Growing up in a small Oklahoma town, Zach Bunn knew early that for his favorite hobby to grow, there needed to be a community. Like many preteens in the '90s, Bunn caught Pokemon fever and spent afternoons slinging trading cards with his friends in an epic battle of pocket monsters. Without a nearby board game shop to frequent, he began running events in the back of his uncle's video rental store, gathering chairs and tables for players to comfortably play the game they enjoyed.
As he grew older, Bunn and his best friend, Steven Wooley, continued playing card games, often traveling to game shops in other towns to participate in tournaments. By the time he was a freshman in college, he traveled an hour each week to Tulsa for events. However, he was frequently disappointed with the experiences at those stores.
"It wasn't great. It was unclean, crowded, and we played on these really crappy plastic tables. It was kind of uncomfortable," Bunn said. "As a 12-year-old running events, I had always created a very cozy, comfortable environment. The rest of this tabletop gaming hobby felt like no one really cared."
Bunn said the final spark that lit the fire under him and his friends to start their own store came when he ordered some cards from an online retailer a few weeks before a big tournament. His shipment arrived just in time, but it was all wrong. Customer service was "less than optimal," and while he did receive his cards months later, he was left high and dry for the tournament.
Those experiences, he said, ultimately became the basis for a new kind of store and the community that he and his friends would eventually dream up – Covenant.
"We wanted to make the whole industry better," Bunn said. "We realized that the only reason there are not more people who are experiencing a deep connection with tabletop gaming is that a lot of companies aren't doing it justice. They're creating a negative first-time experience for a lot of people."
One of the unique aspects of tabletop gaming is that it facilitates human interaction, something Bunn says is missing in a lot of other forms of entertainment.
"Face-to-face human connection is incredibly important and necessary to being a human, and having a fulfilled and happy life," Bunn said. "Tabletop does that for us better than any form of entertainment. You can go to a movie, but there's not a lot of profound human connection happening when you're watching a movie."Photo courtesy of Zach Bunn and Covenant. Credit: Zach Bunn/Covenant
After discussing the state of tabletop gaming with Wooley, who now serves as the company's marketing director, Bunn bought the TeamCovenant.com web address. At the time, all Bunn had was $300 to build a website and purchase inventory. Within a month, the inventory had largely sold out, and Bunn used the profits to buy more inventory. Soon after that, he went from having $250 in inventory to $800 in inventory with some extra cash on the side.
Since the company sold games that other online retailers were also selling, Bunn said making sure to invest in the right product mattered more and more. If something didn't pan out, it had a major impact on their bottom line, but when a game did well, they did well.
"There are people selling these products online, and they're selling thousands of games," he said. "For us, instead of breadth, we're depth ... so when one of those games disappears, that has a much bigger impact on us. We run a little more risk, but we also get upside because we're very concentrated and focused on a certain game."
By 2009, Covenant had become harder to manage. Bunn was getting his master's degree, working a full-time job and running the company out of his dorm room. It was also around that time that discussions on how to expand the company began to take place. Eventually, Bunn and Wooley's brothers, Tim Bunn and Jonathan Wooley, as well as Robert Johnson, joined the team and helped in various roles. Talk of a physical location began brewing, and after selling personal items, scrounging up savings and calling in favors from family and friends, they collected enough money to rent a space in Tulsa.
Within six months, the store was hosting regular events, offering things that other game stores in the area didn't carry and gaining momentum with a rabid fan base. This expansion resulted in the company's first outside hires, moving Covenant "from a family business to something that's a little more structured," added Bunn.
"If I hadn't brought people in early and made them a stakeholder and decision-maker, we wouldn't have gotten where we are," said Bunn. "When you're at your weak point, having people around who also believe what you believe in is beneficial and makes it a lot harder to quit."
The pursuit of gaming reborn
As Covenant gained traction, both in person and online, Bunn's team began working on making its tagline, "Gaming Reborn," a reality.
"We just wanted to do this whole industry significantly better and that included making games, making components, distribution, retail and everything in between," he said.
To do that, the company began making custom components for some of the popular games in its lineup. Android: Netrunner, an asymmetrical cyberpunk card game by Fantasy Flight Games, was the first game that Covenant created custom tokens for.
"In this vein of wanting to make things better, we saw an opportunity," he said. "We wanted our tokens to make it easier to play the game while making them look thematic and beautiful enough to draw people into these games."
When the tokens hit Covenant's website for preorder, they were immediately popular with fans. "When we launched our tokens and we presold so many that we had to push back our shipping deadline, that night was one of the best nights of sleep I had in a long time," he said.
Another offering that Bunn and his team developed to improve tabletop gaming was their subscription model for card games. For the uninitiated, a "trading card game," "collectible card game" or "living card game" all rely on the customer buying multiple packs in order to build decks to play. But it can be time-consuming and frustrating to hunt down and buy card packs from multiple retailers. To make it easier for its customers, Covenant offers a subscription model that either sends a new pack each month or lets customers buy the full set of cards for one large lump sum.
Social deduction, or how Covenant built a community
While selling products to their fellow gamers was great business, Bunn said Covenant was always about the community. "The reason we exist as a company is that we're trying to make it easier for people to get involved in these games, because we think if it were easier and more accessible, a lot more people would get involved in this thing."Photo courtesy of Zach Bunn and Covenant. Credit: Zach Bunn/Covenant
The Covenant team regularly released unboxing and instructional videos on YouTube, and posted articles about their favorite games on their website. They allowed community members to blog on their site as well, giving fans a place to speak out on strategy, customization and other topics.
By establishing the business as a go-to for not just card packs and supplies but good content and information, Covenant leveraged its online presence to make people see how much tabletop games mattered.
Its community and content strategy grew to the point where Bunn and his team were attending major conventions and interviewing professionals in the industry. Those interviews eventually became partnerships with additional products and special items to offer Covenant's community.
"As a small business, you have to ask the question about what makes you unique and why your customers won't just buy from Walmart or Amazon," Bunn said. "Our community is made up of people who believe the same things we believe ... and we're very humbled by that."Photo courtesy of Zach Bunn and Covenant. Credit: Zach Bunn/Covenant
Today, Covenant is staffed by nine employees. It sells its products internationally and is well known in the tabletop gaming industry. Its YouTube channel has more than 1,400 videos and 41,000 subscribers. Despite having enjoyed a level of success, Bunn said the work of making tabletop gaming better is far from over.
"We'd like to see a day where it's just as normal to hang out and play a game as it is to grab a coffee and go to a movie. We think the world would be a better place for it," he said. "In some sense, that's the true metric of whether or not what we're doing is successful."
Looking back on what he has learned over the years, Bunn thinks other entrepreneurs looking to break into the tabletop industry should be mindful of what they're doing. Starting a retail outfit from the ground up, he said, is harder than it seems.
"When you see people on YouTube or the internet who have thousands of subscribers and say they only work four hours a week, that's really appealing, but the reality is that starting a business is a hard task, and the only thing that carries you through that is that you have to believe in what you're doing," Bunn said. "Unless you have a ton of experience and funding upfront – which most people don't – I think it's important to believe in what you're doing down in your bones."