself - that's a lot of work upfront, but it will allow them to already have a good knowledge of the Tribunal they want to settle in, possibly establish some alliances or deals or make enemies.
I did that, and it was a lot of work, some of it got never used because they settle quickly to one they liked and did not bother with the other locations.
An alternative method I recently used worked very well. Out of play and a couple of weeks before the real gaming session, I asked players to come up with suggestions on how they would like their covenant to look like, awarding XP for the one they would finally select and also a personal GM award for the idea I liked the most (just to give a little insentive). They game with idea on our forum and finally decided one the one they liked the most (in a nutshell, there was an abandonned tower/observatory; a haunted theater in a city; a valley with a deserted village which reappeared recently and an old, but still running hospice for the sick and disabled).
Then based on that we played the discovery of the area: as they approached the location, I asked one player to describe how far and how is precisely located the covenant (in a forest, not far from the town, with an underground water river and so on), then I proceed with another player as they are getting closer on how is the building and so on. Including library content, aura and all that. At the same time, I am allocating virtues and flaws accordingly. Flaws are attribuded when they describe one, or I also sueggested some flaws when they wanted to take some big virtues like a fat library.
You can wonder how it is possible that there is a forgotten, huge library in an running hospice... well that's part of the story to explain later. In this case, it was a secret "base" for a covenant - giving you plenty of rooms for future stories. It means, you have to be lenient and creative to explain some possibly strange and unlikely feature. But the PCs do not need to be aware on the how's and why's - they just enjoy it, and will deal with the consequences later on.
If you are using any onf the Tribunal books, it can give you a lot of plot ideas but it may also make the founding of a breand new covenant unlikely or impossible. If you want to stick closely to a Tribunal flavour, you probably will have to wave off some of the initial challenges to let the PCs settles.
Finally, as suggested by Uriel22, resume the story a few years later, with their covenant running more or less well, letting some issues unresolved for future stories, but at least having a mostly functional place. You can also take this opportunity that a Tribunal occured since they settle and a few new rules are in place - this will work especially well if you had to wave off some Specific tribunal rules to let the player's covenant settle. Maybe because of their action, the Tribunal decide to pass some new rulings, but thanks to some supports (debt to be repaid later ?) the new rulings did not have retroactive effects and the PC's kept their covenant untouched. They might have made some enemies in the process or other magi do not believe they deserved/earned this favor and will be ploting against them in the future.
Because covenant building can be quite tedious, you need to make sure that all players are on board if you go with the building from scratch approach.